Watch: Monster bridge-building machine in China

Check out this wild Tech Insider video we just came across of a monster bridge-building machine in China. The Segmental Bridge Launching Machine, known as the SLJ/32, seemingly constructs bridges in midair. The machine is loaded with prefabbed sections of the bridge. Then it rolls over and past an already installed section of the bridge on a track so it can put the next section into place.

How cool is that?

California water shortage spurs innovation

When it comes to finding innovative solutions for California’s historic water crisis, wacky ideas such as towing icebergs from the Arctic, piping water from Alaska and shipping snow from Boston’s record-setting blizzards seemed to grab all the headlines.

Beyond those “wildly ambitious” ideas, California has an unprecedented opportunity to refine already existing innovations and create new technologies to quench its four-year drought.

“We have always believed that the rising cost of water would fuel invention,” said Suffolk Construction’s West Region President and Chief Executive Officer, Andy Ball, who has sat on the California Water Commission for five years. “But I would argue there is no better time to come up with innovative ideas for water conservation than a record-breaking drought.”

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Happy “Back to the Future” Day

The dashboard in the DeLorean from Back to the Future II shows Marty McFly set to time travel from Oct. 26, 1985 to today, Oct. 21, 2015.

Twenty-six years ago Doc Brown set the time-traveling DeLorean for Oct. 21, 2015 so Marty McFly could set out to fix the future.  In honor of “Back to the Future” Day we are celebrating two futuristic construction technologies: a bricklaying robot and termite inspired robots that build walls. They might not be as cool as a flying car or the Lexus hoverboard seen in the video below, but check out our blog in 2041 to see if these construction innovations have become mainstream tools.   

Brick-laying robots

The most tedious tasks are perhaps the most ripe for automation. And there’s probably no task more tedious than laying brick. That’s why Victor, New York-based Construction Robotics has developed SAM, which stands for Semi-Automated Mason. Laying 180 to 200 bricks per hour, SAM is three to five times faster than a human mason. While SAM still requires a human to set it up and load it with bricks and mortar before operating it, that human worker will be doing less strenuous and repetitive activities that can take a toll on their bodies.

Termite-inspired robots

A team from Harvard recently developed a series of robots that can build walls the same way some termites cooperate to build complex mounds. These termite shelters have been known to rise as high as 17 feet, but the termites operate with little to no centralized supervision. They stay out of each others way even though they don’t work as teams. Like the termites, these robots known as TERMES build independently of one another to construct user-specified structures. The four-by-seven-inch robots use sensors to detect what’s immediately near them as they manipulate blocks to build tall structures. They don’t have preprogramed paths or tasks. They move according to an algorithm that simply provides guiding principles.

This type of robot is appealing for construction jobs too dangerous for man, such as building a shelter on Mars before astronauts arrive. More practically, they could also be used to build underwater shelters for divers or sandbag levees in flood zones so the National Guard can stay out of harm’s way.

Stay tuned for future blog posts about Smart Buildings and Smart Cities. To check out our last Smart Cities story, click here.

This post was written by Justin Rice. If you have questions, Justin can be reached at jrice@suffolk.com or follow him on Twitter at @JustinAlanRice.

Lean like Duggan

With the 17th Annual Lean Construction Institute Congress wrapping up last week in Boston, we’ve had Lean on our minds. The following post highlights how Lean was successfully implemented at E.M. Duggan’s prefabrication warehouse in Canton, Mass.

Working for one of the oldest family-run plumbing contractors in the country in the early 1980s, Mike Eakins was brought up in the industry the old school way.

Eakins and his E.M. Duggan colleagues did a lot of housing jobs where equipment and materials were stored in trailers on the jobsite and the last thing loaded into the trailer at the end of the day had to be the first thing unloaded the next morning. Back then, many plumbing systems were assembled on the site before being installed.

“It was a lot of unnecessary work,” Eakins, who is now Duggan’s facilities manager, told us. “That’s just the way that jobs went.”

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Watch: Boeing creates lightest metal known to man

A new video released by Boeing announces that the airplane manufacturer has developed the strongest and lightest metal known to science. The microlattice material amazingly consists of 99.99 percent air.

