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Engineering judgement

Tony Gould

Design software: help or hindrance?

Since the advent of the personal computer, the use of sophisticated design software within engineering offices has become an essential desktop aid for hard pushed engineers struggling to provide economic solutions within tight timescale deadlines. The range of specialist design software available out there is immense, even before we start to consider the sophisticated drafting and presentation packages.

This is spawning new generations of highly skilled, digitally savvy engineers. The range of software packages highlighted on job seeking graduate engineers’ CVs can be bewildering if not a little daunting for, shall we say, us older engineers.

Of course there is nothing wrong with this and I certainly do not want to fly in the face of progress but I do have an underlying concern about the apparent lack of basic engineering knowledge currently being exhibited by graduates. A sweeping statement? Well possibly, but certainly not on the evidence of the crop of graduates applying to us for jobs in recent years.

A number of years back we introduced a policy of asking prospective job candidate to complete a short non-computer aided technical exercise to form the basis of a discussion at interview. Nothing too complicated, we are just looking for some evidence of basic engineering knowledge, wl²/8 stuff really. Meat and drink you would have thought to graduates eager for their first job. However, these exercises can make for quite alarming reading, and the trend sadly seems to be getting worse.

Ok, so it is not fair to blame this all on the humble PC and I am certainly not going to comment on standards of university education in this article. However, my point is that many young engineers do not seem to be equipped with the basic analytical skills to be able to validate computer output, that is to evaluate whether the solution proposed by software is reasonable? The old adage of “rubbish in, rubbish out” must have been written for civil engineering-based software.

I do not believe that the advent of complex Eurocodes has helped either, as even the most routine of Eurocode compliant designs will generally require trawling through several, not always well cross-referenced sections and National Annexes to bring it all together. I can fully understand that it is often much quicker and simpler to use software to do the work. Nevertheless all engineers have a professional duty to have an understanding or feel for what they are designing. Relying on software, while convenient, will not achieve this.

We as experienced engineers and in many cases mentors, need to find time within busy work schedules to encourage junior engineers from time to time to get out the codes and standards and produce some good old fashioned hand calculations in parallel to their software derived solutions. I see this as invaluable training in helping them to develop that most valuable commodity; engineering judgment. I still derive some bizarre pleasure in producing a decent set of easily checkable hand calculations - now where did I leave that faded copy of BS 449?

  • Tony Gould, is technical director at Groundforce Shorco

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