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Debate: Is reliance on computers compromising engineering judgement?

Engineers are increasingly using software to perform loading and design calculations and to model structural performance.


John Knapton, professor of structural engineering, University of Newcastle upon Tyne An engineer recently asked me what I do. 'I can draw bending moment diagrams, ' I answered, not feeling like getting into the usual discussions on heavy duty paving and the like. 'But anyone can do that, ' he replied.

It brought to mind a conversation I had with one of my university colleagues, an educationalist, who told me that in her experience, students find genetics, brain surgery and rocket science far simpler to comprehend than moments. In recognition of this, civil engineering undergraduates used to be subjected to three years of structural, fluid and soil mechanics.

These subjects have been squeezed and students are now taught to drive the software, understand their role in society and manage the conceptual design process. That might not be a problem in itself but universities are being forced down a road of replacing their traditional engineers/academics with a new breed of sector specialists - freshly minted post docs who will develop a stream of research income but who never left academia.

So there is no time left at university for the student to develop his critical engineering judgement and there is certainly no time afterwards. Instead, yet another simply supported beam is given the three dimensional finite element treatment and everyone is beguiled with the moving image of the vibrating structure on the monitor.

But bridge decks still fall off their supports when the pin corrodes: ground bearing floor slabs break up because they have too few joints and you would be amazed how often they forget to include the road base in the factory yard. Oh yes, and sometimes the innovative bridge wobbles from side to side on opening day. Here, of course, I'm referring to Lord Armstrong's 1872 wrought iron arch bridge at Cragside, Northumberland which we are now stiffening.

And let us not forget, he who made no mistakes made nothing.


Dr Mark Raiss, managing director, Robert Benaim & Associates Ltd Computers are great tools for creative engineering. When used well, modern computing power can inform and assist the creative process, and is often essential to get the best out of different structural forms and materials.

Good engineering, certainly in my field of the design and construction of structures, will always depend on a good intuitive feel for the response of structures and, while this feel can be educated and enhanced by structural analysis, it cannot be replaced by it.

Hence a good engineer will know what he expects long before he undertakes a computer analysis of a problem.

Computer analysis is a check and refinement of the engineer's understanding of the problem.

But however refined, it must never take the place of design.

Of course we have all come across engineers using computers instead of thinking. I have recently seen examples of undue dependence on computer analysis in the areas of prestressed concrete design, the construction stages of a cable stayed bridge, and dynamic analysis, which have led either to unsafe or unserviceable design or to over-design and difficulties in building.

However, inappropriate use of computers by some engineers does not compromise the good judgement exercised by others.

Creative design requires thinking out of the box: an ability to move on from the previous design and improve on what one has done before. This creative process is supported by, not supplanted by, computing power in terms of structural analysis, visualisation and the various other aspects of IT that we have come to depend upon.

Computer analysis is a check and refinement of the engineer's understanding of the problem. But however refined, it must never take the place of design.

Inappropriate use of computers by some engineers does not compromise the good judgement exercised by others.

The facts

In a 1999 survey of 80 construction projects valued at £5M or over, 84% of engineers used software for loadings and other calculations.

The survey found that 96% of the structural engineers working on these projects used CAD.

80% of the multidisciplinary design teams used CAD.

19% of structural engineers were hired for these projects on the basis of their software skills.

88% of the projects used civil or structural engineering software.

Data from IT usage in the construction team, published by the Building Centre Trust and Lychgate on behalf of the DETR's IT in Construction Best Practice programme. Contact: The Building Centre Trust on (0207) 6926209.

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