Equipping the world's notable bridges with an advanced sliding bearing system
Bearings are critical components for keeping today's bridges functioning properly and safely. MOBILE has developed an innovative bridge bearing technology which features superior monitoring of controlled performance, cutting edge materials, extended service life, as well as facilitates ease of construction.
‘Once cheap bearing counterfeits from Asia started to penetrate the market, we came to the conclusion that European manufacturers can only survive by offering a new state-of-the-art product,’ says Dr Helmut Wenzel, president of VCE Vienna Consulting Engineers ZT GmbH. VCE, the Austrian-based high-tech consulting firm that coordinated the two-year project, took a rather unconventional route when building its SME consortium. ‘We brought together the four competing bridge equipment manufacturers in Europe, and this created the critical mass necessary for the development of a new generation of sliding bearings.’
All the ingredients were in place for a successful joint effort: diversified experience, balance of required know-how and a shared research approach. Mr Wenzel stresses, however, that this seamless cooperation was only made possible thanks to EU funding: ‘Without it, this harmonised development would not have been possible in a competitive market such as this one.’
Bearings are designed to transmit the weight and traffic load of a bridge to the ground. In order to avoid over-stressing and damage by vehicle and loading movement to the piers (a bridge’s upright supports), bearings are used to accommodate such movements so as to reduce the reaction forces and bending moments to be within the safety limits of the structure.
It proved easy to produce the new bearing after successfully developing and testing it, says Mr Wenzel: ‘The development work tried to remain as faithful as possible to the production process, so it was no issue to proceed to the commercialisation phase after the end of the project.’
Mr Wenzel was optimistic of going to market because of the demand shown. ‘We identified several critical cases where bearing failures caused considerable problems for prominent bridges. In fact, two of the four manufacturers implemented the new concept immediately with success.’
Marketing of the MOBILE product then took off. ‘The new bearings started to sell immediately, and marketing was carried out on a global scale,’ states Mr Wenzel. ‘A collaboration agreement between VCE and the producers was signed and joint offers were successfully made to international clients. Since then, joint projects have been implemented worldwide.’ Along with MOBILE project success came tremendous growth. According to Mr Wenzel, VCE grew by more than 100%. The business volume in the bridge bearing sector quadrupled compared to previous years and continues to experience rapid growth, which now comprises 40% of the business. More than 30 new jobs were created in 2012, a third of which are related to the MOBILE technology. Products and services are almost entirely European, which contributes to keeping jobs in Europe.
Most of the exceptional bridge projects have been equipped with the MOBILE technology. Prominent superstructures include the Haliç Metro Bridge (Istanbul), the Taizhou Suspension Bridge (China), the Halifax Harbour Bridges (Canada) and the Wazirabad Signature Bridge (New Delhi). The majority of projects are managed online via a web interface.
Mr Wenzel explains the added value and competitive advantage of the MOBILE product: ‘The lifespan of the new bearings is more than double and they provide information on their real-time condition through a monitoring system. They are superior to the low-cost fakes, and are considered a necessity for many large-scale projects today.’
‘The new bearing should continue to be successful for the foreseeable future,’ emphasises Mr Wenzel. ‘We see an innovation cycle of about a decade. In the next few years, we will start to carry out more research and development work for an improved product.’
Mr Wenzel believes that the achievements of the MOBILE project offer lessons learnt for SMEs: ‘It is important to enable SMEs to take big steps in development and to collaborate with other likeminded businesses when going alone is not an option. Well-balanced European research and development projects can bring considerable added value to the European industrial process.’