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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

The Factory Where They Engineer Massive Water Art Pieces

The headquarters of the world’s leading water design firm, Water Entertainment Technologies, or WET, is best described as a cross between a machine shop, a research laboratory, and a movie studio. At one end of the sprawling complex in North Hollywood, California, technicians weld together giant sheets of steel and pull plastic parts from injection-molding machines. Just around the corner, scientists with PhDs in disciplines like plasma physics, optics, and chemistry run experiments in the company’s four scientific labs. Out back, engineers build scale replicas of upcoming water features against photorealistic backdrops of their eventual homes, places like shopping malls, hotels, and office buildings. Spread through the facility there are pianos and drum sets, secret passageways, and a 20-foot robot that stands in the corner judging passersby.

The company’s unusual digs are exactly what you might expect to spring from the mind of someone like Mark Fuller, WET’s founder and CEO. As a former Disney Imagineer, Fuller honed his engineering skills in an environment where science, design, and entertainment were effectively treated as a single discipline. As the leader of WET, he takes the same approach to water. Many of the world's most iconic water features—the Bellagio fountain in Las Vegas, the massive waterfall in Singapore’s airport, the dancing fountain in Dubai—were brought to life here in WET’s surreal waterworks factory.

WET is in the business of creating massive public artworks, and to date it has built more than 250 installations around the world. Fuller says customers typically approach the company with a simple request: They want something that hasn’t been done before. It’s a blank canvas for Fuller and his team, but the final design of a water feature is ultimately informed by its environment—indoor features must meet a different set of requirements than outdoor displays.

Take the Rain Vortex in Singapore’s Jewel Changi airport complex, which WET just completed last year. Singapore gets a lot of rain, so WET capitalized on this by designing the water feature to collect rainwater from the roof and funnel it into the building, creating the world’s largest indoor waterfall. Water cascades in thin sheets from a hole in the glass toroidal roof over 130 feet above the Jewel’s plaza, which is overflowing with plantlife. At night, an array of cinema projectors positioned around the Vortex light up the waterfall with a customized light show. During a downpour, the vortex might be moving as much as 10,000 gallons of water a minute—enough to fill an Olympic-size swimming pool in about an hour.

When it comes to engineering water features, “controlling turbulence is the name of the game,” says Garrett Young, who leads WET’s team of 40 engineers. In short, turbulence breeds chaos. It causes water to slosh, spill, and spray in ways that are difficult to predict. These effects are compounded by variables like air flow, temperature, or textured surfaces, which make it staggeringly difficult to get a large water feature to behave. To understand how water will move in such a complex system requires modeling water very precisely at the level of its individual particles—and that requires a lot of computing power. The environments in some of WET’s upcoming water features are so chaotic that the company is renting time on a supercomputer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory just to make their simulations.

“What we do is very simulation intense,” says Young. “But it allows us to give the illusion that we’re breaking physics.”

You know those plaza fountains that shoot up thin streams of water that then disappear underground through cracks in the tiles? They’re now a mainstay of corporate plazas everywhere, but that was originally WET’s idea. When they first floated the design for a client in Texas back in the 1980s, Fuller says no one outside the company thought it would work. The cracks in the tiles seemed too narrow to let the water drain fast enough. But if you work through the math, it’s the total lengths of the cracks around the tiles that matter, not their width—so there was more than enough space to move water off the plaza and into the underground collection pool.

“I made a couple of bucks betting all the stonemasons that the water would get out of there,” says Fuller. “It just seems like magic because all the water disappears before your eyes.”

But even with all the theory in the world, things don’t always work as planned. The Bellagio fountain in Las Vegas was WET’s first major project and arguably its biggest claim to fame. Steve Wynn, the hotel magnate building the Bellagio, wanted the largest fountain in the world, complete with thousands of dancing water jets, some of which would send water over 300 feet into the air. But to blast water that high, traditional pumps just aren’t going to cut it. They would require an obscene amount of energy that would have to be dumped into the system all at once.

So instead, Fuller and his team developed what they refer to as “shooters,” giant water cannons that use highly pressurized air to blast water through a nozzle. These reduced the fountain’s energy needs to just a fraction of what they would have been had they gone with pumps. But when they installed the shooters in the Bellagio pool, there was a problem. The valves in the water cannons would get stuck open at random, sending a torrent of water streaming into the air. “It looked like Old Faithful,” says Fuller.

Wynn, who was spending $40 million on the project, was less than pleased, Fuller recalls. But when the WET team sent divers out into the pool to look for a problem, everything seemed fine. At the time, WET was still a small company and didn’t have its own research labs to use to figure out what was happening. So Fuller turned to a friend of his who worked as a scientist at Caltech to do a root cause analysis. Soon he had an answer: When air expands, it sucks thermal energy out of a system, which is why cans of compressed air like hairspray or computer dusters get cold when you use them. When pressurized air was fed into the shooters at the Bellagio, it caused temperatures to drop to -50 degrees Fahrenheit. This made large balls of ice build up in the valves and hold them open. The solution was simple: WET added a component to the pipe that caused the ice to form in a different section of the shooter rather than in the valve. But without getting into the fundamental science, the problem would have been difficult, if not impossible, to solve.

The team’s job is to limit technical surprises as often as possible. By the time WET installs its water features, they need to work flawlessly. When you’re working on water features that cost tens of millions of dollars, there are no do-overs. This requires a rigorous troubleshooting process that straddles the divide between analog and digital. When WET engineers begin designing a fountain, they will start with simple physical models that they can easily tweak. Once they’re satisfied with the overall design, they render it as a computer model so they can interact with the design in 3D space, sometimes as a VR or AR experience. Finally, they’re ready to build a scale replica in WET’s back lot, complete with a detailed scenic backdrop, to see how it will look in situ.

This year, WET will install six water features around the world. At the same time, its engineers are working on new technologies that they hope to incorporate into features in the near future. Fuller compared one of these to a rocket engine that blasts out ionized particles or plasma to create pyrotechnic effects. They are also developing water jets that can move autonomously around a fountain, but Fuller declined to go into details about where a water feature using this technique will be installed.

The role of pools and fountains in public spaces is always in flux. While they once served utilitarian functions like bathing or drinking, they are now almost entirely about aesthetics. But through it all, Fuller says, they’ve served as a point of human connection. At a time when people spend a lot of their day staring down at screens, WET’s water features still have the power to stop people in their tracks and make them look up.

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