Unconventional Engineering Destinations

Museums, factories, and rare entertainment venues showcase the fascinating and innovative work of engineers across a broad spectrum of disciplines.

By Sandra Guy, SWE Contributor

As you travel, your bucket list of sites to visit may include such well-known engineering marvels as the Eiffel Tower, the Great Wall, the Hoover Dam, the Pyramids, the Taj Mahal, the Third Mainland Bridge in Lagos, Nigeria, or the Large Hadron Collider particle accelerator in Europe.

But if you choose some lesser-known destinations, you may be delighted to see robots packing coins at the U.S. Mint; physics in action at a glass-blowing workshop in Corning, New York; or displays featuring behind-the-scenes stories from women engineers at a museum gallery in the United Kingdom. These are a few examples of many sites that offer rich experiences in engineering and entertainment that you may want to visit on your travels.

THE SPHERE IN LAS VEGAS, NEVADA, USA

CREDIT: Darren Aronofsky’s Postcard from Earth, courtesy of Sphere Entertainment

The Sphere, at a construction cost of $2.3 billion, is the most expensive entertainment venue ever built in Las Vegas. It is being hailed as an engineering and architectural achievement and the world’s largest spherical structure. It took 1.2 million LED pucks (circular light fixtures), 64,000 printed circuit boards, and one of the world’s largest cranes to construct the one-of-a-kind immersive experience. The spectacle launched its massive outdoor screen on July 4, 2023, and hosted its first indoor concert — by the rock band U2 — on Sept. 29, 2023.

No public tours are available, but you can see the Sphere up close and learn about its intricacies by buying tickets to a show at the venue called the Sphere Experience. Part of the experience is a 2023 film, Postcard from Earth, directed by Darren Aronofsky, shot with 18K resolution film, and created specifically to be screened on the venue’s 160,000-square-foot video screen.

The Sphere’s geodesic skeleton comprises equally spaced structural members arranged diagonally into a spherical shape, offering column-free views from anywhere in the site. Its dome roof is built to optimize pitch, and the indoor space is isolated from the outer sphere.

For more information: www.thespherevegas.com/

BMW AUTO PLANT AND MUSEUM, MUNICH, GERMANY AND GREER, SOUTH CAROLINA, USA

CREDIT: Wikimedia Commons/Buschtrommler

The automaker BMW offers plant tours at its headquarters in Munich, Germany; at its Greer, South Carolina, site in the United States; and at plants in Mexico and throughout Europe. Visitors get to see the body shop and assembly work and learn how a BMW — which many may know by its nickname, “Beamer” — is produced. The nickname started in the 1960s in the U.K. to distinguish BMW motorbikes from a different manufacturer’s bikes, known as “Beezers.”

The BMW Museum in Munich, Germany, is a short walk across Lerchenauer Street from the Munich auto plant. With tours available in German and English languages, the museum features six permanent exhibitions, including those focused on design, technology, motor sports, and a display of more than 50 original BMW motorcycles. Children can explore the Junior Museum, which features interactive exhibits.

The South Carolina plant, roughly 20 miles west of Spartanburg, is the only one in the United States, employing more than 11,000. The workers assemble 410,000 BMWs yearly, with more than half of those exported to 120 countries. The site is also home to BMW’s only North American museum, called the Zentrum. The museum features the company’s restored racing and touring vehicle classics, exhibits of modern technologies in rarely seen auto models, and design details of the BMWs being built in the factory next door.

The company started designing its own cars in 1932, beginning with the 3/20 PS model.

The company now uses artificial intelligence to evaluate components, deviations, and model inscriptions in real time. Along with NVIDIA — the Santa Clara, California, software and computer chip maker — BMW has developed a virtual platform so that planners can quickly see how new vehicle models and production plants would fit into and affect existing processes. BMW also touts its “overspray-free” painting technique, which reduces excess paint particles and makes it easier to apply different colors and patterns.

