Dam good research: New 3D-printed dam models enable better prediction and reduce costs

Creating digitally fabricated dam models for hydraulic and seismic testing.

Under a multi-phase project supported by commercial and educational entities, Austin Engineering creates digitally fabricated dam models for hydraulic and seismic testing at both their own hydraulics lab and at the University of British Columbia’s Applied Laboratory for Advanced Materials and Structures (ALAMS) in Kelowna, BC. Their most recent phase of research was followed by a prestigious international presentation.

In partnership with the University of British Columbia Okanagan (UBCO), Selkirk College, and FortisBC, Austin Engineering uses shake-table technology and digital fabrication to test reduced-scale dam sections. The Trail, BC. firm’s commitment to furthering dam safety has been made possible in part by a partnership with Mitacs’s internship program, which helped fund Phase 2.

Mary Austin, director of business development at Austin Engineering emphasizes their commitment to the research and development necessary to support the longevity of dams and the safety of all downstream communities.

“We’re always thinking globally, and we’ll continue to ask the questions necessary to ensure dam safety is at the forefront,” she adds. “We do this through partnerships with like-minded people and organizations and we’re thankful to have support from Mitacs.”

In 2017’s Phase 1, the company worked closely with Selkirk College students to develop 3D-printed models of a FortisBC dam on the Kootenay River and to evaluate the damage that could be caused if there were extreme sismic activity. The models were created to assist FortisBC in future planning, improving stakeholder engagement, and for evaluating cost-effective solutions and developing improved environmental outcomes for their facility operations.

Austin Engineering and UBCO collaborated further in 2018, when a digitally fabricated gravity dam was paired with a state-of-the-art shake table during the second phase of research to determine potential damage during seismic events. PhD-candidate Anas Issa completed the test with support from mechanical engineering Professor Rudolf Seethaler.

“This project gave me a huge opportunity to be exposed to industrial projects and industry in general, and the chance to see the connection between research done in the lab and the real-life applications,” says Anas.

He’s grateful for the experience that allowed him to learn new technical skills and acquire advanced project management and teamwork skills. “I was able to explore more areas in structural engineering in general and dams specifically,” says Anas. “It expanded my horizons to new topics and knowledge in general.”

Professor Shahria Alam of UBCO says the research was particularly interesting because it paired the university with an industrial partner.

“The UBC intern, Anas, had great exposure to working with people of different expertise,” he adds. “We had to work on a tight deadline, but with everyone’s effort we pulled it together; it was a great success in the end.”

This research opened up new opportunities for the team, like current partnerships with international companies that require expertise to determine seismic vulnerabilities and potential retrofit measures for dams worldwide.

 As for Anas, he has already published one conference paper and is currently working on a journal article. In addition, he’s conducting large-scale testing on smart bracing systems for enhanced seismic performance of structures as part of his postdoctoral fellowship at UBC in collaboration with Polytechnique Montréal.


Mitacs thanks the Government of Canada and the Government of Saskatchewan for their support of the Accelerate research internship in this story. Across Canada, the Accelerate program also receives support from Alberta Innovates, the Government of British Columbia, the Government of New Brunswick, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, the Government of Nova Scotia, the Government of Ontario, the Government of Prince Edward Island, the Government of Quebec, and Research Manitoba.



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