Tag Archives: Research

Research Tutorial

Dynamic Arches…

Tinkering about with SystemModeler a little further, I’ve managed to finally build a sprung arch, complete with dampers on the revolute joints.  I’m intending on using this principle in my research to create folded structures, so it’s interesting to see what effect the spring stiffness will have on the behaviour of the arch during the unpacking process – specifically looking at the accelerations on the masses at key points.

The thing that I was struggling with was creating a structure that had a set of equations that could be solved, the key concept I was initially missing was the closing of the structure with the special type of revolute joint to complete the chain.  Without this special revolute chain the equations are essentially unsolvable, so it’s important that one of these joints sits in the system somewhere.

Sprung Arch

Another concept is that the structure in the video has 3 straight segments, each 1m long; but the supports are only 2m apart…. forcing the arch to pop into a stable shape that balances the weights at each of the joints.  This is essentially what makes the arch wobble when solving the initial set of equations.  Next step is applying external forces and measurement points along the structure for displacement etc…


Born free…

Having had a few conversations with engineers in person and on Twitter, it would appear that those that have coded or written complex spreadsheets all advocate that young engineers should make the time to learn at least a simple programming language or some other means that lets them model a problem through a construction they’ve made themselves rather than a packaged piece of software.  The ability to write your own analysis routine to test for various variables is invaluable when testing out a new structural system, or even for automating tedious calculations.  If you’re really clever you can get Mathematica to do fancy things like the animation below in a single line of programming code.

The downside is that some of the packages to let you do this can be quite expensive, even for academic licences.  Whilst a student licence of MatLab can be purchased for about £30, grabbing a copy of Mathematica or MathCAD is going to set a student back around about £90.  If you’re a practicing engineer then you’re going to have to purchase a full licence which is going to be about the £1,000 mark.

So if you’ve never programmed or written code before in one of these sorts of languages, that can be quite an investment and one that could be seen as a bit of a gamble.  For example, most of our water engineers within the department swear by MatLab for manipulating large matrices and from the reading I’ve done it would appear to be much quicker than Mathematica on very large matrices, but speed is only half the story.  If speed really was the biggest concern, then users would write code in Fortran, C, or even the newish language Julia.  Personally I’ve never really got on well with MatLab, it just feels quite clunky to learn and I prefer to use Mathematica for tinkering and meddling with bits of code, it has lots of mathematical routines embedded so I’m not wasting lots of time writing routines to invert matrices etc and I can just get on and write.

I know that lots of engineers in industry are quite positive about MathCAD, but again this is an expensive program to purchase, particularly if you’re not sure if it’s what you need really and just fancy having a tinker about with it to learn.  If only there was a free version perhaps?  Well there is! In the form of a program called SMATH Studio which is very similar to MathCAD and is free to download and use, which has to appeal to your inner Yorkshireman if all you want to do is try and see how to use a piece of software like this for creating your calculations and a few simple models.  In fact it also has the ability to let groups work on the same sheet and collaborate in real time which is great if you’re working on a session and there’s an ocean inconveniently between you or you want to show someone else how to do something specific in the software.

If you’re more mathematically minded and want something that has a bit more grunt with symbolic mathematics, then again there are various free packages out there and one that received warm praise is called SAGE.  I can’t pretend that I’ve used it in anger myself, but it appears to create a local server that you edit files through a browser session on and several other PhD students I know all sing its praises.

But once you’ve created mountains of data from your laboratory testing and you want to undertake some statistical analysis, most institutions would reach for SPSS but the student licensing costs for this are mental compared to other pieces of mathematically focused pieces of software and from memory they’re on a term by term basis as well rather than a perpetual licence.  This is where free alternatives such as the R project come to the rescue and their increase in popularity is gathering momentum with really good quality text books being published to help users learn statistics and the software in one fell swoop.

The added bonus for me is that these pieces of software are available for PC and Linux, so if you’ve an old computer kicking about that you don’t know what to do with, then throw on a copy of Ubuntu and breath in some life to your old machine and start tinkering and messing with these bits of software… if you kill the computer through excessive tinkering, then it doesn’t matter, simply repair, rebuild, and carrying on meddling… it’s the best way to learn.  Particularly when there’s no money to be lost as all of the software is free, you just need an existing computer, some time, and a desire to have a go.

General Research Tutorial


Part of the work that I’ve been undertaking on Mathematica is to create a series of sheets that will calculate the geometry of a cable-chain arch with a set of given parameters.  In part I’m interested in how the cable-chain arch can behave as a deployable structure and looking to build on the work of (Li, Vu, & Richard, 2011) to see how practical a cable-chain structure can be made with regards economy, efficiency, and robustness.  Essentially a cable-chain structure is a curved arch that is sub-divided into straight sections, with cables spanning across the base of two struts as can be seen in the figure below.  Simple versions of these types of structures are widely used for the likes of temporary and deployable aircraft hangers to create large open spans.


