They Don’t Build Them Like They Used To! Why Do We?

Over the last 40 years, a revolution has taken place in the transformation of sports equipment from traditional materials to advanced composites. Case in point, no one has won a Grand Slam tennis tournament with a wooden racket since Yannick Noah won the French Open in 1983. No one has even used a wooden tennis racket at Wimbledon since 1987. Traditionally, tennis and many other sports relied on wooden equipment. Over the years, athletes and the highly competitive sports equipment industry have embraced advanced composite materials, not because they were cheaper but because of far superior performance.

For centuries, boats and ships of all shapes and sizes were traditionally constructed of wood. In 1942, the first fiberglass boat was manufactured. These boats were lighter, offering greater buoyancy and better fuel efficiency. They were also far more resilient than wood or aluminum, resulting in a boat that was far less prone to damage.  More important, they did not leak or rot from the inside out.

In the marine environment, life safety is critical and there is little or no redundancy when your boat is taking on water. It’s no surprise that fiberglass boats now dominate the market and wooden boats are a collector’s item. When they first emerged, fiberglass boats were not cheaper, but their performance and reliability were far superior to traditional materials. As a result, Chris Craft stopped building wooden boats in 1972 and no one has sailed a wooden boat in the prestigious America’s Cup since 1977.

The Wright brothers built an airplane of wood and cloth for the first manned flight. But it wasn’t long until most aircraft were constructed of aluminum for the superior performance. This trend lasted for decades; however, the newest generation of commercial airliners, including Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner and the Airbus A380 are predominantly fabricated from advanced composite materials. The reduced weight alone results in a 20 percent reduction in fuel consumption, which over the service lives of these aircraft translates into billions of dollars in savings for the airlines.

Another problem plaguing commercial aircraft is corrosion from moisture buildup in the fuselage. To mitigate this problem, aircraft ventilation systems are designed to suck all of the moisture out of the cabin, dehydrating the passengers. Since a composite fuselage does not corrode, the airlines operate this new class of aircraft at much higher humidity levels, resulting in far greater passenger comfort. Once again, the initial cost of these aircrafts is not cheaper, but the unparalleled performance mandates a paradigm shift in commercial aviation.

The heavy civil construction industry is the last great bastion of traditional materials. Although we seldom build bridges out of wood anymore, we continue to build almost every bridge with the same concrete and steel components in relatively the same manner that we’ve been using for more than a century. The result is that we currently have more than 61,000 structurally deficient bridges in the United States alone. Further, the ages of our bridges coupled with the exponential rate of decay of traditional materials ensures that our nation’s infrastructure is going to get worse before it gets better.

Just as with sporting equipment, boats or a new generation of aircraft, the HCB leverages the advantages of advanced composite materials, providing a new level of performance to the built environment. The HCB provides a bridge solution that is stronger and lighter, with greater corrosion resistance and resiliency than traditional materials alone. Just as with tennis rackets and boats, owners are realizing that with every installation, the superior performance of an HCB bridge is moving traditional materials and methods toward obsolescence.

We could continue to play with wooden tennis rackets, but don’t plan on winning the U.S. Open. You’re far less likely to suffer from jet lag on a composite aircraft. And if you had to sail across the ocean by yourself, would you rather lose sight of land in a wooden vessel or one made of advanced composites? As Professional Engineers, our first and foremost obligation is to public safety. When it comes to safety, performance is more important than tradition. They don’t build them like they used to. Why do we?

Why Crawl When You Can Fly?

Innovation is not predictable and cannot be contrived. There can be circumstances that lend the opportunity for creative ideas, but at best, the evolution of a new idea appears to be somewhat random. Regardless, throughout history, nature has demonstrated that change is inevitable. Eckhart Tolle exemplifies this in his book A New Earth, where he observes:

“Most crawling reptilians, the most earthbound of all creatures, have remained unchanged for millions of years. Some, however, grew feathers and wings and turned into birds, thus defying the force of gravity that had held them for so long. They didn’t become better at crawling of walking, but transcended crawling and walking entirely.”

It’s hard to imagine what the circumstances were that resulted in this paradigm shift, but no doubt it was directly related to the very survival of a species. If nothing else, it offers a lesson in the value of accepting change and opening our minds to a different way of doing things. This is not easy for us to accept, particularly as we advance in years. It is too easy to become so attached to our own identity that we don’t want to accept there could be different ways of solving the same problem. Without this self-awareness, new ideas may never surface or come to fruition. Edward De Bono sums up this predicament in his book Serious Creativity, with the following statement:

“Whenever we look at the world we are only too ready to see the world in terms of our existing patterns…this is also why the analysis of information will not yield new ideas…The brain can only see what it is prepared to see, i.e. existing patterns, so when we analyze data we can only pick out the idea we already have.”

Many times existing patterns are the appropriate solution, but they seldom offer opportunity for growth. Regardless, there is really nothing constraining us from thinking differently and creating our own paradigm shifts. When I came up with the idea for the HCB in 1996, it wasn’t in an effort to become better at crawling or walking. It was very much an exercise in thinking beyond the existing patterns of conventional structural design to see if a new idea could take flight.

I never imagined HCB would evolve into an international company and we would actually have 18 bridges either in service or under construction with unlimited potential for growth. In fact, for the first 10 years it was almost inconceivable even to build a prototype bridge as a proof of concept. I just thought it would be cool to develop an innovative structural member that would result in a better way to build bridges. The journey has not been easy, but it has been tremendously rewarding. Looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing and I’m glad I took the risks.

Not everyone will be an innovator. Not everyone will want to follow an innovator. But there is a sense of exhilaration in viewing the world from a slightly higher perch. We may not learn to fly, but if the reptiles could do it, why not try?