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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