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Final Thoughts: The Tools Are Nothing Without the Engineer

Robert Schickel on December 19, 2016 - in Articles, Column

In the September/October 2016 issue of Informed Infrastructure, I described showing up for my first day of work back in the early 1970s with my slide rule, mechanical pencil and scales. If I were to start working today, fresh out of college, I wouldn’t have any of these.

I would bring my smartphone and expect an extremely fast computer to be provided. In most cases, this is the way of the engineering world: find my cube, log in, create a password and start working. If only it were that easy …

Through the years, I’ve witnessed the time savings gained via development of new tools of the trade, especially computer software. Because of this “extra” time, engineers can evaluate more solutions without jeopardizing the project schedule.

Optimizing designs and materials typically is a good thing, often resulting in more-efficient use of materials and more cost-effective structures. But how do we know it’s the best solution? Engineers still need to understand “how things work” to make that type of decision. Simply accepting the results of the software tool may not be the best solution.

Efficiencies Gained

When I was designing roads and bridges in the 1970s, a lot of thought was put into the preliminary design process. For example, it was important to decide early on about the size and number of beams in a bridge structure: six 36-inch steel beams, seven 30-inch beams or perhaps concrete I-beams. The economics of the amount of steel or concrete, along with the increased structural depth and associated grade raise, all needed to be considered early on.

Another reason for the upfront thought process was that it took a long time to design those options and a lot of work to draw them up. A draftsman might give you a dirty look (at least) if you decided to change the grade by a foot after the drawing was already complete.

Today, those types of adjustments are relatively easy and quick. Not only is it possible to get a more-accurate design quicker, all the quantities can be calculated as you go. Who would have thought back then that the line you drew would actually have information attached to it?

Who Does the Thinking?

Today, there are so many software products for designing that we need catalogs to help determine the most-appropriate software for our needs. Check out the “AEC Software Guide” included in this issue. As you can see, the number of tools available to engineers—just in software alone—is immense.

As engineers, we must not let the computers and software become the “thinkers.” They’re still the tools we use to complete designs after we have understood the constraints, standards and desired results.

We should relish in the accuracy, ease and speed at which we can perform our work. As Mark Scacco, P.E., writes in this issue’s “From the Editor” column, engineers must keep up with all of these advances, select the tools most suited for their purpose and then be capable of using them to their advantage.

I’m reminded of a story about the well-known violin player, Jascha Heifetz, who owned and played a 1742 Guarnari del Gesὺ violin—an instrument worth millions of dollars. After a concert, a member of the audience went up to Heifetz and said, “Wow, your violin sounds really great.” Heifetz then held the violin up close to his ear and replied, “Funny, I don’t hear anything.”

So we should be thankful for having the newest, fastest computer and most-appropriate software to perform our work, and use them to our advantage. But like Heifetz’s violin, the computer, with all its software, remains silent until the engineer logs in

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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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