Design of columns against flexural buckling

The evolution of compressed bar (column) design

One of the characteristic features of steel structures made of bars (e.g. lattice girders) is the compressed bar.  We speak of a compressed bar when the structural element, which usually has a straight axis, is loaded by a compressive force P applied centrally (Figure 1).

Fig. 1 Compressed bar model
Fig. 1 Compressed bar model

Figure 2 illustrates the evolution of compressed bar (column) design.  In the beginning (in the old days), master builders determined the load-bearing capacity of compressed columns of different materials and sizes on the basis of the experience accumulated over the centuries, passed down from master to apprentice. A significant change was brought about by the application of classical mathematical differential analysis to engineering. The Swiss mathematician and physicist Euler (1707-1783) solved the problem of the deflection of a compressed elastic line, which could be applied to the solution of the elastic compressed bar (Euler's force). In the following centuries, engineers recognised that Euler's force only gave an acceptable approximation to the real load capacity of a compressed bar in certain cases (mainly for large slender bars). Many solutions for the bearing capacity of a compressed bar were developed that were more advanced than the Euler formula, but it was not until the huge structural engineering boom following World War II that significant changes were made. Compression bar experiments were carried out in every major structural laboratory in the world, and a database of over two thousand experiments was compiled from the results. The load capacity of the pressure bar was given by a formula based on the database, using the method of mathematical statistics.

This methodology is still dominant today: 'the dimensioning of the compressed bar has become a political issue for the steel construction profession...'. Understanding the principle of compressed bar design is therefore essential for the structural engineer.

The right side of the Figure 2 also contains a hint for the future. At the level of scientific research, it is already present that the load capacity of a real compressed column can be determined by mathematical-mechanical simulation. Indeed, in the near future, databases that go beyond anything we know today can be created using supercomputers. On the basis of such a gigantic database, artificial intelligence could, at least in principle, supersede existing engineering knowledge and methodology. But the reality is that structural engineering is not one of the pull sectors (such as the defense or automotive industries), so this new shift in design theory is certainly a long way off.

Fig. 2  Developing of the column design methodology
Fig. 2  Developing of the column design methodology

In the following, the Euler force and the experimentally based standard design formula, which are of major importance to structural steel engineering today, are discussed in detail.

Buckling strength of the ideal columns: the Euler force

Assume that the hinged compressed column shown in the Figure 3 has the following properties:

  • perfectly straight,
  • its material is perfectly linearly elastic,
  • centrally compressed.

Under the above conditions, perform the compressed column experiment using Consteel software: run the Linear Buckling Analysis (LBA) calculation. The result is illustrated in Figure 3.

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