When it first opened a century ago, the Panama Canal transformed international trade by providing a shortcut between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. But today, in the age of ever-expanding megaships, almost half the world’s container vessels are too large to fit through it.
In 2009, engineering firm MWH Global began redesigning the canal—evolving it from concept to construction, and setting new standards for how massive, multinational civil infrastructure projects are designed, managed, and built.
This summer, the expanded Panama Canal will open—and the impact of this $6 billion megaproject will reshape our global transportation infrastructure for the next century.
The expansion of the Panama Canal is one of the largest and most ambitious construction projects in the world.
MWH Global’s new design will increase the capacity of passing ships from 4,600 containers to 12,800. It’s a quantum leap. The project will use the equivalent of 26 Eiffel Tower’s worth of steel, and enough concrete—190,000 tons—to construct the skyline of a major city.
What is the Panama Canal?
A 48-mile-long passageway that connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
Why was the Panama Canal built?
To ship goods between the two coasts quickly, cheaply, and safely.
Who built the Panama Canal?
After an initial attempt by France, the U.S. built it from 1904-1914.
AMOUNT IN TOLLS COLLECTED EACH YEAR
NUMBER OF TRADE ROUTES SERVED
OVER 1 MILLION
NUMBER OF SHIPS THAT HAVE CROSSED SINCE OPENING
NUMBER OF HOURS IT TAKES TO CROSS
The Panama Canal rises 85 feet above sea level. That’s about nine stories high.
To pass through the canal, a ship enters a lock—think of it as a massive boat elevator. Once the ship enters the lock, water from a manmade lake is pumped in, which lifts the ship. The vessel then sails across the channel and is carried back down by locks on the other side.
It’s a major engineering and construction feat to lift and guide today’s supersized ships—over 1,000 feet long and 40 feet high—through the canal and then back into the ocean, all without damaging the surroundings. MWH Global was up for the challenge.
GATUN LAKE 26m / 85ft
Photo courtesy of the Panama Canal Authority
Expand existing channels:
Widen 21.3 m / 70 ft
Deepen 5.4 m / 18 ft
Lengthen 121 m / 400 ft
Create a new channel, with 3 new lock chambers on each side
Raise the maximum operating level of Gatun Lake, the primary water source for the locks
Photo Courtesy of the Panama Canal Authority
Photo courtesy of the Panama Canal Authority
How many engineers does it take to change a canal? More than 400, all of them under pressure to stay ahead of construction.
With a project of this scale and urgency, work needed to proceed on several fronts at once. Excavation had to start before the designs were even completed. And the locks had to meet rigorous design standards and seismic requirements.
To manage this extraordinary level of complexity, the Panama Canal expansion became one of the first large-scale civil works projects to use building information modeling (BIM). MWH Global, a pioneer in the use of BIM software and processes, used intelligent 3D models to enable a diverse team of engineers, in five design offices around the world, to collaborate efficiently across disciplines. The MWH Global team mapped sites and resolved design conflicts prior to construction (clash detection) to save thousands of rework hours and millions of dollars.
"The most daunting challenge was meeting the high design performance requirements. This is the Panama Canal. We couldn’t afford to make a mistake. And the clock was ticking."
— Mike Newbery, project lead, MWH Global
ENGINEERS ON THE PROJECT
CUBIC FEET OF EARTH EXCAVATED
HEIGHT OF EACH LOCK
DEPTH OF CHANNELS
A MORE SUSTAINABLE FUTURE
Can a project this massive also be eco-conscious?
It had to be. Gatun Lake not only helps operate the locks, it’s a major source of drinking water for Panama. Expanding the canal passageway would require the use of significantly more fresh water, but MWH Global had to find a way to make it happen using less water.
How did they do it?
MWH Global designed three new storage basins—the largest in the world—that will:
RECYCLE 60% OF THE WATER USED IN THE LOCKS
REDUCE WATER USE BY 7%, EVEN THOUGH THE NEW LOCKS ARE 1.5 TIMES LARGER THAN THE ORIGINAL ONES
DOUBLE THE CANAL’S CAPACITY WHILE INCREASING WATER RE-USE
When the Panama Canal expansion opens in summer 2016, it will spark a dramatic change in the way cargo is moved around the world.
The work of MWH Global and the project's multinational design and construction team has doubled the canal’s capacity—and the global cost of shipping is predicted to go down while the flow of products, grain, and natural resources will go up. The impact will ripple through the global economy: Bigger ships need bigger ports; more cargo requires more warehouse, train, and truck facilities. Transportation infrastructure will need to evolve to handle the increased volume of trade.
New infrastructure projects will create jobs and opportunities at the intersection of design, technology, and massive collaboration among multinational organizations. Companies like MWH Global will take the lead as more projects mandate the use of BIM for efficient design, construction, and management.
The result, it seems, is a brighter future for the region and the world. Panama has already been transformed. Its economy is estimated to grow eightfold by 2025, and Panama City, the capital, has developed into a modern maritime hub. Is this the shape of things to come? Stay tuned as the future of our global transportation network unfolds.
Learn more about some of the products and services MWH Global used to design the Panama Canal Expansion Project