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Aluminum Dome Design

Aluminum Dome Design
Geometry Constraints
There are several geometry constraints in the design of an aluminum dome roof. The first
constraint is the physical geometry. It would be ideal for a dome roof to have all of the beams the
same length and all of the panels the same size. This would make design, manufacturing and
construction simple. However, by making all the beams the same length, the dome would not
have any curvature. It would be a flat surface and would not have much (if any) structural
strength.  The best dome geometry would be a geometry that maximizes structural strength and
minimizes the number of different beam lengths and panel sizes. A design such as this one

However, this design has an obvious problem. The base ring is not concentric unless the dome is
a full hemisphere.  Another geometry with all rings in the dome concentric is possible:

This geometry is used quite frequently in aluminum dome roofs. The concentric geometry has an
obvious advantage. However, this design is not as efficient structurally as the first design. 
Another geometry used quite frequently in aluminum dome roofs is a combination of the two
above geometries. In this design, there is a transition from the first geometry to a concentric base
ring throughout the dome 
or within a few rings in the dome.The geometry transition in the above example is subtle and barely noticeable in the plan view.
This design is stiffer than the first design and it has a smaller variation in the beam lengths.
The final geometry of a dome may be further modified due to other geometry constraints. These
constraints may dictate the final geometry. The most common are:
1. Aluminum coil width. A panel’s shortest altitude must be less than the coil width.
2. Beam interference at the hubs. There must be adequate room between adjacent beams
connecting at the hubs.
3. Load and structural constraints.
The engineering problem of the final geometry of an aluminum geodesic dome is common with
many other engineering problems as it is  comprised of the various design constraints.
Dome Components
An aluminum geodesic dome is a relatively simple product with only 3 major fabricated
components and several minor components. Major components are the components that
comprise the majority of the dome material and fabrication cost. The minor components are
components that are needed to complete the dome but usually the combined cost of these
components is not more than 20% of the total dome cost. The 3 major components on a dome
are the beams, connection hubs, and panels. The common minor components are the batten
bars, supports, hub covers, flashing, vents, manways, skylights, etc.
Beams or Struts
The dome beams are extruded 6061-T6 or 6005A-T6 aluminum alloy. 6061-T6 and 6005A-T6
have the same minimum strength properties. 6005A-T6 is a relatively new alloy that has some
advantages over 6061-T6. The main advantages are a better finish, less sensitive timeframe to
quench after extruding,  and its ability to be air quenched instead of water quenched for most
extrusion sizes. Finally, it costs a little less, mainly due to the easier quenching process for the
extruder. The protrusion on the top of the beam must be milled or cut back to allow the beam to
bolt to the connection hub.

This aluminum dome beam extrusion is typical. Note the protrusions on the
top. The protrusions are the attachments for the dome panels and batten bar. The batten bar
holds the dome panels in place and is attached by a ¼” tri-lobe screw in the slot at the center of
the beam. The flange stiffeners at the end of each flange are typical for a thin-wall beam
extrusion. The flange stiffeners increase the allowable compression and bending in a thin-wall
shape by about 20-25%. They also increase the weak-axis moment of inertia, section modulus
and radius of gyration without increasing the width of the beam. They are not needed on thicker

The above sketches show a 3d rendering of a fabricated dome beam. Hubs
The hubs are the connections where the beams are joined. The hub is a circular dish with a
center hole punched for  placing on the forming die to coin the angle needed fro the dish. The
center hole is tapped on the top hub for attaching the hub cover. There are four possible common
aluminum materials that can be used for the hubs: 6061-T6 extruded flat bar, 6063-T6 extruded
flat bar, 6061-T6 hot rolled plate and 5052-H34 hot rolled plate. 

Structural Analysis
An aluminum dome roof is a 3-dimensional space frame.  The reactions in a small space frame
can be solved with simple statics.  However, an aluminum dome roof is usually not a small space
frame.  The solution of the reactions could easily be system of linear equations with several
thousand equations and several thousand unknowns.  Therefore, the use of a finite element
model is a necessity.
The FEA Model
FEA is an approximate solution method for a beam element very similar to numeric integration.
The FEA model is constructed from the calculated geometry of the dome. The protrusions at the
top for the batten bar attachment are not used in calculating the centerline of the beam. The pier
connection is also modeled using a series of beam elements. The dome is usually cantilevered
toward the inside of the tank from the tank shell. The pier induces significant bending moments
into the dome. Therefore, a design consideration is to keep the pier as short as possible. All
connections between all beam elements are modeled as 100% moment resisting in both axis.
The connection between the dome and the tank is modeled as a pinned connection with a
frictionless slide in the radial direction. Boundary elements are placed at tangent and vertical
locations from this point to model the frictionless slide, to get reactions in the tangent direction,
and to get reactions in the vertical direction.1. The dead load of the frame is calculated as a linear distributed
load on the beam. This load is calculated from the cross
sectional area of the beam + the cross sectional area of the
batten bar + the cross sectional area of the protrusions on top of
the beam An additional point load is placed at each node location
that is equal to the mass of the hub plates + the mass of the hub
2. All other loads, dead load of the panels, wind, snow and seismic
are calculated from the tributary areas of the panel supported by
the adjacent beams. See Figure 9.

