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Drawing is a vital skill for engineers

There is a danger if engineers have total reliance on computers, argues Mike Barker

Today we have an industry where the vast majority of engin-eers are good at computing. But is this eroding the basic engineering skills required to understand the designs they are creating on screen?

The computer allows us to bring to life architectural concepts which once may have been fantasy. But this same tool has the ability to deny our young engineers the necessary understanding of spatial awareness, physical laws and how a structure knits together.

When given a design project they immediately jump into computer analysis without having a feel or understanding for what is likely to be the outcome. And here lies the danger: rubbish in, rubbish out.

In the past using a calculator and slide rule, engineers had to understand the magnitude of what they were doing and had an intuitive idea of what the answer would be. If results were different from what was expected we investigated in more detail.

The computer screen deceives

With a computer the output looks the same presentation-wise, whether the answer is right or wrong.
The simple misunderstanding of force directions which are defined in a program by a + or a - can result in an entirely wrong and opposite result.

It seems such a fundamental error, you’d think it impossible. Yet it happens. Today’s generation of engineers rely on the checking process. They tend to assume that any mistakes will be caught when designs are reviewed and approach their work on this basis rather than assuming they alone are responsible. This puts huge pressure on the checker.

We have to reintroduce the importance of understanding design and get young engineers back to the drawing board.

Old school engineers always talk with their pencils - they sketch out their designs first. Thus when they move to the computer they know if the output is in line with their sketch and can see mismatches - they know how it should work three-dimensionally. In contrast the computer takes away spatial awareness.

Spatial awareness needs to be restored so that our young engineers have an expectation of the solution they are creating. This will also bring the checking engineer’s role back to being just that - a checker.

Mike Barker is head of buildings at Mott MacDonald