Now that I’ve got the makings of a simple Mathematica sheet up and running and I’ve taught myself some rudimentary programming and graphics manipulation skills I’ve managed to start to knock together what I feel are some high quality illustrations for my thesis.

I’ve done this with a mixture of Mathematica to create the base diagram, which I save as a PDF.  I then import the PDF into OmniGraffle to annotate the diagram and then export to a PNG file to maintain the transparent background, this figure I can then host for linking into blogs etc.  Below is a sample figure which shows how the number of segments (nSeg) affects the internal area available for habitation within a typical parabolic arch.

Cable Arches

Given that both of my brothers are colour blind and I’ve never done the test, I’m not convinced on my choice of colour schemes, but the good news is that it won’t take long to change if it turns out I’ve made my figures look like something off the set of Austin Powers.

So far I’m finding OmniGraffle quite limited compared to Visio that I’ve been using for my diagrams for perhaps 20 years or so.  I decided to use OmniGraffle though as most of my writing work is done on a Mac, although I also have a PC so I can always create the more complex diagrams on Visio if need be, especially as I’ve managed to get a legitimate copy from work for £12.

I’d love to hear how other engineers and academics approach creating technical figures and sketches on their Macs though, I’ve a feeling that I’m really missing out on something and there’s got to be a much slicker workflow out there.


Li, Y., Vu, K. K., & Richard, J. Y. (2011). Deployable Cable-Chain Structures: Morphology, Structural Response And Robustness Study. Journal for the International Association for Shell and Spatial Structures, 52(168), 83-96.



Keeping it real…

One of my colleagues has discovered an absolute gem of a piece of software called Physion that lets you mess about with various bits of structure, motors, gears, and other things all in a real time physics environment.  Now the tutorial videos themselves are pretty impressive, but with a little bit of JavaScript some of the things the Physion community has been creating are absolute works of genius.

This simple piece of software has been an endless source of entertainment for the past couple of weeks for the structural engineering lectuers and they’ve been busy creating models of shaker tables, backfilled arches with granular fill, disproportionate collapse simulations, and all sorts of other random stuff that simply looks cool when brought to life with real time physics.

I’ve to deliver a technical lecture in a few weeks for the Institution of Structural Engineers, but one of the things that I was struggling with was describing how some deployable structures and other lightweight structures can be susceptible to the effects of disproportionate collapse when the removal of a critical member occurs. I knew I wanted to do something along the lines of an animation to show this, but wasn’t sure what was the best way to go about it… until I discovered Physion.

I know the animation above is not the most exciting in the world, but it shows what happens when a critical member, either the restraint cable at the end of the pantograph beam, or any internal element is removed from the structure. The removal of just a single element brings about the complete collapse of the structure, this effect is known as disproportionate collapse and is an important concept for structural engineers to understand.  All buildings in the UK are designed to resist this effect to increase the safety of buildings in the event of accidental damage occurring.

The circular elements introduced at the beginning of the video are just there to create some weight on the structure to show that it’s stable and can support a sensible amount of load when the structure is undamaged.  Then using the delete tool, I’ve tried to show a couple of different failure mechanisms, there’s no sound on the animation as I intend to talk about this during the technical lecture I’m delivering.  We’ve already done some work on creating structurally stable pantographic beams with our MSc students here at the University, complete with additional safety mechanisms to prevent the failures above happening and it’s a research topic that is ongoing in our team. The original motivation was to see if we could use it to create a deployable bridge, perhaps in scenarios that have happened recently in Cumbria when the bridges were swept away by flood water… and it’s a concept that’s expanding.

At times I find life as an academic frustrating compared to being in industry, then I remember that they pay me to play with things like this for a living and I feel lucky…


A new blog…

Following some of the interest that I’ve been receiving via Twitter on the tensegrity structures we’re making down the lab for our students, I thought it might be an idea to start blogging about some of the work that we’re doing.  This blog will be a mix of things that are happening down the laboratory, some of the dissertation work that our final year students are undertaking, and some of my own PhD research work.
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I hope that it’s interesting to some people in the same area, but more importantly I hope it helps similar people find me and my work and encourages them to make contact.

After all as part of my PGCAP statement I wanted to be an ‘Academic Martini’ with regards collaboration, meeting like minded people and collaborating any time, any place, anywhere…