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Bridge Competition a Lesson in Unpredictability

2016 steel bridge regional competition was held Saturday on campus.

Brian Arola, Mankato Free Press, 3-13-2016

When it comes to building a steel bridge for competition, any projections and models are cast aside the second weight starts being placed on the structure.

That’s when any tiny miscue — human error, basically — can show up quickly, reducing a bridge design that checked out on paper to a snapped bit of assorted metal.

The bridge built by Minnesota State University, Mankato’s team of engineering students didn’t topple at Saturday’s American Society of Civil Engineers/ American Institute of Steel Construction Midwestern competition, but they still fell just short of advancing to nationals among the 11 regional teams in attendance.

Still, team members said hosting the event for the first time since 2007 in Myers Field House was a worthwhile experience.

Steel bridge building comes with a large degree of unpredictability, despite months of math and preparation seeming to indicate otherwise. The structures are fabricated well before competition day, but it’s only until the load test on the day of that you know for sure if the bridge can handle the weight.

So the computer model might say your bridge can hold the 2,500 pounds needed to advance, but then real life happens.

“A model isn’t real life,” said Rylen Andersen, one of the home team’s captains. “A model can give you a very good idea, but it’s not going to give you the exact idea.”

The construction portion of the competition is slightly more predictable. Teams have 30 minutes to assemble their bridges, which factors into the final score.

Team member Amy Nguyen said the group usually finishes construction in about 25 minutes, but it took longer Saturday.

“Some teams have the bridge design replicated fast early in the year so they have more time to practice,” she said.

The chair of this year’s competition, Alec Pietz, knows full well what it takes to make a winning bridge. He was on the Minnesota State Mankato squad that advanced to nationals in 2014.

He said it’s difficult to pinpoint where and when a bridge might go wrong.

“Minuscule stuff will greatly affect it in the end,” he said. “Some schools don’t design enough and then sometimes it’s the actual fabrication.”

The bridge requires welding, which isn’t necessarily an expertise for the engineering students.

Minnesota State Mankato’s bridge ended up holding 1,800 pounds, sending the team back to the drawing board for next year.

Regardless of the outcome, Nguyen said the team had a great conference and competition.

The entire version of this story can be read in a print copy of the Mankato Free Press. Call the Mankato Free Press at 625-4451 or (800) 657-4662 to find out how to purchase a print copy. The Free Press also prints select stories online at

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