Polish civil engineering company protects bridges and roads with Shimadzu support

Polish civil engineering company protects bridges and roads with Shimadzu support

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They are the arteries of a nation. Bridges, rails and roads are all critical infrastructure that allow the blood of goods to move throughout the land. Their loss almost guarantees the end of a town. When the historic Tohoku tsunami hit the northeast coast of Japan in 2011, the government’s first reconstruction priority was transport, with newspapers juxtaposing images of roads in the region immediately after the water broke land to less than a week later.

And much like how our arteries are designed to last decades, these structures too must last just as long, if not longer. Yet, from the first moment they leave the manufacturing site, they already suffer from cracks and imperfections that only increase with time as they withstand increased traffic due to growing populations or extreme temperatures due to climate change. For this reason, cities outsource civil engineering companies to deploy sensors that can detect early irregularities that need attention. One company that has shown extraordinary innovation in this field comes out of Kraków, Poland: SHM System. Its staff of 30 people has developed distributed fiber optic sensing (DFOS) technology that combines unprecedented resolution with unprecedented lifetime, a quality that has been verified and developed using Shimadzu instruments incorporated into the workflow.  

The monitoring of civil engineering structures has conventionally relied on spot sensors. These sensors are deployed at numerous locations along the structure, but they do not collect data between them, effectively creating blind spots. DFOS, on the other hand, is as close to a continuous system as one can find in the market, with SHM System now selling its sensors worldwide, from the United States to Japan and many European countries in between.

New technology for structure safety

SHM System was founded in 2012 and has always had the aim of developing technologies to monitor the safety of engineering structures. However, DFOS was not part of its original plan.

“Approximately eight years ago, we were introduced to DFOS. We found big potential and a gap in the market. We formed our own research and development department for new solutions in the area,” said SHM System Engineer Dr. Tomasz Howiacki.

DFOS was first developed in the 1960s, but it was NASA that cemented the potential of this technology for measuring strain and temperature when it applied DFOS to monitor its spacecrafts. However, translating DFOS to civil engineering structures has not been trivial, which is why there are few reliable commercial DFOS sensors on the market.

With its pivot, SHM System took a big risk, but three years later they had their first DFOS product, the most impressive of which being their monolithic sensors. In these devices, the DFOS fiber is embedded inside a composite monolithic core. This design is best for protecting the fiber from external stress and, at the same time, for ensuring the highest possible accuracy.

The beauty of their monolithic sensors is that they can be embedded inside a new structure such that the sensors contribute to the function as well as acting as a detector. For older structures, the sensor can be bonded externally. In either case, the sensors can detect micro events while withstanding major events that can cause structural failure so that they outlive the structures they are measuring.

However, before the product is validated for the market, several tests are required. 

“We need to test not only our sensors but also its components. We need to test the epoxy resin, its elongation, its Young’s modulus. Shimadzu equipment is involved in the whole process: from the development and testing of the materials to build the sensors and the quality of the final sensor,” explained Kamil Badura, a materials specialist at SHM.

One partner, one lab

These tests are onerous for a company that does not have its own equipment.

“We depended on several universities which had their own schedules for their equipment. We had to take our samples and our devices, which are very specific and needed calibration with the university’s equipment,” said Howiacki.

This all changed after a series of discussions that resulted in SHM System buying its first Shimadzu instrument in 2020. Now, it uses three: AGS-X and AGX-V Series instruments that measure force and strain as well as a machine from the Shimadzu EHF-U series to test fatigue.

A Shimadzu AGX-V series universal testing machine in SHM System’s laboratory. Left: Dr. Tomasz Howiacki. 

A Shimadzu AGX-V series universal testing machine in SHM System’s laboratory.
Left: Dr. Tomasz Howiacki. 

The result? Tests that had taken weeks are now completed in a day.

“It simplified the logistics. Now we just take the device off the shelf and test,” said Howiacki.

The ability to consolidate all the testing into one location is a huge advantage for a small company. Although SHM System currently has three locations across Krakow, it still runs like a startup, where job titles mean little, and everyone is expected to help solve a problem. Even its original lab was a house in which the staff tore down walls. That lab remains and is home to the Shimadzu products.

“Like Steve Jobs in the garage, we transformed the house into a laboratory. The second floor is the offices and location for the data processing, and the first floor is where we have all our heavy equipment to do the experiments,” Howiacki remarked.

Aside from enabling a more efficient work process, Shimadzu has put SHM System in contact with other critical partners that has made the small company even more efficient.

"We have been working with SHM System and other partners not only by providing contacts but also arranging free testing services of DFOS sensors on more specialized Shimadzu instruments sold to other customers," said Dawid Pijocha, a Scientific Representative working at the Shimadzu strategic partner SHIM-POL, which is based in Poland.

Sometimes these meetings lead to new solutions, as the third parties have technologies that support SHM System's DFOS sensors. This was the case for data loggers SHM System has used to test the accuracy of their sensors. The data loggers were connected to reference foil strain gauges, a necessary step in the workflow for SHM System to demonstrate the superiority of their product.

“On our own, we tested many devices but could not find one that met our needs. The data loggers introduced to us by Shimadzu had the best reliability and superb quality,” said Badura.

Testing a monolithic sensor with Shimadzu’s AGS-X tensile tester.

Testing a monolithic sensor with Shimadzu’s AGS-X tensile tester.

Test results of the monolithic sensor from the AGS-X tensile tester.

Test results of the monolithic sensor from the AGS-X tensile tester.

Badura was the one who introduced Shimadzu to SHM System. He was exposed to Shimadzu instruments while studying and found his previous colleagues consistently recommended Shimadzu when he sought advice.

“We were developing our monolithic sensors and needed to improve the thermoconductivity while testing the strain. We were looking for universal testing machines. My colleagues said [Shimadzu] have very good machines and they put me into contact with them. Now, when we need a specific test, we go to Shimadzu,” he said.

This relationship is representative of the Shimadzu strategy. We seek partners with outstanding ideas but in need of outstanding equipment to convert those ideas into commercial solutions.

“Our work with SHM System is typical of how we enter different national markets. We seek to build relationships with universities and small companies – organizations that are working on niche projects – because we too want to innovate,” said Pijocha, the SHIM-POL representative.

Mr. Kamil Badura, SHM System, and Mr. Dawid Pijocha, SHIM-POL.

* The information including affiliates and titles of the persons in this article are current as of the time of interviewing (March 2024).

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