For Father-Daughter Team, Imagination Leads to Innovation

December 7, 2017
Grand Challenge WEB FEAT

Robie Bonilla-Gris and Catalina Nadeau-Bonilla make a unique pair.

The father-daughter team submitted an anti-scour Pier Sheath concept to the 2017 ASCE Innovation Contest that earned Most Efficient honors in the Resiliency category. Yes, the contest has a global reach, encourages team entries, and has a special award for student entries. But an innovation developed within a family dynamic is rare indeed.

And with the 2018 ASCE Innovation Contest accepting innovative submittals now through March 1, Bonilla-Gris and Nadeau-Bonilla shared their unique approach to innovation with ASCE News.

ASCE News: Why do you think it’s so important to think in innovative ways or employ innovative approaches to engineering?

Nadeau-Bonilla: First of all, by definition, engineering encompasses an intelligent and rational use of materials, energy, and other resources to solve human needs, to advance progress and preserve the natural environment. These endeavors are performed with material and immaterial tools (established knowledge, theories, research, materials, objects, etc.). As these tools evolve, the engineer refines and improves his or her results by encroaching on unexplored ground. We call this progress.

Secondly, as human population grows, so do a complex set of problems very diverse in nature, related to the material and intangible needs of the increased number of humans (food, housing, potable water, sanitation, power, transportation, communication, safety, entertainment, etc.). All this happens on a planet with limited natural resources, pressing for a more rational use of those resources.

Thirdly, there is climate change, which has upended many engineering concepts, data, and solutions.

So new challenges always appear, and they must be faced with new thoughts.

The father-daughter team of Catalina

The father-daughter team of Catalina Nadeau-Bonilla and Robie Bonilla-Gris earned recognition in the 2017 ASCE Innovation Contest.

ASCE News: What is one tip you would give other civil engineers about how to embrace innovation or think outside the box?

Bonilla-Gris: The “box” analogy is very descriptive of the way the engineer generally tends to consider how the knowledge of a certain field is kept. In other words, each area of engineering’s problems, theories, solutions, and tools is compartmentalized.

This point of view lacks a general vision of the organic, interrelated, collaborative nature of technical – and scientific – knowledge of different disciplines. It is necessary to explore other specialties; to look over the shoulder of colleagues from different fields. Applying synergy broadens the scope.

In our proposed technology, we did some forays outside of bridge hydraulics. One example: from the fluid mechanics point of view, the flow around a bridge pier is a relative movement between a fluid (in motion) and a solid (static) and is equivalent to the fluid being motionless and a moving bridge. This correspondence is applied when aircraft models are tested in the wind tunnel.

Namely, with this imagination tour we entered into the naval architect’s field. We, then, as a catamaran designer would do, questioned the blunt (sometimes, very blunt) profiles that are currently imposed on bridge piers, like the very common circular profile.

Another example: the artificial roughness of the golf ball – which given the same blow travels about twice the distance a smooth ball of the same diameter and mass would travel, due to its low-wake production – was our inspiration for the engineered roughness of our Pier Sheath.

ASCE News: Talk about the Pier Sheath. How would you describe your technology?

Bonilla-Gris: Up to 60 percent of bridge failures are caused by scour.

Our Pier Sheath (U.S. Pat. No. 7628569) is an add-on body installed around bridge piers and other submerged structures to reduce scour. This innovation replaces current countermeasures, which only armor the riverbed, introducing elements extraneous to the natural course, trying to prevent the effect of the phenomenon.

The current protection is vulnerable to extreme water velocities, such as those produced by floods. Consequently, it needs inspection, maintenance, and, eventually, repair. The Sheath acts against the cause itself (the flow disturbances –essentially, vorticity – due to the intrusion of the structure in the delicate dynamic equilibrium of the river). It can endure any hydraulic conditions, and it does not need maintenance.

The Sheath has two novel features not yet used in submerged structures: engineered roughness and hydrodynamic profile. The roughness is a principle borrowed from the field of hydrodynamics to reduce vorticity (which, in the case of a bridge pier, produces scour). On the other hand, the vorticity reduction effects of a streamlined profile are very well known, but current pier construction methods make giving a pier such [a] type of profile impractical. So, adding the Sheath transforms any pier, with any shape, into a low-vorticity and low-scour one, protecting it from scour-related failure.

The Pier Sheath WEB VERTASCE News: What was the experience like participating in the ASCE Innovation Contest?

Nadeau-Bonilla: It was very challenging, because of the high stakes established by the excellent competing entries and the strong support behind some of them (academia and industry), but we relied upon our sound proposal and the potential interest of the related subject.

Our proposal received serious attention from the highly qualified judges and a very warm attitude and help from the ASCE officials and staff. The audience was very interested, questioning several aspects of our technology and approving our technical statements.

Innovation is not always welcome and is very often discarded, but this forum had other innovators that were open to new ideas and welcomed ours; therefore, we felt like we belonged. This event had a high technical level. Personally, it was unforgettable for us.

ASCE News: What’s it like working together as father and daughter?

Nadeau-Bonilla: We are both civil engineers and have worked on major infrastructure projects related to hydraulics. Our undergraduate studies were at the National Polytechnic Institute of Mexico, where my father (Robie) was professor and researcher, and I (Catalina) was his pupil.

Then we both participated in some of the projects carried out in the Institute on behalf of several Mexican government agencies and in the development of some novel solutions to hydraulic problems – a couple of which have been applied to hydraulic works in Mexico. And finally, we are both working to apply our innovation to those beautiful and useful structures: the bridges.

Being able to work as a team with a family member who shares the same profession and passion is a great experience. It is the best partnership we could have ever hoped for!

Learn more about how you can enter the 2018 Innovation Contest.

1 Comment
  • From golf ball dimples to roughness on a bridge pier sheath. A great example of really seeing the world around us, whether in the built world or nature, as we seek creative/innovative solutions to problems.

    My studies of creativity/innovation reveal many instances of individuals and teams making unusual — why didn’t I think of that? — connections. For example, carcass processing in the Chicago stock yards inspired the first automobile assembly line in Detroit, the Kingfisher’s beak was the catalyst for the shape of the lead unit on Japanese high-speed trains, and the human heart led to the peristaltic pump.

    Father and daughter Bonilla: Congratulations and thank you for your invention and your example of how to make new connections with existing things.

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