BOUTIQUE ENGINEERING

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Behind every new stadium or giant artwork is a team of engineers doing things that could not have been done a decade ago. Samantha Weinberg watches them at work...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, July/August 2012

A googlewhack is a combination of two words that, when entered into Google, returns a single hit. Ten years ago, the British comedian Dave Gorman travelled the world on the trail of googlewhacks such as “coelacanth sharpener” and “rarebit nutters”. He could have tried “boutique engineering”.

At first glance the two words do not sit easily together: “boutique” conjures up images of softly lit spaces filled with hand-picked items, “engineering” suggests the large-scale, the technical, and a lot of hard hats. But, had he been searching now, Gorman would have found prime examples of boutique engineering in his back yard—at a Lancashire steelworks, and in the new Olympic park at Stratford in London.

Watson Steel is tucked away down an unremarkable lane in Bolton. On a typical spring day in the lee of the Pennines, rain is blowing in horizontal shards across the half-empty car park. A metal door opens onto a vast shed, one of five, each three storeys high and the length of a football pitch. At one end, there is what looks like a medieval instrument devised to torture giants—a milling machine for boring holes into thick metal. Large pieces of steel—girders, plates, joints and tubes—fill the inner space, like pieces of a jigsaw waiting to be put together. Standing at various junctures are men wearing dark overalls and hoods, plastic visors pulled down, gauntlets on their hands. And everywhere there is the smell of burning metal, radiating out from flashpoints of blinding white light, where steel is being welded to steel, more or less as it has been since the 1850s, when Henry Bessemer of nearby Sheffield invented the modern steelmaking process that kick-started the industrial revolution.

As you head into the next vast shed, one man stands out among the cutters and welders. He’s still wearing a boiler suit and headphones to muffle the din, but instead of cutting or torching steel, his industrial-sized fingers are tapping lightly into a laptop, while beside him, a red laser beam shoots out from what looks like an old-fashioned camera perched on a tripod, and lands on a large piece of steel. He looks up from the screen and calls out instructions to his colleague, who adjusts the steel plate by a millimetre. Then he nods and watches as a hole’s position is marked at the exact spot pinpointed by the laser.

A few weeks later, 175 miles south, a crowd has gathered at the Olympic Park to witness the unveiling of the Orbit, the tall, twisted Anish Kapoor sculpture commissioned to act as some sort of talisman for the London 2012 games. Reaction to the piece has been mixed: some critics have hailed it as London’s answer to the Eiffel Tower, while others have railed against its colour (red), size (114.5 metres high), cost (£22.7m, of which £19.6m came from the ArcelorMittal group, mainly in the form of donated steel) and deformed aesthetic. Even the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, who persuaded Lakshmi Mittal to jump on board the project in a cloakroom in Davos only three years ago, has called it a “vast Fallopian ampersand”.

Whatever other feelings it may engender, up close the Orbit provokes a sense of wonder. It is like an out-sized version of the childhood game of Construct-o-
Straws, except in this case, almost every straw is a different length, every join and joint has a unique specification. Even on a playroom scale, the ingenuity required to piece something like that together—let alone make it safe enough for an estimated 5,000 people to crawl all over each day—is awe-inspiring. And although Kapoor has been getting the giant’s share of the attention, with his co-designer, the engineer Cecil Balmond of Ove Arup taking second billing, their vision only became reality because of a man on a laptop in Bolton.

On the walls of Watson Steel’s office are photographs of the structures they’ve worked on: landmark buildings such as the Bullring shopping centre in Birmingham, bridges like the Millennium in Gateshead, airports in Hong Kong, Osaka, Paris (Charles de Gaulle) and London (Terminal 5), sports grounds including Bolton’s Reebok Stadium, much of the Olympic Park (including the acclaimed Velodrome and aquatics centre, and the eco-minded main stadium), and the Emirates, Arsenal’s home in north London.

“The Emirates was our first job using the 3D-modelling system,” says Jarrod Hulme, who followed his father and brother into Watson Steel, starting as an apprentice, and who is now the engineer responsible for issuing the software data for each job. “It had very complicated geometry, which would have been almost impossible to work out in the old way. Using this model, we were able to do away with spirit levels and most of the paper and drawings, and translate it directly to the shop floor. I have to say, though I’m a Man United supporter, it’s the best stadium I’ve ever been to.”

