Engineering Skill: Can Computer Programs Ever Replace Human Skill?

The UK’s Millennium Bridge’s well-known wobble was not picked up on at any point by the design’s code.

There’s no doubt that computer programs have helped immensely with the progression of our design capabilities in the engineering sector. But it is vital that we do not become reliant on these programs as a complete solution — they will only produce quality designs if used correctly, with human input a crucial component to success. While a good engineer can benefit from using such software, a bad engineer may find their designs worsened by the addition of technology they haven’t the skill to use properly.

Put simply, there’s really no replacement for genuine engineering skill.

Computer-assistance is, and should be used, as simply that: assistance. The successful link between computer programs and engineering skill varies depending on which part of the AEC industry they are being used in. To understand how this factor can impact their relationship, we must first look 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 more earnestly, checking that it is feasible and how it will succeed. This stage is predominantly computer-based, using programs 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.

Naturally, anything that needs a form of understanding and an imaginative aspect needs the human element, and likely always will do. But it’s not just the imaginative aspect that machines cannot replicate in full: fine tuning, for example, still needs a guiding human hand in order to ensure the outputs are correct. While leaps and bounds are certainly being made in machine learning, whereby 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.

That’s not to say that human judgement and skill is infallible. Mistakes can be made when writing the programs designed to support design, or further along the line when inputting data into these programs. Either error will result in an inaccurate output. For this reason, the topic of automated checking — whereby computer programs 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.

For example, the UK’s Millennium Bridge’s well-known wobble was not picked up on at any point by the design’s code. Programs failed to predict the wind instability of Tacoma Narrows. While engineers can make use of a value judgement, computer programs do not. As the world changes, engineers will make a value judgement to adapt their designs accordingly.

In order to make these judgements, both human and machine-based, as accurate as possible, formulas must be created to suit. 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 analyzed — but that does not mean these forms are always sensible. There’s a certain amount of tension between architects and engineers surrounding this. Where engineers are seen as wanting functionality, architect are seen as wanting novelty first. But this disparity makes for the perfect partnership toward the best designs.

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