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ReEngineering the Engineer: What’s Ice Got to Do with It?

Douglas Fitzpatrick on April 2, 2018 - in Articles, Column

For some reason, I wasn’t much of a reader when I was young. Maybe it was the engineering gene; I don’t know many engineers I would consider voracious readers. However, through the years, I’ve come to enjoy reading a good book, mostly non-fiction. So when Christmas comes around, it’s not uncommon for one of our daughters to find me a good stocking-stuffer book. A much better choice than a tie …

One of the books I received this year particularly grabbed my attention: “How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World.” While the engineering parts of the book are really interesting, it was enlightening to learn how many of the things we take for granted today were radical shifts in thinking and application in their day. There are some lessons to be learned from this history.

On the Rocks

Almost every day, we reach for a “cold one,” especially in the summer. But it wasn’t always that way, and it really wasn’t that long ago when ice was introduced to much of the world. In the early 1800s, there were plenty of places that never even considered the concept of cold.

Just outside Boston, however, lived a man named Frederic Tudor. His family was storing 200-pound blocks of winter ice from their lake for use later in the year—a concept completely foreign to most. If the ice was stored correctly and kept out of the sun, they could enjoy ice well into the late spring or early summer in New England without the benefits of modern refrigeration.

Around 1800-1801, Tudor spent several months in the brutal heat of the Caribbean. During that time, a seemingly preposterous idea popped into his head: if he could figure out a way to transport his ice from New England down to the Caribbean, there would be an immense market for it. In February 1806, he did just that. He bought a ship, loaded it with 80 tons of New England ice and headed for the West Indies. Despite some weather-related days, his shipment reached the West Indies remarkably intact.

What Tudor hadn’t counted on, however, was that the residents of Martinique had zero interest in the ice; they simply had no idea what to do with it. Tudor made ice cream, a bit of a parlor trick, but still couldn’t convince his market of the benefits of ice. He could have handed them an iPhone and gotten the same response. He assumed the novelty of it would be a point in his favor. Needless to say, his first venture to the Caribbean was a total flop.

However, Tudor ultimately prevailed. By the 1820s, he had New England ice all over the American South, and, by the 1830s, his ships were sailing to Rio and Bombay. The blank stares in Martinique slowly gave way to an ever-growing dependence on ice. By 1860, two out of three homes in New York had daily deliveries of ice. Occasional warm spells would send the late 1800s into “ice-famines,” but in less than a century, ice had a gone from a curiosity to a luxury to a necessity.

Structural Engineering

I think it’s reasonable to say that BIM has been around since the early 2000s and started to gain significant adoption by the early 2010s. Sure, there were folks doing some sophisticated projects earlier than that, but, for most of us, that timeframe is about right plus or minus some regional adjustments.

Looking back, however, it feels like everyone who adopted BIM (contractors included) has been doing so for their own benefit, generally speaking; improving efficiencies internally. Working in 3D certainly has its benefits, especially for engineers. Clash detection is important, but I think that’s really low-hanging fruit. Basically, we’ve just resorted to simple ways of sharing information (via 3D shapes), but not creating real information that can be utilized downstream. There hasn’t been a radical transformation in the way our projects are constructed.

Engineers have a lot of technical information in our court. We perform analyses that produce a lot of data. That information can easily be included in our BIM and become the basis for our drawings. But if you look at the process involved in getting from construction documents to fabrication, there’s a tremendous amount of data re-creation. Perhaps engineers can leverage our bounty and really share our data downstream to make a significant difference in the construction process.

Changing the World

Just because Frederic Tudor “solved” the ice problem doesn’t mean there isn’t room for engineers to step out and try to radically change our world. The manufacturing community dramatically changed its world back in the early 1990s, and we all have benefited from it.

Engineers have an opportunity to dramatically do the same with BIM. Not just a little bit, but radically affecting the way our next generation of engineers can contribute to their projects. I think we’re in an excellent position to do just that.

But we have to be prepared for the blank stares as we try to make these changes. Tudor was the laughing stock of Boston while he was figuring out his solution. In the end, we know who the hero was.

Most of the construction industry isn’t looking to structural engineers to do something innovative, but if we persevere, like Frederic Tudor did, we can really make a difference. In a few years, we can look back and see how we’ve made this new curiosity for engineers a necessity. Wouldn’t that be awesome …

About Douglas Fitzpatrick

Douglas G. Fitzpatrick, P.E., is the founder, president and practicing engineer of Fitzpatrick Engineering Group, a 14-year-old structural engineering firm specializing in commercial and healthcare building design.

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