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Structural Stability
This course examines the phenomena known as structural stability. While the focus will be on
the theory of these phenomena, part of the course will also examine how the theory is incorporated in
structural design, and how it influences the formulation of design expressions in various standards.
While many of the concepts covered in the course will date from 1757, when Leonhard Euler first
announced his derivation of the modern column buckling expression, some are currently being adapted
into design standards. For all of its age, structural stability is still a field that is developing.
When a structure is stable, the deflections of that structure caused by applied loads increase in
small increments with small increments in load. The ideal condition is that if the structure experiences a
small displacement or perturbation under load, the structure will return to its unperturbed state on
release of the forced displacement. Instability occurs when the increases in deflections are large when
small increments in load are applied. As loads and deflections are related by the term stiffness (or its
inverse, flexibility), an increasing displacement relative to the load increment means that the apparent
stiffness of the system is decreasing. Instability is a physical manifestation of a loss of stiffness in the
structure. Instability implies that a perturbed structure will not return to its original state, but will
experience increased displacements. This is commonly illustrated by the figure below, with a ball in
differing positions acting under the influence of gravity. If the ball is moved away from its position in
the first box, it will roll back. In the second, unstable, case the perturbed ball will roll away from its
initial position. The last box is neutral stability the ball will just sit where it was left, not moving
toward nor away from its original position.

a) Stable

b) Unstable

c) Neutral

Figure 1: Stability models

While buckling and stability are often used interchangeably, they are not the same thing.
Buckling (also known as bifurcation) is a mathematical idealization, usually based on small
displacement theory. This produces a solution where a critical load will produce infinite (or indefinite)
deflections. This is equivalent to the neutral condition above. Attempts to move the structure at its
buckling load should leave the structure in its displaced configuration.
There are different scales of instability: individual elements of a member may experience local
instability, the members themselves will experience global instability, and structures assemblages of
members will experience system instability.

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There is also instability related to insufficient restraint of a structure, or structural model the
structure or its component members do not have enough restraint to keep from falling apart. This
may be a failure to provide adequate structural determinacy. For example, a planar structure with less
than 3 independent reactions (the supports for orthogonal forces, and a moment restraint) would not be
structurally stable.
Elastic stability refers to conditions where the member or element has not reached the yield
point for the material, and members will recover their original shape upon removal of the applied loads.
Inelastic stability occurs when some of the material has yielded but the failure mode is one based on
second order effects. This implies that displacements are permanent, but more importantly, the stiffness
of the material can drop dramatically during inelastic behaviour. Elastic stability is the first topic
covered in the course.

1.2.Second Order Effects

Second order effects are, in the case of stability analysis, the extra loading a structure must
withstand due to the loading coupled with the displacements caused by the loading. A second order
analysis is one where equilibrium is found on the displaced structure1. The first order analyses that are
most often done find equilibrium on the undeformed geometry the structure is the same at the end of
loading as it was before the loading was applied. The stability consideration is that second-order effects
can increase to the point where the structure cannot withstand them, and the structure's deflections will
increase unchecked to the point of collapse. The load at which this rate of displacement can occur is a
point of neutral stability, or a buckling load.
In general, the second order effects we are concerned with are those involving compression.
The second-order effects of tensile loads are such that they produce a stabilizing contribution to the
member or structure. Tensile loads can be considered to stiffen the structure. (Problems exist with
unstable brittle failure modes in tension, such as fracture and fatigue.)

1 Ziemian, R.D. 2010. Guide to Stability Design for Metal Structures, Chapter 16, p. 692.

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1.3.Rigid bar with spring

The first example we will examine is that of a spring attached to a rigid bar, which is loaded at
its top. This is shown in Figure 2. The spring resists the rotational movement of the bar, attempting
restore the system to its original configuration. A load is applied at the top with the load P and the top
of the bar is moved slightly. The perturbation causes a rotation, and is intended to destabilise the
structure. We will determine if the structure is indeed stable from its behaviour after the top is released.

a) Bar in neutral position

b) Bar in displaced position

Figure 2: Spring bar system

The bar has length L, and the spring has a spring constant of k, so that if the bar is rotated q
radians, the spring exerts a moment of magnitude kq in the opposite direction.
To take a specific case, we'll choose a configuration with L = 2 m, k = 10 kNm/radian, and
P = 2 kN.
The bar is rotated an arbitrary angle, q radians. The value, as we will see, is not important, but it
must be reasonably small. At the moment the bar is released, we will do a summation of moments
about the spring, counterclockwise positive.
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The overturning moment is caused by the load times its moment arm = P L sin( q) = 4 sin(q)
The restoring moment is the spring moment = kq = 10 q
If the angle is small, we can use the approximation of
4 sin 104 10=6


