Research and Development in the Field of Civil Engineering

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In the field of civil engineering, research and development activities are largely carried out by university professors, engineers of employed research institutes, and specialized consulting firms. Currently, federal and state government laboratories and research organizations carry out-or fund universities to carry out-about one half of all civil engineering research. Budget constraints at both the federal and state levels may reduce funding for this research. On the other hand, our nation needs the results of civil engineering research more than ever because of the ever-worsening condition of our infrastructure-highways, bridges, and other public structures. Whether public funding of civil engineering continues at present levels or other avenues of funding grow in importance, such as corporate sponsorship, engineering research will continue to be a vital part of the civil engineering profession, offering many opportunities for young engineers.

In most research and development organizations, a specific problem or need is identified and then a team of engineers and scientists are enlisted to find a solution. In most cases, the team will include scientists who are knowledgeable in basic principles and who have experience in carrying out the appropriate laboratory experiments. The engineers on the team are more likely to focus on the applications of the scientists' findings in a practical way to solve the problem at hand. Research engineers must act as coordinators between the scientists and the research team or consumers who have identified the problem under investigation or who have requested a particular project.

An engineer who aspires to succeed in research and development should have high intellectual capabilities, strong mathematical and computing skills, and a well-developed imagination. A high degree of patience and self-confidence are good attributes because many projects involve complex questions usually never before answered. Sometimes the new ideas or new avenues of approach suggested by imaginative research engineers provide breakthroughs in these projects. However, it is not uncommon for members of a research team to feel a great sense of frustration with perplexing projects that defy repeated attempts at a solution. Thus, although researchers are often stereotyped as loners locked away in labs, in reality, research engineers must be able to work well with others, especially in stressful situations.

Engineers working in research and development also must possess some other special qualifications. They must be adept at making accurate observations of experimental data and then interpreting the data to draw the correct conclusions. After coming to a definite conclusion about a particular problem and developing a solution to that problem, the engineers must be able to convince the other members of the team and, more importantly, the other members of the affiliated professional organization (such as the ASCE) of the quality and correctness of their solution. Research and development engineers must be able to present their findings convincingly to their immediate supervisors and to top-level management. On the other hand, they must be able to change their conclusions if other evidence is presented that reveals flaws in their findings or is unsatisfactory in terms of cost or convenience to the user or client.

After research and development engineers have determined a workable solution to a given problem, they usually transfer their ideas and conclusions to another team of engineers who apply the results of their research efforts to the solution of specific problems. These planners and designers must take the basic concepts of the solution developed by the research and development team and turn these concepts into a set of definite plans and schedules for the construction and operation of a particular facility.

One of the most important functions of civil engineers involved in planning and design is gathering basic data on the specific location at which a facility is to be constructed and on the specific needs and services of the facility as it relates to its location. Planners and designers take the results of research and development activity and apply and adapt these results to actual field conditions. To do this, they must obtain comprehensive data on the site conditions. For example, they must test the soils and rocks at the project site, develop topographic and geologic maps, test environmental characteristics of the area (wind velocity, water supply, etc.) and determine the technical characteristics of the human-made facilities in the immediate area. The investigation of these facilities may include determining the location, depth, and character of foundations of existing buildings that cannot be disturbed by the construction of the new facility. The investigation may also include accurately locating all of the important structures in a particular area so that the route for a rapid transit system or highway may be selected in the most efficient and least damaging location.

Other basic data needed may include a determination of the size and characteristics of the population in the area to be serviced by a particular project and of predicting future population changes in that area. After obtaining this data, civil engineers develop both short-term and long-range plans to meet the needs of the community.

In preparing a design, civil engineers must take abstract concepts and transform them into a set of plans, drawings, and accompanying specifications. These in turn are used by contractors and builders as they transform concepts into physical reality with concrete, timber, steel, and other materials. Design is the function that is intermediate between planning and actual construction. Specialists in other branches of engineering, such as chemical and mechanical engineering, are often the primary professionals in formulating designs to be used in manufacturing processes. In contrast, the design civil engineer (or architectural engineer or architect) almost always is involved in developing a design package for construction purposes. Whether the primary designer is an engineer or architect depends largely on the type of the facility being built and to some extent on the desires of the project owner. For instance, an architect, engineering architect, or civil engineer may supervise a design package for a commercial or office building, while design packages for most public work projects are supervised by civil engineers.

When formulating a design, civil engineers seek to make the best fit between the basic concept of a bridge, structure, or tunnel and the conditions existing at the construction site. When selecting materials and construction methods, they consider the purposes of the basic design as well as the availability and costs of materials needed to construct the facility. Materials and construction methods also have to be based on the limitations of the labor force in the area. For example, civil engineers who are designing a bridge to be built in a remote rain forest location must recognize that both prefabricated materials and highly skilled laborers will have to be transported to the construction site. However, if locally available materials and unskilled labor can be used to construct parts of the bridge, it may be possible to save considerable sums of money. In this case, the most sophisticated design for the bridge may not be the best design with respect to the overall cost of the structure. Thus, the research work of materials scientists in developing high-strength steel alloys will be of little value if designers conclude that transporting such materials to the remote location would be cost prohibitive.

What are the traits of a good design civil engineer? High on the list is the ability to imagine solutions that do not yet exist physically. This talent combines creativity with the ability to think in the abstract. Designers must be persuasive in arguing the merits of their proposals to owners, clients, or superiors. Designers must be able to express themselves clearly and accurately in both plan preparations and written instructions for construction personnel, and they must be open-minded. As in the example of the bridge proposal for a remote jungle site, the designer must be willing to consider alternative methods of accomplishing his or her design based on engineering feasibility, cost, and environmental effects.

Finally, civil engineering designers must always be conscious that the lives and fortunes of many people will rest upon the adequacy of their designs and upon the clarity and quality of the plans and specifications they prepare.

In almost all projects, design civil engineers are called upon to participate as members of design teams. The days of a single engineer executing the design for a major facility have long since passed. Designers must be capable of working well with other team members, with the members of the research and development team to whom they turn for new ideas, and with the members of the field construction group responsible for bringing their designs to reality.
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