Finding Innovation Through Failure
Why seeking out problems in the product life-cycle process is an essential step in engineering.
We’ve recently seen mankind take a few steps further into the race to space, but it’s also becoming abundantly clear we’ve got to firmly ground our feet on earth and tackle another urgent mission in society: future-proofing critical infrastructure. As a warming climate accelerates extreme weather events, how can we protect aging infrastructure from becoming more vulnerable and adequately prepare for the future?
It’s hard to know where to start because infrastructure has a definition almost as big as its reputation. Infrastructure encompasses everything in the built environment from roads, bridges, and buildings, to utilities, energy, and transportation systems…and the list could go on. Given that infrastructure is the root of what helps civilizations function, implementing massive overhauls of these structures can be complicated, time-consuming, and met with other political and financial challenges.
Fortunately, as technology continues to evolve, we have an opportunity to build smarter cities and develop infrastructure that can stand the test of time, including anticipated and unexpected natural disasters. From every step of planning, engineering, and construction, to the continued monitoring of a structure, test and measurement are key tools that support smart city technology, reduce maintenance costs, and prevent catastrophic failures.
Can you even wrap your mind around the fact that almost every step you’ve travelled has probably already been tested? Whether you’re jumping in the stadium bleachers with your friends during your favorite game, or perhaps racing across a bridge with hundreds of other cars during your commute, or even anxiously watching your walls shake during a low-grade earthquake, failures have been considered, and hopefully prevented.
Infrastructure should be designed with science at the forefront, and testing works to ensure the safety, maintainability, and livability of infrastructure, in the best and worst scenarios. Structural engineers are responsible for validating everything that could impact a structure, including forces such as load and gravity and various hazards, such as collapses, environmental conditions, and general degradation. Over the past few decades, NI has been a partner to customers pursuing infrastructure projects requiring structural testing and structural health monitoring. We offer solutions that are agile enough to help structural engineers detect defects either through portable, handheld testing devices or permanently mounted monitoring systems.
The word “defect” in and of itself is distressing. But rest assured, most modern structures are built to withstand disasters typical to their geographical region and tolerate some moderate level of vibration and force. However, there can be movements that are simply too intense or abnormal for a structure to handle, and testing helps highlight limitations. Building sound infrastructure with integrity requires real data and constant monitoring, and structural engineers find failure proactively through analysis inside both simulated lab environments and under natural operating conditions.
Infrastructure we’ve helped our clients protect includes tunnels, bridges, skyscrapers, stadiums, and construction equipment. It’s amazing that relatively tiny sensors have the big job of monitoring extreme events such as earthquakes and typhoons and even micro-vibrations for sensitive products such as semiconductor fabrication plants.
Even without external events, the health of a structure does degrade over time—albeit very slowly—which is why high-quality measurement systems are needed to catch health decay and monitor shifts in structural characteristics compared to previous levels. Test and measurement hardware and software make processing these shifts on a minute level possible and ensure data accuracy. Likewise, as most of our technologies are connected solutions, monitoring this data online can fold into broader smart city applications and enable prompt responses once stressors are detected.
With cutting-edge technologies in hand and science warning of more extreme weather events due to changing climate patterns, governments, municipalities, and corporations alike have an opportunity to act proactively by developing stronger, smarter infrastructure before failure even has a chance to arise. Monitoring and testing infrastructure in many cases means avoiding tragedy, but what if we started looking at improving infrastructure as the path to innovation? By preventing failure, each road, bridge, or tunnel lays the groundwork for the smart, clean, green cities in our not-too-distant future.
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