For more information:
www.bmw-welt.com/en/index.html
www.bmwgroup-werke.com/en/general/information-plant-tours.html
www.bmwusfactory.com
www.bmwgroup-werke.com/spartanburg/en/plant-tours-zentrum-museum.html

THE U.S. MINT IN DENVER, COLORADO, USA

CREDIT: Courtesy of the U.S. Mint

The U.S. Mint is the oldest federal agency. Created in 1792, it produces the country’s coins and medals at four sites and safeguards its gold reserves. Of the four sites, only Denver offers a guided tour, though the Philadelphia branch allows self-guided tours.

Be sure to plan ahead in the summertime for the U.S. Mint tour in Denver. Tickets are dispensed from a booth on a first-come, first-served basis, and lines of waiting visitors often wrap around the building, according to Tom Fesing, chief public affairs officer.

The first Denver Mint opened in the downtown area 161 years ago, serving Gold Rush miners who sold their gold and silver to the federal government to be turned into coins. Of the 19 superintendents who’ve overseen the Denver Mint, eight have been women.

The one-hour, 15-minute tour starts overlooking the production floor and ends in the Grand Hallway, which is festooned with chandeliers, marble-lined passageways, and hand-stenciled, painted canvas ceilings. Visitors see the manufacturing of coins for collectors and for general circulation and learn how the manufacturing process ensures that the coins are consistent.

The process starts when 1,500-foot-long metal coils from East Alton, Illinois, and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, arrive in Denver. The Mint heat-treats the metal in an annealing furnace, softening the metal at a molecular level to make it easier to impart the artwork onto the blanks. After the blanks are heated, they are washed, polished, dried, and sent to a mill to be “upset,” or manipulated to create a raised rim.

This process involves feeding the blanks into a groove slightly narrower than its diameter. This pushes the metal up around the edge to form the rim that protects the final coin from wear and makes it stackable. It also protects its final artwork.

Next the blanks go onto presses to be stamped into coins. A press strikes both sides of the coin using 35 to 100 metric tons of pressure, depending on the type of coin being made. The Denver Mint can make more than 50 million coins daily on 52 presses.

Robots help package uncirculated collectible coins by picking them up, determining their orientation, and putting them into open blister packs.

For more information:
www.usmint.gov/about/mint-tours-facilities/denver/visiting-the-denver-mint
www.usmint.gov/about/mint-tours-facilities

THE CORNING MUSEUM OF GLASS, CORNING, NEW YORK, USA

CREDIT: Courtesy of the Corning Museum of Glass

The Corning Museum of Glass is located in the Finger Lakes region of New York, known for its wineries, restaurants, and outdoor activities such as golf, skiing, and hiking. The museum operates as a not-for-profit entity, separate from Corning Inc., formerly Corning Glass Works, the 173-year-old company known for inventing Pyrex cookware; optical fiber, cable, and photonic components; and fusion-formed glass used in LCD displays in TVs, phones, and tablets.

The museum offers the most comprehensive display of glass in the world, covering 3,500 years of glassmaking history and focused on the physics and engineering of glass. Exhibits detail how glass is formulated, created, and used in innovations such as fiber optic cable; how manufacturing overtook manual glassmaking processes; and the evolution of fuel sources that drove glassmaking, from glass blowing to molten glass to fusion-drawn glass.

The displays show how optical fiber carries a light signal; showcase artworks ranging from a small Egyptian pharaoh’s head to a huge Tiffany window; and unveil the secrets of Steuben art glass — how it was made and how more than 100 glass colors and hundreds of designs were created.

For architecture buffs, the museum’s Innovation Center includes three floating pavilions connected by a 300-foot bridge. It hosts live glassmaking demonstrations, interactive explorations of the scientific properties of glass, and detailed histories of the key innovations in glass.

You can also make glass yourself. It’s best to preregister for a glass-making workshop.

For more information:
https://visit.cmog.org/plan-your-visit
https://glassmaking.cmog.org/make-your-own-glass

THE ENGINEERS GALLERY AT THE SCIENCE MUSEUM, LONDON, U.K.

CREDIT: Courtesy of the Science Museum, London

A new gallery called simply Engineers is housed at the Science Museum in South Kensington, London. It offers displays of innovations such as the first digital camera, a cutting-edge surgical robot arm, and a miniature atomic clock that the Global Positioning System, or GPS, once depended on, among other innovations.

