Bridge construction is a complex process that requires planning, design, and physical implementation of a structure. Here’s how to manage this process
In civil engineering, bridges are considered vital arteries connecting communities and enabling the uninterrupted flow of people, goods, and services. Building and maintaining these structures, however, pose a series of challenges that become increasingly demanding and complex over the years.
Now more than ever, seeking innovative solutions is necessary to address these challenges and ensure the safety, sustainability, and efficiency of our connecting infrastructures. In this article, we’ll delve into how the process of designing and constructing these structures unfolds and understand why bridge management software, bridge inspection software, and structural health monitoring software are indispensable tools for efficiently and effectively addressing critical challenges in the industry. You can try these tools for free by simply activating an account.
How are bridges built?
Building a bridge allows you crossing natural or artificial obstacles such as rivers, lakes, roads, valleys, or other geographic discontinuities. Hence, a bridge can be defined as an engineering work aimed at connecting two separate points to enable the safe passage of people, goods, and vehicles from one side to another.
Building a bridge requires a process divided into several stages, including planning, design, and the physical implementation of the structure. Collaboration between engineers, architects, builders, local authorities, and other professionals is crucial in ensuring that the structure is designed and built safely and in compliance with all applicable regulations and standards.
Another aspect to consider when building bridges is related to the future maintenance needs of the structure. Only by doing so, it’s possible to anticipate critical components requiring constant attention and implement necessary interventions to preserve the initial value of the infrastructure, ensuring its proper functioning over time and guaranteeing high levels of efficiency, safety, durability, and sustainability.
What are the structural components of a bridge?
The elements composing a bridge vary depending on its structural type. There are arch bridges, beam bridges, truss bridges, suspension bridges, cable-stayed bridges, cantilever bridges, and so on. Here’s a quick breakdown of the main components of a bridge’s basic structure:
- Foundations are the base structures transferring the bridge’s weight to the underlying ground. Foundations can consist of poles, plinths, or similar structures;
- Abutments refer to support structures placed at the ends of the bridge, fundamental for ensuring the stability and safety of the structure;
- Pillars or Piers are the vertical elements that, together with the abutments, support the loads coming from the superstructure. Typically, they’re constructed in series along the bridge’s length to provide intermediate supports;
- Main beams are the main components of the bridge spanning between the pillars and abutments, serving to support the overlying elements. Depending on the structure type, they can be called longitudinal beams, transverse beams, or arches (if the bridge is an arch). They can be made of steel, reinforced concrete, or a combination of different materials;
- The deck is the functional area that allows vehicles and pedestrians to cross highways, valleys, and bodies of water. It can be made of different materials like concrete, steel, or wood and is supported by the main beams.
The bridge construction process: the 10 main stages
The process of building a bridge is highly articulated, requiring careful planning, considerable resources, and involvement of specialized expertise. The project’s duration and complexity can vary significantly based on the bridge’s size and type. It’s possible to simplify the construction process of these structures by leveraging the capabilities of digital twin technology for bridges.
The primary stages involved in bridge construction can be outlined as follows:
- Planning and design: This initial phase involves engineers and designers evaluating the need to build a bridge and developing an overall project vision. It encompasses technical and economic feasibility studies and foreseeing aspects related to community needs, traffic flow, environmental conditions, safety criteria, and more. The outcome is an initial plan identifying the location, maximum dimensions, and type of bridge to be built;
- Detailed design: Following the initial planning phase, the detailed design stage translates the starting idea into the complete project of the structure. Designers determine the exact dimensions of different components, perform strength and stability calculations, elaborate structural details, and define the materials to be used. Additionally, they outline maintenance strategies to ensure maximum safety and functionality of the structure over time;
- Acquiring permits: Before commencing construction, obtaining various approvals from relevant authorities is necessary. These permissions may concern legal, environmental, and safety aspects. It’s crucial to ensure adequate funding to cover construction costs, which can be quite high;
- Site preparation: This phase involves preparing the site where the bridge will be built. It includes removing trees, bushes, and excess soil. Additionally, the surface is leveled to provide a solid and even base for construction;
- Foundation and substructure construction: The foundation is the bridge’s lower part transferring the load to the ground. This phase involves building footings, piles, pillars, or other supporting structures based on the site’s geological conditions. The foundations need to be robust to ensure structural stability;
- Superstructure assembly: The superstructure supports vehicular or pedestrian traffic. Depending on the bridge type, it can consist of beams, spans, arches, or other elements. The construction of the superstructure can occur on-site or using prefabricated components, depending on the project’s specifications;
- Installation of finishing elements: The final construction phase involves adding finishing details, including laying the road or pedestrian pavement, installing safety barriers and lighting systems, and introducing road signage. It’s crucial for the bridge to be fully functional and safe before opening to traffic;
- Inspection and testing: In the final phase, rigorous inspections are conducted to ensure compliance with safety regulations and design requirements. Before opening to the public, load tests are carried out to assess the bridge’s load-bearing capacity and verify its structural integrity;
- Opening to traffic: After passing all inspections and tests, the bridge is ready to open to traffic. This marks the moment when the structure starts serving its primary purpose of connecting two separate areas;
- Continuous maintenance: Once open, regular maintenance is essential to preserve the bridge’s durability and safety over time. This maintenance includes periodic checks (performed by specialized professionals, such as bridge inspectors) and other activities aimed at preventing structural and functional deterioration.
What tools are necessary in bridge construction and maintenance
Managing bridge construction and maintenance is a challenging activity, primarily focused on maintaining the physical and functional characteristics of the infrastructure over time.
Bridges undergo natural aging and wear due to exposure to weather conditions, excessive loads, traffic, and extreme events. All these factors negatively impact the structure’s strength and stability and can cause issues like cracking, corrosion, deterioration, and reduced load-bearing capacity.
To preserve the safety of individuals using the bridge, it’s crucial to monitor the structural behavior of the structure and collect real-time data to identify anomalies and significant changes promptly. Additionally, conducting periodic inspections to promptly detect any damage or signs of wear and implementing necessary precautions is essential.
Organizing the means, resources, and activities necessary to ensure adequate bridge maintenance also represents a challenge. Maintaining these structures requires complex logistical planning, along with immediate access to specialized equipment and qualified personnel to carry out the work.
It’s evident that the process of building, managing, and maintaining a bridge can be extremely complex. However, today, innovative solutions are available to reduce the complexity that has always characterized this sector. In particular, indispensable tools include:
- Bridge management software, enabling the creation and management of effective maintenance plans, optimizing activity scheduling, and storing all bridge-related information in a centralized cloud accessible from anywhere and any device;
- Bridge inspection software, systems for planning regular inspections, analyzing data for the entire structure directly on the BIM model, and rapidly identifying problems or defects before they become severe;
- Structural health monitoring software, tools for collecting data on the structural integrity of different elements using IoT sensors and smart devices. These tools allow constant monitoring of the bridge’s conditions for prompt intervention with preventive maintenance activities.