3D tools help multinational team build “world’s largest” telescope

Astronomers and engineers speak a different language.

This could cause Babel-like confusion when you’re building a football field-sized telescope for a Chilean observatory — with engineers in British Columbia and astronomers in California.

But when words fall hopelessly short, builders at Dynamic Structures Ltd. have another ace up their sleeves.

They rely on 3D rendering and prototype modeling tools from Autodesk Inc. to convey their message.

Read related story: Making communication come alive with 3D digital tools

The Coquitlam, B.C.-based design and construction firm known for building bridges, amusement rides and observatories, is project lead for a nine-year mission to build a thirty-metre optical telescope dubbed (surprise, surprise) TMT (Thirty Metre Telescope).   

If completed on schedule, this gargantuan telescope will be a cosmological triumph, dwarfing the largest observatories in use today.

The core technology will be a 492-segment, 30-metre diameter primary mirror capable of providing up to 10 times the magnification power of existing ground-based telescopes.

The world’s most powerful telescope is currently the Large Binocular Telescope in Arizona’s Mount Graham. It features two 27-foot diameter mirrors.

When completed around 2018, TMT will be the largest optical, ultra-violet and infra-red telescope in the world.

It will help scientists determine the structures and chemical makeup of planets in different solar systems, as well as locate and analyze the light from the first stellar systems born soon after the Big Bang.

But for now one of the main concerns of Dynamic Structure engineers is making sure that they and astronomers based at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif. are on the same page.

“Discussing complex structures and ideas from the point of view of dissimilar disciplines in very difficult, more so when people are hundreds of miles apart,” says Craig Breckenridge, drawing office manager at Dynamic Structures.

Simply put astronomers and engineers speak different technical languages, he said.

“For example, it’s sometimes tricky for us to communicate how a certain part of the structure will work in terms that astronomers would understand. On the other hand, it’s not easy for them to tell us what they need in terms we can comprehend.”

Adding to the difficulty is that many of the 200,000 parts of the 2,000-ton TMT have never been manufactured before. So establishing a common reference with previously known objects or mechanics can be tough.

Some four years ago Dynamic Structures began extensively using 3D rendering and prototyping tools for design work.

The visualization capability afforded by the software products from Autodesk makes it easier for designers to communicate principles, intentions and design consequences, Breckenridge explained.

“Rather than try to find the right words, or decipher blueprints or flat drawings, scientists and engineers can view and manipulate three dimensional models,” he said.

For example, he said by using Autodesk Inventor, a 3D product simulation tool, designers can create digital models of the final product for scientists and builders to inspect long before manufacturing begins.

People can see — on computer screens — how the moving parts would in the actual work environment, said Breckenridge.

Lars Lindskog, mechanical engineer for cyclotron operations at Coviden AG, a global healthcare products provider based in Maryland Heights, Mo, often encounters the same problems as Breckenridge.  
“It’s very hard to help clients see how gears or arms would actually work if you’re working with static drawings,” he said.

“With a design tool that actually adds motion to the drawn parts, viewers can easily visualize how the parts work,” he said.

Autodesk’s Navisworks building information modeling (BIM) software offers visual information on how various design components will interact with one another.

AutoCAD and 3D Studio Animation tools are also being used in the project.

“When you have snap-to-lines capability, it’s much easier to detect design conflicts,” said Gary Simeunovic, an AutoCAD software user and trainer at Colt and WorleyParsons, an Edmonton-based engineering firm serving the hydrocarbon industry.

“If you can locate these clashes before anything is built, you can save a lot of time and money by avoiding repetitions,” he said.

Some 20 years ago, before the advent of computer aided digital design tools, large telescopes were built in sections, according to Breckenridge.

“Builders would construct one section of the project and conduct trial assemblies later. It was only after the next section was built that engineers could determine if the two sections would actually work together.”

Design clashes can cause months of delay and tens of thousands of dollars in budget overruns, Breckenridge noted.

“If the parts don’t fit, it means back to the drawing board. Today you can do all that on the drawing board.”  

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