In the late 1990s, as the Queen’s Building (QB) at Bristol was approaching its 50th birthday, an imaginative plan for a major restructuring of the Engineering Faculty’s laboratories was conceived.
Together with many other university buildings of the same generation, the QB was in need of modernising and refurbishment and a major scheme for doing just that was put together and submitted for funding under the Government’s JIF initiative. The plan was imaginative in several respects, one of the most important of which was its fundamental tenet of eliminating the boundaries between the classical engineering disciplines (Mechanical, Civil, Aeronautical,…).
Instead, the central theme of the restructured laboratories was to reflect a particular technical area which drew on several existing research groups in the Faculty, encompassing a wide range of engineering applications. That area was ‘Dynamics’ and it brought together research strengths in structural dynamics, control, aerodynamics, material dynamics, and others. Hence the restructured laboratories would be known under the single heading of BLADE – Bristol Laboratory for Advanced Dynamics Engineering.
The preceding paragraph effectively answers a frequently-asked question: “What exactly is BLADE?”: ‘BLADE is a network of interconnected laboratories, each of which specialises in some aspect of engineering dynamics, that share practical and philosophical working processes and procedures.’
BLADE was designed to be more than just a remodelled infrastructure. One of the principal objectives defined in the original proposal for the construction of BLADE was that the resulting infrastructure enhancements should facilitate the development of a more enlightened culture of engineering practice by breaking down the traditional barriers between ‘theory’ and ‘experiment’ and fusing these two aspects of engineering into a more holistic culture. Thus, not only were the engineering discipline barriers to be set aside, but so also were those which often keep the theoretical and the practical aspects of engineering from full integration.
From this ambitious plan, and with funding from the successful JIF bid, supplemented by an additional contribution from the University’s own resources, work started on the detailed design and construction of the new BLADE facilities, the results of which are very close to the original vision. The facilities were opened by the Queen – just over 50 years after she had opened the original Queen’s Building in 1952.
The 2000 m2 suite of laboratories are interconnected, partly by common advanced hydraulics and electrical services and partly by a common workshop.
No fewer than five centres have been established, and are based in BLADE:
- ACCIS Composites Centre
- Rolls-Royce UTC in Composites
- AgustaWestland UTC in Vibration Reduction
- Systems Performance Centre: a strategic alliance with EDF/British Energy
In addition, members of BLADE play a major role in the UK’s Research Centre for Non-destructive Evaluation (RCNDE) and research projects that take full advantage of a fusion of both analytical and experimental techniques.
BLADE has strategic strengths in 21st Century Testing and 21st Century Artefacts.
The first of these reflects the particular strengths that might be expected from a world-class experimental facility, and represents a major capability from which both research and industrial stakeholders can expect to find many potential benefits.
The second group relates to a number of diverse applications where smart structures and/or multifunctional materials and/or intelligent devices will play a major role. While clearly demanding major theoretical and analytical input to their concept and design, such artefacts all share the feature of combining both measurement and actuation elements and therefore attract a major practical element in their development.
An Advanced Mechanical Testing (or ‘High-Performance Testing’) centre has been established with the following objectives:
- developing new and significantly enhanced testing protocols;
- satisfying real-world imperative for physical testing;
- to demonstrate viability of critical structure designs; and
- the need to reduce the cost and time of such tests by an order of magnitude – with no loss of rigour.
The second initiative is a Smart Technologies centre which provides the UK with its first centre for this futuristic subject and leading developments in:
- multifunctional materials;
- adaptive structures;
- intelligent devices; and
- smart machines.
All of which are necessary developments to meet future requirements from the major challenges of the coming decade(s):
- renewable energy;
- biomedical engineering;
- new paradigms for transportation
Smart Technologies will provide the means to achieve machines, structures and vehicles of the future that are:
- more reliable;
- devices to be ever-smaller
- having an effectively-infinite life.