Mae West and Leonardo Da Vinci: Achieving Extreme Dimensions with Composites

This post on Innovation Intelligence is written by Markku Palanterä, General Manager at Componeering Inc., developer of composite modeling software ESAComp. Componeering is a member of the Altair Partner Alliance.

With proven benefits such as strength, stiffness, corrosion resistance, aesthetics, lightweight and low maintenance, why haven’t composites made more of an impact in the construction industry? They have been used successfully to repair aging infrastructure worldwide, but what about the design, manufacture and construction of an all-composite road bridge?

Obstacles to the widespread adoption of composites for civil engineering include legal regulations, fire/safety regulations, durability, cost of repair, and cost of materials. Today’s structural designs are governed by and conform with numerous established and verified design procedures for the materials most commonly used, like steel, concrete, glass, and woodbut not fiber-reinforced plastics. It is unwise to design a composite structure using the existing approaches, so we need to look to the available tools from the industry that uses continuous fiber composites every day: aerospace. That said, perhaps plywood was the first biocomposite, and reinforced-concrete is a good example of a composite on the “mega” scale, rather than “micro” scale of today’s high-performance, fiber-reinforced materials.

Where should we begin? In the absence of a conventional material specification, do we design the structure first and then create the materials to suit? Or, work out which materials are needed first, then assess trade-offs – e.g., laminate vs. sandwich panel – with the ultimate aim of iterating toward an optimized structural design within a pre-defined set of parameters regarding shape and appearance? Two iconic composite structures will illustrate how experience gained from art installations can help more conventional civil engineering projects adopt the use of fiber-reinforced composite materials.

As participants of the 7th annual European Altair Technology Conference gather in Munich, we hope they take a moment to visit the Mae West sculpture on the Effnerplatz. Standing 52m, the art conveys the unmistakable hour-glass figure of the legendary American actress, singer, playwright, screenwriter and comedienne. From the start, Rita McBride envisioned her sculpture as a work of art that would rely on the aesthetics and durability of carbon fiber-reinforced polymer. Once the load cases were established, design of the fiber orientation for the composite pipes began.

Another outstanding example is the impressive Leonardo sculpture, a 19.2m tall structure erected in recognition of the pioneering work of the aeronautical industry, created by Kimmo Kaivanto in Tampere, Finland. With the size and shape fixed, the challenge was then to design an internal structure that could withstand the static and dynamic loads associated with snow, wind, and rain. The wing span measures 16.5m, and significant reinforcement was required between wings and legs.

In each of these examples, composite materials were used to accomplish some very challenging civil engineering goals. The use of simulation to drive material choice and optimize the performance of the construction cannot be overlooked, and will in time drive the more widespread adoption of composites in the building industry. For more information about our work in this domain, please visit

Altair Partner Alliance
Altair Partner Alliance

About Altair Partner Alliance

The Altair Partner Alliance (APA) provides access to a broad spectrum of complementary software products, through the use of HyperWorks Units (HWUs) at no additional cost. Their continuously expanding list of partner software, across a broad range of disciplines, serves the needs of hundreds of companies ranging from automotive, aerospace, and defense to consumer products, biomedical and heavy equipment. The APA curates a diverse collection of blog posts written by its many partners to keep readers informed on a variety of trending engineering topics.