Series 3/3: For the Love of Lego – This series reflects on the role Lego can play in understanding and tackling engineering problems.
In my final year of university I was researching the impact of the span rise ratio (bridge length over height) of masonry arch bridges on its capacity. This was a complex challenge and involved creating an excel model based on the equations of different geometric forms. The excel model predicted the force line throughout the structure and compare it with the material properties. This was a complex procedure and was able to provide a great deal of insight into the problem. After testing thousands of different bridges I was able to provide updated curves to the current standard which improved the accuracy of current methods and increased capacity by up to 40%. This could present enormous savings in the cost of detailed bridge inspections. The problem was this was all theoretical and experimentation on masonry arch bridges was costly. How do I test the theory in a quick, accurate and simple manner?
Experimentation can often be seen as complex procedure involving hefty equipment and never ending health and safety checks. This is not the case, experimentation can take any form and testing paper bridges is one of the simplest structural experiments you can do. If you have ever wondered why bridges come in all different shapes grab some paper and pennies and try loading different types of paper bridges. This is exactly what I undertook for my research and enabled me to test hundreds of different bridges with different span rise ratios and paper thickness. Creating a modular loading rig out of Lego made testing the different bridges a simple and fast process. With a large data set I was able to confirm that the results from the theoretical model were correct.
Lego wasn’t at the center of the solution but it did provide me with the creativity required to design the solution. When undertaking research the task may often seem complex and endless. It is easy to loose sight of the challenge and get caught up in the complexity of the detail. Innovation is about persevering and staying focused. There are many challenges around modelling a scale masonry arch bridge instead of trying to create the perfect model, I created a simple model that enabled me to respond to the challenge I had set. The best innovations can rise up from simple and creative insights into complex challenges.