SmartShell uses hydraulics, not bulk, for structural strength


April 20, 2012

SmartShell is a wooden structure that uses hydraulic drives to compensate for structural loads (Photo: Bosch Rexroth)

SmartShell is a wooden structure that uses hydraulic drives to compensate for structural loads (Photo: Bosch Rexroth)

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When things like bridges or stadium roofs are built, they’re designed to withstand not just the stress that they will experience on a frequent basis, but also the maximum stress loads that they’ll only be subjected to once in a while – these could take the form of things like snowfalls or wind storms. This means that much of the heavy, costly materials that the structures are made of will only occasionally prove necessary. Researchers from the University of Stuttgart, however, have come up with an alternative. They’ve designed a lightweight structure that actively adapts to increased loads via built-in hydraulics.

Known as the SmartShell, the open-air structure covers over 100 square meters (119.6 sq yds) of the university’s Vaihingen campus. Its curving wooden shell is only four centimeters (1.6 in) thick, and has supports at each of its four corners. While one of those supports is static, the other three incorporate hydraulic drives, made by project partner Bosch Rexroth.

The shell also contains sensors in various locations, that are linked to a control system. When these sensors detect a change in the structural load being placed on a particular part of the shell – such as might be caused by a shift in the wind – the hydraulics react independently within milliseconds to compensate for that load, keeping material stresses and deformations to a minimum.

Computer models were used to determine what movements would be necessary in order to counter specific load values on different parts of the shell.

The scientists believe that the technology could find use in a wide range of structures, where it would minimize weight, materials costs, and structural fatigue.

SmartShell was officially unveiled to the public this Monday.

Source: University of Stuttgart

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away. All articles by Ben Coxworth

I like my structures not to be dependent on a power supply to survive heavy loading. Something about three feet of snow and broken power lines.


Screwjacks would have been a better choice by far. otherwise nice work interesting

Mark Scope

Slowburn you have a point, but I don't think this technology is intended for simple structures like the test rig in the picture. For a large bridge this might be more applicable. It wouldn't take much electricity to run sensors and change pressures. There are plenty of back up power solutions that could run such a system. Instead of over engineering a bridge with materials you are over engineering it with Technology. All that aside i definitely agree simple is usually better and this doesn't look simple.

Michael Mantion

It's not necessarily a bad technology, I'm just not sure what a good application might be.

In an emergency situation where you might suddenly want additional bracing, such as an earthquake, you wouldn't be able to depend on the power staying on to operate the hydraulics.

Jon A.

Can someone explain how spending more money on complex moving parts that only move a tiny fraction of the loaded span is supposed to create a net cost savings? I don't understand anything about the "principal" behind this.


You don't need continuous electrical power to operate a system like this. A backup battery to carry the sensors and control system and a hydraulic accumulator to store and supply hydraulic pressure would keep the system operating for hours.

@ Kuryus - The cost savings would come from the reduced cost of initial construction. The system allows the whole structure to be much lighter and therefore less expensive to build.

Dave C

I think the issue is - is that while "just enough" construction strength - WITH hydraulic boosting (?) is a grand idea, for the very rare peak loadings.....

It seems to be BETTER to have the "foundations of the design" rooted in being strong enough in the first place, because of the inherent issues in having weak designs, AND the odd bit of catastrophic failure that can occur when compounding issues create failures of the back up equipment, through power, power connections, storage systems, failures in maintenance, and other unforeseen circumstances.

Like the insects that got into the relay and died or built a nest in it - and it was never picked up and so when the system needed to activate, the relay could not trip, and so the hydraulic pumps would not switch on and so the "strengthening" could not occur, and so the structure with it's 3 feet of snow on it in the gale force winds, ripped loose and collapsed on everyone inside, killing hundreds - blah blah blah......

It's all those little things that are eliminated if the thing is properly built in the first place, WITH no need to rely on any passive or active systems to prop it up when circumstances change.

For instance, the pyramid of Cheops does not need to rely upon a automatic fire extinguisher system to keep it's self safe, and it has not done so for the last 5000 years. Why? Because nothing used in it's construction can burn.

It's that default level of logic.

It's like "Leaping out of the ground floor window of a burning building."

Adding in 10 stories greatly modifies the outcome for the jumpee.

There is something inherently and fundamentally good about these kinds of designs.

Mr Stiffy

For controlled short term use, like say for a temporary bridge used by a moving attack force or having a bridge setup with minimum loads as the norm and then closing the bridge to pump-up and transport heavy item, is a good idea. However, for the long term I wouldn't want it to flicker back and forth between loads to maintain form (just in case the controls failed under heavy load.)

Matt Fletcher
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