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4 Engineering Mistakes That Ended in Disaster - Why Accurate Measurement Matters


We begin learning measurement from our earliest school years and keep building on those skills. If maths isn’t your strong suit, you steer clear of the engineering career path and find a job that relies a little less on numbers.

But even when you have some of the brightest and best engineers in the world working on major projects, they can still make measurement errors.   

One small slip in concentration and the cost can be counted in the millions of dollars or worst still, potential loss of life. Here we examine a few examples of red-faced measurement slips-ups and how they could be avoided.

An engineer with head in his hands because he got his measurements wrong

#1 – The Submarine That Wouldn’t Float

This submarine wouldn’t have any trouble diving; it’s the resurfacing that could be a problem. The Spanish-built diesel-electric submarine weighed in at a whopping 2,200 tonnes, at least 75 tonnes more than it should be.

One way to salvage the $680 million sub was to increase the ship’s length at the cost of $9.7 million per metre. The cause of the error was blamed on someone putting the decimal point in the wrong place. Back to maths class for them.  

#2 – The Trains That Were Too Big for the Platform

The French also dealt with an embarrassing mistake when hundreds of newly-delivered trains were too wide for the platforms of 1,300 regional stations.

Railway engineers forgot to measure the distance between the lines and platforms on the older stations. The cost to upgrade the platforms was 50 million euros. As they say, measure twice.  

#3 The Skyscraper That Could Blow Over

When a Manhattan skyscraper was being designed it needed to accommodate a church that already occupied the same site. The only option was to place the building on nine-storey high stilts above the church.

The stilts couldn’t be placed on the building’s corners (because said church was under one of them) so the stilts were designed in the middle. To make the building stable a bracing structure and tuned mass damper were used.

After office workers had moved in, an architectural student ran the numbers and realised that quartering winds striking the building’s corners could cause the building to topple over. The chief structural engineer agreed that he had only taken into account perpendicular winds, not quartering winds. Welding repairs were conducted throughout the night ahead of a forecast hurricane. The secret remained intact for almost 20 years. Again, measure twice. In this case, for potential winds hitting the building’s faces and winds hitting the corners.

#4 The Footbridge that Made People Seasick

Going to work is hard enough but a pedestrian bridge that makes you feel sick during your morning commute is what you call a bad start to the day. The design of the Millennium Bridge across the Thames river in London didn’t take into account the way people walk to keep their balance on a moving object.

The large number of pedestrians were feeding energy into the bridge’s oscillations causing it to wobble more than expected. The bridge required $8 million in modifications and reopened two years later. In this case, the design engineers had only considered the footstep behaviour of people walking on a hard, stationary surface not the balancing behaviour of people on a moving surface.     

How to Avoid a Measurement Mishap

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Examining past engineering failures have helped prevent many disasters. But the improvements in measurement technology have prevented many more. Laser measuring tools provide far greater accuracy and reduce the chance of human error. Writing down or misreading a wrong number is less likely when you have laser measurement equipment at your disposal.

Use laser devices to measure heights, lengths, angles, flatness, roundness, depths, inclines, wind speed, distance during the design and construction stages of a project. The improved ease and speed mean more measurements can be taken more often to check and re-check the numbers.

To ensure your project doesn’t encounter a measurement disaster, invest in accurate laser measuring tools.

If you have any queries about which laser measuring tool is most suited to your requirements, call GSR Laser Tools on (08) 9409 4058.


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