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Engineering meets art

Inland waterways; Millennium Link

Fish scales, the hull of a Viking ship and a vast propeller symbolic of Glasgow's shipbuilding era: such is the imagery credited with influencing the conceptual design of the canal network's focal point and its undoubted public relations jewel - the £12M Falkirk Wheel.

Yet the 20 strong multi disciplinary team that spent the six hottest weeks of last summer locked in debate to provide what Ballinger describes as 'the most exciting piece of canal engineering - ever' would prefer the following:

'It is elegant, dramatic, 21st Century technology, but a structure still based on proven engineering principles,' says Hugh England, Morrison Construction's divisional director with the Morrison/Bachy Soletanche joint venture due, next month, to move to the Falkirk site to start preparatory canal works.

Aim of Britain's first new shiplift for 125 years will be to transfer, in two 30m caissons, up to eight boats at a time between the Forth & Clyde and the Union Canal some 25m above it. Until the 1930s this vital link in the coast to coast route was achieved through a flight of Victorian locks now well buried beneath Falkirk's suburbs.

Whatever structure was chosen for the windswept field, 3km west of the town, it would make a very visible engineering and architectural statement.

Contractors' eyebrows were well raised a year ago when BW, and its consultant Binnie Black & Veatch, issued design and build tenderers with the wheel's 'suggested' design - a 28m diameter ferris wheel with four hanging gondolas.

'It was a classic Victorian design fitting in with the canal's 19th Century theme and was, we understood, what BW wanted,' recalls Morrison director in charge of the tender Douglas Macintyre. 'The design looked uninspiring and we did not really like it.'

Only when the Morrison/Bachy team emerged as preferred bidder did they realise that BW shared their thoughts.

'Throughout the tender process we were ourselves unhappy with the aesthetics of the basic design,' concedes Ballinger. 'We had hoped the tenderers would explore alternatives but, with hindsight, we did not give them enough time.'

Time was now itself the critical path, and the six weeks that followed were arguably as much a success in architectural and engineering teamwork as is the final product in design terms.

Starting with a blank sheet of paper, BW - plus the JV with its appointees Ove Arup, architect RMJM, steel fabricator Butterley Engineering and its consultant Tony Gee - brainstormed their way through a dozen concepts.

Nothing was ruled out as in-house competitions and teams within teams worked through a dozen options ranging from a funicular railway and horizontal wheels sporting cranes, to a Heath Robinson style large water-filled bubble that tippedover.

Key words were 21st Century, sculpture and wheel. But it was only when someone confirmed that the dictionary description of a wheel allowed for a structure rotating about a central axle, but not necessarily needing an outer rim, that the final engineering sculpture emerged.

The chosen Falkirk Wheel consists of twin 35m tall shaped steel spokes rotating about a central 7.1m diameter hub. Hydraulic motors, acting through small wheels in contact with the end of the hub, turn the structure through 180degrees, allowing upper and lower water-filled caissons to transfer boats between the two canals.

But the simplistic beauty lies in solving the engineering challenge of how to keep the caissons horizontal throughout the 15 minute ride. Freely hanging structures, relying on gravity, tend to be jerked around, disturbing water and boats within them.

The solution at Falkirk is fixed caissons which are rotated by a network of five, varying size geared cogs hidden within the hollow end spokes and turning against the stationary end of the central hub. No additional power source is needed and horizontality of the two caissons is always inline with the wheel's rotation.

'An excellent example of engineering combining with art,' sums up Ballinger. 'As Scotland's Eiffel Tower, the public will flock to it.'

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