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Final Thoughts: The Joy of Witnessing Engineering’s Evolution

Robert Schickel on October 13, 2016 - in Column

I consider myself lucky to have begun my career when I did, seeing firsthand so many dramatic changes in engineering. Let’s take a quick look back at how different things were in 1971, when I started, and how the work environment has changed during the 45 years I have been working.

Fresh out of Valparaiso University, I showed up at work with the tools of the trade: mechanical pencils, triangles, scales (engineering and architectural) and, of course, my slide rule. I was assigned a work area consisting of a drafting table with a drafting machine, a reference table and a stool. I had a window seat, but everybody did. There were no walls or cubicles—just aisles.

I was in the steel bridge design section and spent my first few years preparing plans to repair old steel-truss bridges throughout Indiana and designing three-span continuous steel bridges over various creeks, roads and railroads.

Slide Rules and Key-Punch  Computers

As design engineers, we needed to understand moment and shear diagrams as well as how bridges worked, as many bridge elements were designed by hand. A computer program calculated moments and shears for beams, but the process was to fill out a form with the appropriate information so cards could be key-punched by the folks down the hall near the mainframe computer.

The results would take a few days to come back, so we wanted to be correct (or at least close) on the first try. It was important to perform some initial hand calculations (with a slide rule), so we would know the first trial was in the ballpark. And then we drafted the entire set of plans, of course, by hand.

The tools we used were very different. We had to purchase much of our own equipment, so the cost of calculators with trigonometric functions was a major factor in moving away from slide rules. With reasonably priced calculators, dealing with sines and cosines of skew angles would no longer drive us crazy.

Design methods also changed through the years. When I first began with the Indiana Department of Transportation, bridges were designed based on Allowable Stress, then Ultimate Strength, followed by Load Factor Design, and Load and Resistance Factor Design. My timing was just right to watch these methods evolve.

To Cube or Not to Cube

The physical office environment also ebbed and flowed. I started in an open-concept layout with a few middle managers sharing a cubicle office. Sometime later, all managers had their own offices—partly because we needed privacy during the employee-evaluation process. Then we moved into cubicles for all, starting with low walls, then high walls, then low walls again. As I compose these paragraphs, I’m working in a medium-height walled cubicle near a window, but the wall blocks most of my view.

I’m not convinced that any of these office designs are better or worse—everyone has their preference. I loved my office, because the quiet allowed me to concentrate on the planning/management/financial responsibilities I was handling at the time. But for the sheer enjoyment of working with others, the open concept was by far the most fun and probably the most productive.

What’s Next?

The design environment has changed so much through the years that I’m not sure I could effectively use the current practices and tools to design bridges. (I am sure I could design a bridge by hand, but I’m not sure anyone besides my brother would want to check my calculations.)

As I read the articles and advertisements in Informed Infrastructure, I’m amazed at how much survey, design and drawing presentation is done by computers and software that weren’t available during much of my career. When reading this issue’s article by Chew Beow Kwan about laser scanning, for example, you will be reading in a technical language that didn’t exist just a few years ago, using terms we didn’t foresee.

So who can predict what the next work environment will look like? Will it be back to an open concept or perhaps in your dining room? What tools will engineers be using? Drones, robots, virtual-reality helmets? Whatever the changes are, I bet they will be even more staggering than the changes I’ve seen during my work life, and that’s saying something.

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About Robert Schickel

Robert Schickel was born in New Jersey and received his BS in Civil Engineering degree in 1971 from Valparaiso University in Indiana. His career started as a bridge design engineer and expanded to include design of various transportation facilities, including highways, bridges, rail lines and stations, and airport runways. Mr. Schickel managed engineering offices ranging from 20 to 140 people. He also served as a consultant to a large utility company. Mr. Schickel currently resides in Indiana and serves as Adjunct Professor for the College of Engineering at Valparaiso University. He enjoys his retired life at his lake house, playing golf, listening to music and spending time with his family, especially his grandchildren.

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