He talks about The Model with reverence, as some sort of magic catalyst that has stretched the boundaries of steelwork, engineering and, by extension, architecture and design. It involves a software package developed by the Finnish firm Tekla which has its origins in the Sixties, before the dawn of the computer age. Over 40 years, it was refined and augmented by a triumvirate comprising Tekla, the lens manufacturer Leica and Watson Steel, to the point where it was ready to be used in 2003. An architect—or in the case of the Orbit, an artist—designs something, and an engineer does the sums to ensure it works, before sending the specifications to a steel contractor such as Watson, where they are plugged into the Tekla model. This produces the information needed to fabricate each piece of steel, and the position of each bolt and joint in three-dimensional form. In the fabrication shop, the 3D model is on a laptop which communicates with satellites set into the roof. The satellites relay the information to the theodolite—the thing perched on the tripod—which then calculates its relative position to any piece of steel, and shoots out a red laser to mark the exact point at which a cut, hole or weld must be set. In this way, the whole structure—whether a building, a bridge or a sculpture—can be envisaged, in laser beams, before a single piece of steel is fashioned.

It’s a far cry from the back-of-the-envelope calculations of the past, or even the painstaking sums and intricate blueprint drawings of a decade ago. “It’s
incredibly accurate. We generally work to a tolerance of +/– 2mm on each of the axes, which means we can send components to site confident that they will fit together,” says Steven Day, the managing director of Watson Steel. No two segments of the Orbit are alike. “Out of over 15,000 bolts, we only had one misalignment—and that was due to a software glitch.”

Matt Collier was one of four Watson erectors who spent a year in east London fitting the tubes and bolts of the Orbit as they arrived on long loaders from Bolton. “I came here on the first day and there was nothing. I got the drawings and thought, ‘Oh my God, how on earth are we going to build that?’ But once we started to put it together, we started to understand it, to get a feeling for the orientation of each bit. And you know what...it all fits together perfectly. It’s a credit to the fabricators up in Bolton.” The whole sculpture—all 1,740 tonnes and 114.5 metres of it—has ended up within 12mm of where it was supposed to be.

Watson is not the only steel firm to be using the 3D-modelling technology; eight years after work began on the Emirates Stadium, it is now widely used in the industry. But Watson is probably the best, certainly at the more original, boutique-type projects. As Bill Price, a director of WSP engineers who has worked with Watson on several projects, explains: “You can look at a building and say ‘That’s got Watson’s stamp on it.’ Every signature architect would probably consult them over an interesting building. They’re the only people who could have done the Orbit.”

Up in Bolton, Jarrod Hulme describes how the steelworkers were trained to use the model. “We’ve got some big heavy bruisers in there who have become technology enthusiasts. They take their laptops home and sleep with them under their pillows. And they have become a part of it. We take their comments and criticisms and feed them back into the system.”

David Worthington is a sculptor whose work involves bold, otherworldly stone shapes, often supported by gangly steel legs. Although not on the Orbit scale, they are heavy enough to require cranes, reinforced floors and detailed engineering input to ensure that three tonnes of polished granite doesn’t topple onto the toes of unfortunate passers-by. He’s currently working with WSP on a new series of pieces: smooth stone creatures each perched on a troika of spiky spider’s legs. Once the design is done, it may be sent up to Watson to be modelled, adapted and edited, before the lasers define the dimensions of each set of legs in one of the great sheds in Bolton. “It has changed the nature of what I do,” says Worthington. “Now I can concentrate on the theoretical side and leave the often complicated practicalities to people who know how to solve them. As an artist, it’s liberating.”

Worthington’s sculptures will join the Orbit, the Shard and Zaha Hadid’s Glasgow Museum of Transport in Watson Steel’s engineering boutique window, while other projects, big and small, queue up in the lanes of Bolton to be massaged into the 3D model. In one corner of northern England, you can see business booming, which, in the current climate, may well be another googlewhack. 
 
Samantha Weinberg is assistant editor of Intelligent Life and a former commissioning editor at Eureka on the Times. She is the author of several books, including "A Fish Caught in Time"

Photograph David Kidson