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Engineering skill: can computer programs ever replace human skill?

In the engineering sector, the innovation of technology has undoubtedly
improved the way we operate. But it is important that we do not become reliant
on technology as a complete solution i.e. software will only produce quality
designs if used correctly, with human input still a crucial component to
success.

Computers offer assistance to engineering projects – and the
successful link between computer programmes and engineering skill varies
depending on which part of the AEC industry they are being used in. Looking at the three main stages of
engineering design. 

  1. Concept
    design:
    At this stage, the majority of the design comes from the
    imagination of the engineer, supported by some simple sizing elements or
    calculations.
  2. Drafting
    and analysis:
    This stage brings the concept design into the real world,
    checking that it is feasible and how it will succeed. This stage is
    predominantly computer-based, using programmes such as building
    design software to help engineers work to a greater degree of accuracy.
  3. Detailed
    design:
    This stage is when, as the name suggests, the design becomes much
    more detailed. At this point, the design is almost completely computer-based,
    with analysis happening in the background.

Things which require an imaginative aspect undoubtedly
require the human element. But it’s not just this imaginative aspect that
machines cannot replicate in full: fine tuning, for example, still needs a
guiding human hand in order to ensure outputs are correct. While leaps and
bounds are certainly being made in machine learning e.g. computers can now make
decisions based on historical data and records, it is highly unlikely that this
will develop to the point where human skill and judgement become obsolete.

It’s also important to note that mistakes can be made when
writing the programmes designed to support design, or further along the line when
inputting data into these programmes. Either error will result in an inaccurate
output. For this reason, the topic of automated checking — whereby computer
programmes will check the input against previous projects and their success or
failure — has been a hot point of discussion within the AEC industry lately.
However, it is worth bearing in mind that the majority of engineering disasters
have occurred due to something unusual; that is, something that has not
happened in previous related projects. While rule-checkers help when situations
where rules apply, they aren’t able to flag something that hasn’t happened in
previous records, i.e. something unusual.

A good example of this would be the Millennium Bridge’s
wobble. This was not picked up in the design’s code. Programmes failed to
predict the wind instability of Tacoma Narrows. While engineers can make use of
a value judgement, computer programmes do not. As the world changes, engineers
will make a value judgement to adapt their designs accordingly.

Formulas must be created, both for computers and the human
element. There are several structures and designs that have had formulas
developed exclusively for them. For example, the original formula creation for
shell structures had to be created by expert mathematicians to ensure success.
Now, with Finite Element Analysis, almost any form can be analysed — but that
does not mean these forms are always sensible. There’s a certain amount of
tension between architects and engineers surrounding this – with engineers focused
on functionality, and architects the aesthetic element.  This disparity though, can make for the
perfect partnership towards the best designs.

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