The three-dimensional open cellular polymer structure is compared to bones in that it is extremely rigid on the outside but mostly hollow on the inside. The microlattice resembles a steel wool Brillo pad with larger holes that can be squished like a sponge. In doing so, it can absorb massive amounts of force.

Boeing hopes this metal will increase fuel efficiency on their jetliners by using it for structural components such as sidewalls or floor panels that will result in a lighter airplane.

But imagine if this material could one day be used for bridges and buildings?

Structural steel is currently the gold standard for heavy-duty bridges and skyscrapers. Steel is no doubt a high quality durable material that erects speedily and is aesthetically pleasing. But Boeing’s new metal could have an even higher strength-to-weight ratio if engineered properly and therefore would minimize the cost of a bride or building’s foundation systems even more than steel. That’s important for fortifying anything constructed on poor soil. Lighter materials can minimize foundation work and are also easier to handle and transport.

Nick Nigro, Manager of Virtual Design and Construction (VDC) at Suffolk Construction, said the new metal could potentially be used for structural systems in buildings such as floor beams or columns typically made from steel.

“The major advantage to a material like this is the reduction of overall deadload in structures that directly correlates the materials needed to support that structure,” Nigro said. “Instead of using a steal I-Beam that is 15 pounds per foot you could use this stuff that has the same strength and is, let’s say, only two pounds per foot.

“That reduced tonnage multiplied over the course of the building could result in significant savings.”

Wood construction resurges at UMass

Two-thirds of Chicago was constructed of wood when a devastating fire ripped through the city 144 years ago this week.

The Great Chicago Fire burned from Oct. 8-10 in 1871.

The three-day fire killed 300 people, destroyed 17,500 buildings and paved the way for the kind of steel and concrete construction that dominates the industry to this day. In fact, Chicago’s 10-story Home Insurance Building became the nation’s first steel “skyscraper” 13 years after the fire. Owners and architects hardly looked back at wood.

The Great Chicago Fire also prompted new building codes in cities across the country that still hamper the widespread adoption of modern wood construction. But that’s beginning to change as recent research has found that new innovative heavy timber systems are, in fact, safe in fires. Moreover, these systems are environmentally friendly and can rise as high as 12 stories or more. Advocates of this high-tech wood construction, known as “mass timber,” are forcing regulators and owners in the United States to take the resurgence of timber-frame construction more seriously.

“This is the future of construction,” Robert Malczyk of Vancouver-based Equilibrium Consulting told us.

While mass timber has been hugely popular in Europe for years, due in part to more progressive building and environmental regulations, it still hasn’t caught on here. But a major victory for an American resurgence of wood construction was recently won in Massachusetts. The University of Massachusetts in Amherst received a variance to the state building code to build an 86,000-square-foot mass timber building.

Chicago's steel-framed Home Insurance Building under construction.

Chicago’s steel-framed Home Insurance Building under construction.

The $52 million Design Building is believed to be the first of its size in the U.S. to feature an innovative wood system known as cross-laminated timber, or CLTs, which are used as part of a composite wood-concrete floor assembly.

When the structure is complete in 2017 it will provide major ammunition for proponents of modern wood construction who are quick to note that CLT slabs make the 2x4s in your house look like toothpicks.

It will be to wood what the Home Insurance Building was to steel.

“The UMass Design Building will act as an ambassador,” Malczyk, who is consulting on the project, said. “People will be able to walk in the building and have this moment where they realize ‘Wow, wood doesn’t have to be like in our houses.’”

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Watch: Floating city shaped like Manta Ray

Semester at Sea has a whole new meaning thanks to Jacques Rougerie.

The utopian French architect recently proposed a 3,000-foot-long floating city shaped like a Manta Ray that would serve as an international oceanographic university to study marine biodiversity. The City of Meriens would not only hold 7,000 students, researches and professors, it would do so with zero net energy consumption.   

Click here to watch the video of Meriens.

It’s not so wild to think that this radical design will serve as the catalyst for the floating residences and cruise ships of the future.

“Regarding the world of water vessel design, the City of Meriens will hopefully inspire designs that place the man in complete harmony with the sea,” Rougerie told Weather.com.

Click here to check out Autodesk’s Meriens model on Fusion 360, the software company’s next-gen 3D CAD/CAM.