Figure 9
Tributary Area of Beam with 2 adjacent Panels.
Dome Stress Analysis
The method used for determining allowable stress is  Part I-A Specification for Aluminum
Structures Allowable Stress Design, The Aluminum Design Manual.
Allowable Stress Design with aluminum is in many ways similar to Allowable Stress Design with
steel. The 6061-T6/6005A-T6 alloys used in this dome design have a minimum yield stress of 35
ksi. A36 steel is only 1 ksi higher. A common grade of aircraft aluminum alloy 2024-T4 has a
minimum yield of 59 ksi. Some more exotic grades of aluminum have even higher minimum yield
stress. Aluminum is a strong material. The alloys used in this dome are not the 5-10 ksi yield beer
can alloys most people are familiar with. These alloys are high strength structural alloys. There
are two primary differences between aluminum and steel that leads to several additional factors
to check in aluminum design:
1. Aluminum can be easily extruded. Metal can be placed
at exact locations in a structural member. Thin wall
sections are easily made. Stiffeners can be easily added
to a structural member.  All of the structural members in
this dome are extruded. These members cannot be
rolled and they would be impossible to economically
manufacture in steel.
2. The modulus of elasticity of aluminum is only 10100 ksi.
Aluminum is about 3 times more flexible than steel.As a result of the two above facts, there are several more rules in aluminum design when
compared to steel design. Most of these rules deal with issues of local buckling of thin wall
shapes, edge stiffening, other element stiffening, allowable compression and buckling.  Most of
these rules are given in Part VII Table 2-21 in the Aluminum Design Manual. Note: This table
does not include all of the rules for Allowable Stress Design. The complete set of rules is in Part IA. 
Other Stress Considerations
A dome can be a non-linear structure! The linear stress analysis discussed in Sections 3 and 4 of
this document may be invalid if the dome is non-linear. AWWA D103-97 addresses this issue in
equation 39:

w = Allowable Load (pressure in PSF)
Ix = Strong Axis Moment of Inertia of strut of the smallest strut in the dome
A = Cross Sectional Area of Strut of the smallest strut in the dome.
R = Spherical radius of dome in inches
L = Average member length 
SF = Safety factor (1.65)
This formula was first published in ASCE Journal of the Structural Division  in 1965 by Douglas
Wright, in a paper entitled “Membrane Forces and Buckling in Reticulated Shells.” This concept
was further expanded by Kenneth Buchert in “Split Rigidity Theory.”  There are some important
limitations in this theory. The equation assumes all dome members to be the same length. It is
impossible to construct a dome with all of the members the same length. Therefore, an average
length is used. The formula does not consider minute manufacturing defects or field installation
defects in the geometry—the dome is assumed to be a perfect sphere at the hubs. The formula
assumes all the struts have the same cross sectional area and moment of inertia. AWWA also
applies this formula to all domes. In reality this formula is not applicable to all domes. Some
domes are linear frames, some are non-linear frames, and others are somewhere in between.
This is in many ways similar to columns. There are short columns, slender columns and
intermediate columns. Another way of describing this concept is domes can behave as linear
frames, non-linear shells, or something in between a frame and a shell.
Another acceptable method of calculating the critical buckling load is a non-linear finite element
This design limitation is more important than the allowable stress per the Aluminum Association,
since almost all known failures of aluminum domes have been caused by non-linear buckling.
Design Automation
While it is possible to hand calculate all of the components needed to fabricate a dome, it is not
very practical to do so due to the time required and the fact that the frame analysis finite element solution must be solved by a computer due to the size of the matrices involved. At, we have developed a proprietary software solution for this problem. Our
software is a modern object-oriented model.   This object-oriented model includes the basic
geometry, fabrication components and the frame analysis solution. The model is also very flexible
and will be extended to other aluminum structures in the future.

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