A special website is dedicated to the women behind many of these inventions. It includes information on NASA’s first Black woman engineer, Mary W. Jackson; telecommunications engineer Marian Croak, known for inventing Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), the technology that enables internet audio and video calls; Larissa Suzuki, technical director at Google U.K., who works with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory on an interplanetary internet; and mathematician and programmer Gladys West, a Black woman whose work set in motion the development of the GPS.

The Engineers gallery features four sections:

  • “Bodies” looks at the precision engineering behind controlled drug delivery and surgical robots. It includes the Virtual Heart, a simulation that bioengineer Jazmin Aguado-Sierra, lead scientist at Elem Biotech in Catalonia, Spain, created using her own heart scans.
  • “Lives” shows how engineers’ powers of visualization shape technology, resulting in breakthroughs such as LED lighting and digital imaging sensors.
  • “Connections” shines a light on how engineers work together to help humanity through the use of GPS and various web technologies.
  • “Creating” demonstrates how engineers’ creativity is key to developing new ideas.

The gallery also features the winners of the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering, which champions bold, groundbreaking engineering innovations that benefit humanity. The 2024 winners — Henrik Stiesdal of Denmark and Andrew Garrad from the U.K. — developed improvements in wind turbine blade manufacturing that let the blades twist on their own axis and eliminate the need for gear boxes.

For more information:
www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/visit
www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/see-and-do/engineers
www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/objects-and-stories/artists-and-engineers
www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/objects-and-stories/women-engineers

THE BRAIN MUSEUM, UNIVERSITY AT BUFFALO JACOBS SCHOOL OF MEDICINE AND BIOMEDICAL SCIENCES, BUFFALO, NEW YORK, USA

CREDIT: Christopher Cohan, Ph.D., SUNY distinguished teaching professor and director, The Brain Museum

Be prepared: This free museum showcases 90 human brains, illuminated and displayed to show how our nervous system’s components work together.

Thanks to people who donated brain specimens through the University at Buffalo Medical School’s Anatomical Gifts Program, visitors can see what normal brains look like and how the brain changes with such neurological disorders as stroke, hydrocephalus, tumors, Alzheimer’s disease, and cerebral aneurysms.

Other exhibits show dissections that illuminate the pathways for vision and hearing; a collection of slides with stained cross-sections of brain tissue; and close-up photographs of the brain’s structures.

The specimens were mounted in Plexiglas boxes containing a preservative solution and placed into display cabinets when the museum opened in 1994. The containers were stable for years; but then museum director Christopher Cohan, Ph.D., noticed that cracks had started to appear at the top edges of the boxes. So new boxes were designed in 2012 with a thicker, more rigid material that resists cracking, according to Dr. Cohan, who is also State University of New York Distinguished Teaching Professor in the department of pathology and anatomical sciences.

The museum’s importance is underscored by new research. “Human brains preserve in diverse environments for at least 12,000 years” — an article published March 20, 2024, in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, based on research led by University of Oxford researcher Alexandra Morton-Hayward — found that brains may preserve better than other organs, contrary to previous beliefs. The research identified more than 4,400 preserved human brains around the world, some more than 12,000 years old — but as yet researchers have been unable to pinpoint the circumstances that led to their stability. If the reason is a substance inside the brain, it might offer insights into neurodegenerative diseases, the researchers reported.

Want to tour the museum? Make an appointment by contacting the director, Dr. Cohan, at ccohan@buffalo.edu.

For more information:
https://medicine.buffalo.edu/about/community_outreach/brain-museum.html

THE NATIONAL IGNITION FACILITY AT LAWRENCE LIVERMORE NATIONAL LABORATORY IN LIVERMORE, CALIFORNIA, USA

CREDIT: Courtesy of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

Question: What is the size of three football fields side-by-side, houses 192 of the world’s highest-energy lasers, and generates fusion in a laboratory?

Answer: The National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, California.

