Canadian Consulting Engineer

Software – Retooled

June 1, 2012
By Caitlin Crawshaw

Engineers are, above all else, problem solvers. If something doesn’t work, or could simply work better, an engineer shifts into problem-solving mode, whether the problem at hand is a small inconvenience or industry-wide gap.

Engineers are, above all else, problem solvers. If something doesn’t work, or could simply work better, an engineer shifts into problem-solving mode, whether the problem at hand is a small inconvenience or industry-wide gap.

Calgary electrical engineer Gerry Stebnicki began his consulting firm in 1977 and grew his company from one to 90 employees in a couple of decades. While successful, he was frustrated to find his industry was largely neglected by software companies. Other areas of engineering had technical software applications to streamline their processes, but electrical engineering didn’t have this luxury.

Stebnicki figures that for companies like Autodesk, the maker of the popular AutoCAD, it probably wasn’t financially worthwhile to create products for electrical engineering companies, which only represent a small niche of the building engineering sector. So he and a colleague, Terry Smith, decided to solve this problem, large as it was, on their own. The duo hired an IT expert, Dean Whitford, to develop a software tool to help simplify the design process for electrical engineers.

“We wanted to introduce a high level of automation, essentially to eliminate the need to do repetitive calculations over and over again – because, in our business, we do a lot of that,” Stebnicki says. The calculations don’t just slow down the engineering process; they also introduce opportunities for errors.

After a decade of development, they had produced DraftLogic Electrical. The software not only automates the electrical design process, but also can be used in conjunction with building information modeling (BIM), which creates a 3D model of a building and its electrical components. Stebnicki claims that DraftLogic completes design work up to 10 times faster than conventional methods.

The software also produces a bill of materials with each design. This level of detail can help companies create more detailed bids for projects and eases the workload for contractors building the designs. “Something that would take days and days to figure out can now be done in minutes,” he says.

The benefits of the software go beyond process efficiency, says Stebnicki. He believes that creating a high-tech work environment can help companies with retaining good staff, which is a challenge for all engineering companies in an era of skilled labour shortages. Eliminating much of the grunt work allows engineers to be more creative at work, which is especially appealing for younger generations.

Early on, Stebnicki and Smith knew the project would be a boon to other electrical engineering companies, so they opted to create a spin-off company around it and to design the software to suit the needs of other companies, too. At the moment, Stebnicki is transitioning out of his consulting firm – now called SMP Consulting Electrical Engineers –- and into a role as head of DraftLogic.

While he’s happy with the direction the project has taken, Stebnickiadmits he had no idea what he was entering into a decade ago. “When we began this adventure, we didn’t realize how much effort and time it would take. Once you get started with something like this, it takes on a life of its own,” he says. “It becomes intoxicating, in that you think, ‘If we have all of this information, why don’t we get the program to do this, as well?’ ”

Across the country in Ontario, another engineering company has been developing its own software since 1994.

Greenland Consulting Engineers, with its head office in Collingwood, does work in municipal infrastructure, environmental management, monitoring and water resources. In 2003, the company was hired to create a new modeling tool to predict environmental changes in the Lake Simcoe Basin and to identify solutions. To make this happen, the chief executive officer and president of the company, Mark Palmer, approached research teams at the University of Guelph and Penn State University in the U.S. to help develop the software and also earn public research funding to offset the initial costs of development.

Two years later, Greenland was hired by the Province of Ontario to create a more robust and expanded modeling tool specifically to help predict changes to watersheds within the Lake Simcoe Basin. At the time CANWET (CANadian Watershed Evaluation Tool) was created, “there wasn’t a model that had been developed specifically for Southern Ontario climate conditions,” says Palmer.

About 20 people, including Greenland’s engineers and academics, have contributed to the development of CANWET in its various incarnations. The software can now be customized for use on any watershed since it incorporates remote sensing data and an open source Geographic Information System. The software helps policymakers understand and predict the health of water systems, assess increasing growth pressures, and determine cost-effective and environmentally sound municipal infrastructure.

Software development is becoming a more popular sideline for engineering companies, especially overseas, says Palmer. For his company, the software not only provided another income stream, but bolstered Greenland’s reputation on the global stage and helped establish new international partnerships.

“Software development gives you a competitive edge,” Palmer says. Like Stebnicki, he agrees that in-house and niche service related technologies gives engineers a competitive edge when it comes to hiring the next generation of engineers. But, above all, the software helps serve clients better. “Clients also want a ‘WAM’ (or ‘What About Me’) service delivery approach and our proprietary software gives us a unique advantage to ensure that our clients’ project needs are met,” Palmer says.cce

Caitlin Crawshaw is a freelance journalist and artist based in Edmonton. See


the Nuts and Bolts


DraftLogic Electrical was designed to automate the electrical design process.

The software essentially creates a virtual rendering of a structure and allows engineers to design electrical systems that meet the specific needs of a building project, including the budget restrictions and code requirements.

Beginning with a basic architectural floor plan, the program allows engineers to automatically set the locations of electrical services (lights, receptacles etc.) throughout a building, without having to go room by room.

Circuiting is also automated, and allows users to quickly connect electrical devices to the panels appropriate for their voltage. Branch-circuit wiring can be drawn within minutes.

After the electrical system has been designed, DraftLogic can also produce automatic reports for clients and a bill of materials.

By automatically performing time-consuming, error-prone calculations, the program drastically speeds up the design program.




A Close Up


CANWET – 4 is used to gather relevant scientific data about a particular watershed or lake basin, including everything from geography (including topography) to stream flows, sediments and nutrient loads, and it accounts for climate change factors.

The software uses remote-sensing data and GIS (Geographic Information System) technology to create a complex computer model of a watershed.

It allows policy makers to predict the impacts of their planning decisions such as the impacts of establishing new water supply and wastewater treatment facilities or the potential impacts of new communities or industries. It helps them to assess agricultural practices, or evaluate the benefits from water reclamation systems.

In effect, the software
becomes a testing ground where the optimal solutions, including costs, can be determined and compared against legislated government policies.



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