Publish at May 01 2012 Updated November 17 2022

Building bridges (and training): the limits of simulators

Bridge building applications to try, but with the same limitation for all: the irreplaceable weight of experience.

The limits of simulators are not in their capabilities, computer scientists will tell you again: anything is possible; they are rather in their effects. Learning to fly a plane on a simulator is one thing. Landing it on a real, windswept runway is something else.

With respect to engineering, the situation is quite similar. But before we get into that, I suggest you try a couple of bridge-building simulation games. These have nothing to do with the likes of Comsol Multiphysics for example, but they provide an acceptable comparison.

Bridge-building games have that engineering side that's a bit fascinating to the slightly mechanistic mind. Crossing a distance with materials with different characteristics, within certain limits of cost or availability lies at the intersection of mathematics, physics and logistics.

A little introduction with "Build a Bridge" will give you a general idea of four main types of bridges and their uses (arch, beam, suspension and strut). Then you can play around with building bridges while avoiding basic mistakes.

Bridge construction set on post is the ancestor of all these games.

Here are some bridge construction apps. Something to spend hours on without really noticing.

All of these apps are simple games in principle but lead us to revise our physics and logic rather quickly. Bridges are subjected to loads that will determine their strength. The kind of game where failure is not at all depressing and even rather spectacular and stimulating. From trial to trial, we end up making more and more daring and resistant bridges and the challenges become more challenging.

Although this kind of puzzle is not of interest to everyone, the game itself can be a reward or a form of test for understanding the principles of tension and pressure...


A working engineer recently told me that young people trained primarily with design software sometimes made practical mistakes so fundamental that he had to have them coached especially tightly by seniors.

Materials take up space, have weight, and must be transported. Beyond their physical characteristics, they have other properties (finish, adhesion, etc.) that must be preserved and accounted for in the field. These characteristics are ignored by the software...and students who have never experienced anything else have a harder time taking all the realities of the field into account.

Finally, he came to the conclusion that playing with bits of wood, plasticine, mud, or Lego blocks is as formative and essential as using software, but sometimes messier and less easy to implement. Some of these young people are fairly inexperienced and he didn't see an obvious solution at this level of training...


Distance learning faces the same style of problem: the hands-on experience is harder to achieve or obtain. The "handling" side yet essential is left to the discretion of the student. The answer to this problem is quite similar everywhere: internships, occasional groupings, hands-on labs, intensive weeks, and everywhere it is agreed that without practice a training course can hardly claim to be "complete."

Even if someone develops a 3D internship simulator in a virtual world, there will always be room for hands-on mentoring and a good dose of hard-nosed reality. That is the limit of simulators.

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