and the sum is given by

There is a net restoring moment, and the bar moves toward its original position. After some
oscillation, the bar will return to its original upright position. This is a stable system.
If we repeat with the load increased to 10 kN, the summation of moments is
210sin 10 20 10 =10
and there is a net overturning moment. The bar continues to rotate after release, and falls over.
This is an unstable system.
What if we were to try for the point where the bar does neither? In this case, we want to find the
case which lies between the stable response and the unstable one the neutrally stable position. The
structure will be displaced, but equilibrium can be formed on the deflected shape. As this is a static
equilibrium, the summation of moments has to be zero.
2 P sin 10 2P 10 =0
We now have the case where 102P =0 with two possible solutions: q is 0 and the bar is
vertical; or P is 5. Since we are initially disturbing the bar, we have removed the q = 0 solution as a
possibility. Our answer is 5 kN is required to just balance the bar at any small angle.
This load is the bifurcation load. Any load smaller than this causes the bar to resume its original
position, any greater load causes the system to collapse.
Of course, we could have simply started using the symbolic values of the stiffness, length, load
and rotation to get:

M =0=L P sink LP k =k LP
k LP=0 , or the two solutions
from the latter, the bifurcation load is P=
and the final equation gives



k = LP ,

The solution of =0 is valid, in that if there is no perturbation, there will be no instability.

However, this is a trivial solution. These will come up in the stability equations further in the class.
These solutions need to be identified and eliminated, as they are usually not of interest.

1.4.Potential energy of the system principle of virtual work

We'll consider the same structure from a different perspective, and use energy methods to check
the stability of the system. This process considers two components of the total system energy: strain

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energy; and potential energy. The strain energy (U) is a measure of the energy stored within the system
due to the internal deformation of the member.
The potential energy (V) represents the loss in energy of a force due the work that force has
done by moving through a certain distance. (Or that a moment has done by rotating through a particular
angle.) It is equal in magnitude and opposite in sign the work done by the force.
=U V
In this case the internal energy is the strain energy of the spring, as the bar itself is rigid and is
assumed to not deform during the process:
U = M s d = k d =


In the case of a force-displacement spring, this would be expressed as


k x2
, where k is

the spring constant in units of force per unit length (displacement).

The work done by the load is equal to its loss of potential energy. As the load is constant, the
work is the product of the force times the distance travelled in the direction of the force. (The load does
no work travelling laterally.) The distance to the top of the bar from the level of the spring hinge is L,
originally. When the bar is rotated at an angle q, this distance is L cos(q).

V =P L L cos =P L cos1
When we complete the expression for the system energy, we get:


k 2
=U V =
PL cos 1
The principle of virtual work is that when the structure is at equilibrium, there is no change in
energy of the system with small changes in displacement. Here the displacement is q, the angle.

k 2
PL cos 1 =k PL sin 0 =k PLsin
For equilibrium, this leads to k PLsin =0 which is the same as we got from statics,
and with small displacements gives the same answers.
If the derivative,
, is positive, then the system is stable; if it is negative, the system is
unstable; and if it is zero, the system is at the point of neutral stability i.e. the buckling load.

1.5.Large Displacement Analysis

This model includes a number of simplifying assumptions the spring value is constant, the
stick is perfectly vertical, the angle of rotation is small, etc. Are these valid? What if the assumptions
we used are not correct?
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For example, what if the angle of rotation is not small? If we revisit the equation before the
approximation was made, the static equilibrium is 0=L P sin k , or P=
. If this
L sin
is plotted, the resulting graph shows an increasing load capacity (Figure 3). Note that the graph is
somewhat misleading, as angles greater than / 2 would have the load moment arm decreasing,
while the spring angle increases.

P, in terms of k/L







Figure 3: Strength as function of rotation, considering large rotations
This type of analysis is called a large displacement analysis, as opposed the small displacements
considered in the first analysis.

The structure just examined is a perfect structure the spring is always linear, without regard
for the angle subtended; the initial (and rest) position of the stick is perfectly vertical. If the stick was
positioned so that it has an initial out of plumb position (at an angle q0), there would be a moment
created immediately when the force/weight was added. Equilibrium gives the expression:
L sin 0

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which, if small displacements are presumed, leads to:

L 0
These are both plotted on Figure 4, for 4 values of 0 . The small displacement theory is
plotted as solid lines. These lines are asymptotic with the buckling load of P=k/L. The large
displacement theory is plotted as dashed lines. They converge on the large displacement figure
previously mentioned. In both cases, they follow approximately the same path for small rotations,
which confirms that the small displacement approximations are valid.

q0 = 0.001

P, in terms of k/L

q0 = 0.01

q0 = 0.05
q0 = 0.1









Figure 4: Strength considering geometric imperfections: solid lines are small displacement theory,
dashed lines are large displacement.

