“Lego” box for water locks simplifies large-scale renovation

An algorithm that leads to lego-like modules for lock construction. That’s the subject for which Tim Wilschut is being awarded a PhD on 28 November at TU Eindhoven. Wilschut’s “lego” lock modules should make it easier and cheaper to replace and renovate all 127 locks of Rijkswaterstaat. The algorithm does not replace the lock designer, but it will certainly make his life much easier.

In the first half of the 20th century many locks were built in the Netherlands. In the coming decades, many of them will come to the end of their lives and will need to be replaced or renovated. Historically, locks were built on a project basis and each lock is unique. Rijkswaterstaat, the manager of 127 large locks on the main waterway network, wants more modularization and standardization to simplify management. In other words, Rijkswaterstaat is looking for a “lego” box for locks with basic and specialized components. These basic and specialized components will then have to be clicked together in much the same way as lego blocks. This means that rejuvenated locks must be designed with these components. The advantage is that the locks can be renovated or replaced faster and cheaper. The total cost of replacing and renovating the locks is estimated at 2 to 3 billion euros for the coming decades, so a small improvement in efficiency will quickly save tens of millions. This should also improve the reliability and availability of locks.

Lock families

Wilschut first started by tabulating the characteristics of Rijkswaterstaat’s locks, such as dimensions, type of vessels, type of gates and type of leveling systems (how water enter and exits). By means of an algorithm he compared the different locks. It followed that there are roughly seven families of locks. From each family one representative lock has been taken, which looked at which parts that lock consists of and how each part interacts with each other part. Such an interaction may be “attached to each other” but may also be “transmits energy”. By putting all these interactions in a large table, it is easy to see which parts interact a lot with each other and which parts do not (see picture). By sorting the different parts using the algorithm, it was concluded that roughly nine groups of modules are needed. Examples of a module group might be: the control mechanism or the lock gate. Each lego block within a module can be made into a slightly different version (for example, to make a wider lock gate where necessary).

Locks of “lego” blocks

The fact that the lock components and the interactions between the lock components can be grouped so well shows that the module approach is possible. In other words: locks can be designed as parts that have to click together like “lego” blocks. Thus, a group of modules can be designed that all serve to make a lock gate, and a group of modules that together comprise the control and operating module.

Incidentally, Wilschut also developed a specific language, a kind of computer language that can be read by both people and computers. The requirements for a lock and its components, such as how many boats must be able to pass through it per hour and how strong a lock gate must be, are still written down in documents of many dozens of pages. Because the interpretation of that package of requirements sometimes goes wrong, Wilschut's specification language is a welcome improvement. It brings a lot of clarity and structure to the mountains of information, so that more attention can be paid to quality, adaptability and improving the life span of the lock.

Commercialization

Wilschut's research has already gained recognition. He won the Innovation Award at the TU/e Contest and was a finalist at the Philips innovation Awards. In October of this year Wilschut founded the company Ratio together with Tiemen Schuijbroek, with the aim of further developing the algorithm and corresponding software and commercializing his research results.