Student team steels itself for national competition

Monday, May 13, 2019

After spending hundreds of hours working on their steel bridge in the Sedra Student Design Centre, Waterloo civil engineering students are confident they have what will stand up to the competition in Quebec this week.

About a third of Waterloo’s 45-member Steel Bridge Team are taking part in the Canadian National Steel Bridge Competition beginning May 15 at École Polytechnique de Montréal.Steel bridge team working on 2019 bridge

Participating students build, tear down and then erect their bridges for a second time during the four-day event.

On the first day, all are on display for judges and others. The action speeds up on the next as each team is timed rebuilding its bridge one steel piece at a time while judges and the other students watch.

In 2018, Waterloo’s team assembled its bridge in 20 minutes. The fastest team took a mere two minutes.  

This week, Waterloo students are aiming to cut their time in about half.

“The most unique thing about our bridge is that its sections connect together by just one bolt per piece,” says Nick Franklin, a third-year civil engineering student and design captain (B-Society). “That should reduce our construction time considerably.”

Steel Bridge Team members spent hundreds of hours this winter and spring working on their 2019 entry for the Canadian National Steel Bridge Competition. 

Learning opportunity  

Once built, each bridge is load tested to see how much weight it can hold. Fifty-pound steel bars are individually added until a total weight of 2500 pounds is applied.  It was during this portion of last year's competition that Waterloo’s entry ran into trouble by buckling and eventually collapsing.

previous Waterloo steel bridge“Unfortunately, our bridge did fail. It was a very new design and because of that there were unforeseen circumstances with the connections and manufacturing that limited the design’s strength,” says Stephen Atkinson, a third-year civil engineering student and team lead (B-Society). “However, as engineers, we took it as a huge learning opportunity.”  

To help this year’s model withstand more weight, members have designed a sturdier cross-bracing system and doubled the depth of its central connections. 

A previous Waterloo steel bridge.

Scoring for the competition is divided into three categories: overall performance, oral presentation and design aesthetics.  In 2018, Waterloo took home the award for best design. 

Over twice as many participants this year

The 18 teams competing in Montreal are more than double the eight that took part in the event hosted by Waterloo on campus last year. While the majority are from Canadian universities, there are two from Mexico, and one each from Pan America, Puerto Rico and China.

Both Franklin and Atkinson think the increase may reflect a decision made by the American Institute of Steel Construction (ASCE) last summer.

In a surprise move, ASCE announced it was banning all international schools from future U.S.-based National Student Steel Bridge Competitions. It was disappointing news for a number of Waterloo’s Steel Bridge team who were part of the organizing committee for this year’s ASCE event. 

“The decision seemed to come out of nowhere,” says Franklin. “It was shocking and upsetting since members of our team had already started planning for this year’s American competition.”

With their focus now solely on the Canadian competition, Waterloo’s team members already have a future goal in mind.  

“We plan to do even better next year,” says Franklin.

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