1.7.Post-buckling behaviour
Often, a structure can experience buckling, but still not experience complete instability or
immediate failure. An example is cold formed steel design, where the plates of composing the elements
of a member may buckle locally, but the ultimate strength of the member is calculated assuming this
buckling occurs. The structure, or element can still stand after local buckling has occurred.
Members also experience post buckling behaviour. Figure 4's large displacement graphs
illustrate this behaviour. As the displacement increase, the load capacities also increase.
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Figure 5: Restrained frame with pinned columns

However, even larger structures can survive the buckling of elements. The simple frame
illustrated in Figure 5, is composed of a continuous beam over three columns, all simply supported.
Each column has a buckling strength of Pe. The frame is braced to prevent lateral motion, and the beam
is considered to be stiff so that the vertical displacement is relatively uniform. The loading is a
uniformly distributed load, w. A simple first order elastic analysis will give column loads of
3/8 w Lb for the exterior columns and 5/4 w Lb for the central column. As the load increases, the
first column that will buckle is the central column. The load on the beam would be:
4 Pe
5 Lb
The column will continue to carry its buckling load of Pe after the buckling load. If we continue
to neglect the extra deflection of the more heavily loaded column, which may be very large after
buckling, further load increases will be borne by the exterior columns until they reach their buckling
capacities as well and the final load will be 3Pe or the collapse UDL will be:


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There are a number of reasons why this would not be a suitable design philosophy. This is
meant only to illustrate that buckling need not immediately lead to system instability.




Figure 6: Post buckling weakening
However, there are other structures which may not have post-buckling increases in strength. Of
particular concern is that yielding will reduce the stiffness of materials and impose a limit on capacity
that will occur before buckling. As well, structures such as shells can experience a significant
weakening after buckling that will impose a practical limit on the structure's ultimate capacity that is
much lower than the maximum critical load. The practical limit is due to the geometric imperfections in
the structure. Figure 6 illustrates a load-displacement curve for such a structure.

Another concept of structural stability limits is that of the limit load. This is particularly well
demonstrated by the snap through buckling phenomenon, where there is an abrupt change in the
behaviour of a structure's load-displacement.
The usual demonstration for snap through is a two bar arch loaded at the apex. As the arch is
loaded, the bars deflect laterally, restrained by a spring. The spring provides a force to restore the
original configuration.
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Figure 7: Arch model


Initial angle of 45

Load, P / k L















Angle of rotation, radians

Figure 8: Snap through of arch for rest angle of 45. (After Galambos and Surovek, 2008)

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As the deflection of the system increases, the load required to deflect the arch increases.
However, as the arch flattens, the spring has a smaller moment arm, and the force needed to maintain
the displacement decreases. After the arch flattens, the spring pushes the arch down (requiring a force
to maintain equilibrium). Once the spring starts elongating, the load required increases. The plot above
shows the equilibrium force on an arch with an initial angle of 45 degrees, plotted against the imposed
bar rotation angle. The peak load on the left is the limit load for this structure.

1.9.Review of needed information from Strength of Materials,

Structural Analysis, and Design.
There are a number of areas that are needed for the background for stability considerations.
These will be covered as they come up, and will be familiar to structural engineers. However, these are
the areas that you should consider reviewing.
The basic concepts of equilibrium, compatibility, and constitutive relationships are required.
You should be familiar with statics, strength of materials and simple structural analysis'

1.9.1 Flexural equations:

There are several bending relationships that will come up in the discussion of columns and, of
course, beams. The primary ones are:
Elastic moment curvature:
Shear moment: V =
Distributed load: q=


M =E I y ' '

M x =x V d x


Elastic bending stress: =

, z is distance from neutral axis

1.9.2 Torsional equations:

These will be reviewed when we get to that topic. However, a brief review of St Venant and
warping torsion, and the concept of shear centre would be helpful.
Torque is carried by pure torsion and warping: T =G J E C w

1.9.3 Basic frame analysis

Depending on available time, matrix stiffness methods of analysis will be covered as well.

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1.9.4 Design:
You should be familiar with the Canadian structural design methodology Limit States Design,
based on the National Building Code of Canada, 2010. This concept includes the limit states design
R ij S j
Design equations will come primarily from CSA/CAN S16-09 Design of steel structures. We
will use other design standards, both Canadian and foreign, for metal structures in general, to illustrate
the application of theory to design.

1.9.5 Linear Algebra

Many of the techniques used in the class involve linear algebra matrix manipulation. We will
be solving linear systems of equations and doing eigenvalue problems. Some basic familiarity with
these techniques is expected.

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