The NIF’s first successful fusion ignition, announced at a news conference on Dec. 13, 2022, was a milestone that strengthens the United States’ national security because it opens a new realm for maintaining a secure nuclear deterrent, and moves the world closer to the possibility of a new safe, clean energy source, according to U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm at the news conference. The breakthrough, said Korbie Le Galloudec, chief engineer for high-energy density science at Lawrence Livermore, was akin to “landing on the moon for the science community.”

Fusion happens when two or more atoms are fused into one larger one, releasing safe, clean energy in a human-made process that replicates the activity of stars. “We’re making little suns every time we fire the laser,” Le Galloudec said. “We’re replicating what the sun does in a 10-meter-diameter facility.”

Le Galloudec is also an NIF tour guide, one of dozens of engineers and scientists who take on the role. Public tours were unavailable at press time, but the laboratory planned to start offering them later this year.

Tours will start in the lobby, where visitors can watch an animation of an NIF experiment on a giant monitor wall. Visitors will then climb three flights of stairs to look over one of two laser bays, where the lasers undergo amplification. Next is a 10-story “switch yard” — developed by a roller-coaster designer — where the lasers’ photon beams are redirected so they simultaneously enter a target chamber. Just before the beams enter the chamber, they undergo frequency conversion from infrared to ultraviolet, and they are focused down to 10 microns. For comparison, a human hair measures 100 microns in diameter. The tour will end in the target bay, which houses the target chamber.

“I’m in awe that humans developed and designed this,” Le Galloudec said. “Achieving ignition is proof of principle that we can have clean energy that has no waste component like nuclear [energy] does.”

Until public tours restart, a guided virtual tour lets visitors view the NIF as though they are flying above a laser bay, see the inside of the target chamber, and venture deep into one of the four capacitor bays that power the lasers.

Lawrence Livermore Laboratory’s Discovery Center, which is open to the public and aimed at children ages 8–12, showcases the lab’s research program. Its displays and hands-on activities range from bioengineering to advanced manufacturing and high-performance computing.

For more information:
www.llnl.gov/community-education/tours
www.youtube.com/watch?v=goLgvgM2orE
www.llnl.gov/community-education/discovery-center
https://lasers.llnl.gov/about/visit-us

THE ITAIPU DAM ON THE BORDER OF BRAZIL AND PARAGUAY

CREDIT: Wikimedia Commons/Jonas de Carvalho

If you have the opportunity to visit the Itaipu Dam — the world’s third largest behind the Three Gorges and the Xiluodu, both in China — you can choose to tour the exterior or explore the inner workings of the structure. Built on a stretch of the Paraná River known in the Indigenous language as “the singing boulder,” the hydropower dam has generated more than 3 billion megawatt-hours of electricity since its startup in 1984.

If you choose the indoor tour, you may notice that women engineers are common in the operations section, according to tourism assistant Edivaldo dos Santos Nunes. The 2,800 employees hail equally from Brazil and Paraguay, he said.

The dam is considered unique, in part, because it cost $19.6 billion to build, was made of enough iron and steel to build 380 Eiffel Towers, and is made up of 20 generating units, according to its published history. It is as high as a 65-story building and is nearly 8 kilometers long.

Engineers chose to build the Itaipu Dam as a hollow gravity dam because it would require less concrete than a solid gravity dam, yet still stand up against the 62,200 cubic meters per second maximum flow of the dam’s 14 spillways, according to 7wonders.org. That’s 40 times the average flow of the natural Iguazu Falls on the border of the Argentine province of Misiones and the Brazilian state of Paraná.

For more information:
https://turismoitaipu.com.br/en/
www.pbs.org/wgbh/buildingbig/wonder/structure/itaipu.html

Plan Ahead

To make these experiences worthwhile, start by doing your homework. You don’t want to be caught unaware of the travel details. For example, you cannot wear flip-flops to tour an auto assembly plant (closed-toe shoes are required); you cannot carry bags into most places (the U.S. Mint in Denver, for example, allows only wallets that are palm-size or smaller); and you will need to check your destination’s website to learn about fees, parking, operating hours, online tour registration, and preregistration activities.

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