Steel builds, no bolts or welds

“It’s Lego for buildings” is the way Yenem Engineering Services Director Dave Meney summarised the company’s newly developed altCONNECT technology.

From its West Leederville office in Perth, the company hatched the idea of erecting mining structures, and various other structures for that matter, without using bolts and site-welds.

In keeping with the principles of Lego, where studs and blocks ‘click’ together, altCONNECT works through a reliance on friction to connect columns, beams and modular units.

Mr Meney said structures built with altCONNECT technology would not operate any different to structures built by conventional means.

“They will be able to withstand all the same sorts of loads – gravity, wind, earthquakes and so on,” he said.

“It’s just a different way of putting the building together, with the key objectives of reduced time onsite and increased safety during construction.”

Mr Meney said the process became a reality during a quiet period in the industry when he had more time to reflect on and question the way things were conventionally done.

“I had some bright young engineers in the office and I gave them the task of having a look at the existing structures we designed and went up quite well,” he said.

“We thought, ‘what if we applied a different way of thinking to this structure? What if each floor of this structure could be pre-assembled and then lifted onto columns – floor by floor, up to the top?’”

Following difficulties with the initial concept, the project was put on hold for a few years. Mr Meney said the technology did not completely progress until last year.

“We couldn’t solve the problem of connecting each floor module to the columns without making the connection complex and defeating the purpose of the change. Then along came this technology of 3D printing,” he said.

Three-dimensional printing was first applied within the plastics industry, which has progressed in leaps and bounds, and Mr Meney said he believed it would only be a matter of time before steel printing became an equally conventional process.

“Additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, provides the ability to have two pieces of steel that can be very similar in dimension and purposefully created so they fit closely together,” he said.

“So we came up with a connection that fits closely together and could be relied upon to stay connected using just friction.

“The other good thing about 3D printing is it’s an additive manufacturing process; if you can model it, you can print it, whereas the conventional processes require the use of tools and machines that limit the items that can be produced.”

Mr Meney said current technology ‘prints’ a steel specimen using selective laser sintering (SLS), whereby a laser sinters steel powder into 3D shapes, layer by layer.

“It’s not yet cost-effective but the additional manufacturing costs are expected to be offset by faster erection times onsite,” he said.

This technology also provides the assurance of safety through its usage. Mr Meney said the amount of work at height would be minimised, with most of the assembly being performed on the ground before lifting the modules onto altCONNECT columns.

The convenience of dismantling the structure created through altCONNECT connections is also one that should not be overlooked. Mr Meney said the structure could be pulled apart at the end of its life the same way it went together.

Mr Meney said due to the progression of IoT (the Internet of Things) and 3D printing technology, sensors could be inserted into the printed connections. The sensors could monitor correct fit-up during installation and stresses within the structure during service.

As structures deteriorate due to damage and corrosion, there is currently no quick way to assess the ongoing safety of the structure. Sensors in the structure and a ‘digital twin’ on the computer can change that.

Mr Meney said altCONNECT could be easily implemented into structures at the design stage using Akselos Integra software.

Akselos has produced software which significantly cuts the time it takes to complete very difficult stress analysis. Mr Meney said Akselos was currently developing the altCONNECT connection into its software.

The implementation would provide a drag-and-drop process whereby the connection components would be inserted into a structural model, with a quick analysis to check if it will meet code compliance. Going forward, the engineer would then be able to specify column and beam sizes and suitably matched altCONNECT components.

“Akselos is the key to making the design of altCONNECT structures basically no harder than designing conventional structures,” Mr Meney said.

“I don’t think there is any other software out there currently that makes a relatively simple job out of a very complicated and complex one.”

3D printing, Mr Meney said, offered limitless possibilities for altCONNECT.

“With 3D printing and altCONNECT, it’s just one idea,” he said. “There is lots more that we can do with ideas and creativity now we’ve got the tools.

“The future of structural engineering is about producing what the stakeholders need, not a compromise based on limitations of manufacturing”.

Testing of the altCONNECT technology using scaled steel specimens is currently being carried out at Curtin University, Perth.

The tests are expected to confirm the favourable numerical findings. Mr Meney will present the concept at the Australasian Structural Engineering Conference in Adelaide this September.

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