Canadian Consulting Engineer

Special Report: Computers & Consulting Engineers – the impact of the digital revolution after two decades

It has been almost 20 years since Canadian Consulting Engineer ran articles like the one that appeared in May 1983: "Plotting a move to CADD: What it means and how to do it."Today a workstation lives ...

June 1, 2002  By Sophie Kneisel

It has been almost 20 years since Canadian Consulting Engineer ran articles like the one that appeared in May 1983: “Plotting a move to CADD: What it means and how to do it.”

Today a workstation lives on every desk and supports every kind of business activity. But has technology really opened up new horizons? Has it made firms more efficient? Or is it just an expensive new tool that has made life more complicated?

Using funds provided by the federal government’s Canadian Magazine Fund, Canadian Consulting Engineer commissioned an informal study based on 28 firms. The author is the former editor of this magazine.

Introduction

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“Computers have made a difference in the way we do business, but more than that, they’ve made a huge difference in the business we can do. It’s exciting to be involved in something that’s evolving like this.” Carol Hinde’s enthusiasm isn’t shared by all of her colleagues who provided information and opinions for this article, but like it or not, computer technology has irrevocably changed the practice of consulting engineering. Now that most desks have been graced by a personal computer for more than a decade, a look at costs, benefits, how people use them and expect to use them in the future, seems timely.

Partners, IT managers, office managers and “CGs” (self-designated “computer guys”) at 28 firms from all over the country took the time to answer questions about the state of computer use in their offices. Computers have become ubiquitous and indispensable in what is really an incredibly short period; very little of the work carried out by consulting engineers becomes a finished product without at some point being input, and then manipulated and polished with the help of a computer.

This change has come about during the past decade as the price of hardware dropped while its capabilities shot upward. Unfortunately, software has not followed either of these trends to the same extent: constant upgrades and licensing fees keep costs high for products of questionable quality. And while anticipated reductions in requirements for drafting and secretarial staff have occurred as a result of computerization, many feel there has been more of a shift in staffing needs than a decrease in overall employee numbers.

Are computers ultimately saving consulting engineering firms money? Engineers may sometimes be accused of lacking a sense of humour, but this question almost always gets a laugh. Some are convinced they are ahead financially. Others believe they are saving through increased productivity. But many don’t think computerization is saving their firms a dime.

Aside from a few instances, a firm’s size seems to have little effect on how computers are used, and essentially the same can be said for a firm’s location. Differences are more likely to arise as a result of the field or discipline in which the firm specializes. Obviously in some disciplines there is a heavier reliance on computers to carry out modelling and analysis, while other specialties require the experience and imagination of a “hands-on” engineer.

One indication of how profoundly computers have changed the consulting engineering industry came from Peter Embleton, manager of technical services at ADI Group in Fredericton, New Brunswick:

“Over the last 10 years ratios for looking at how successful consulting engineers are have changed. We didn’t have assets, just a couple of drafting tables. Now it’s [a matter of] computers, servers — it’s large infrastructure, so we need better cash flow, and the ability to survive a lean year.”

The big changes — not a tool but a necessity

For many engineers, the biggest change in computer use over the past five years seems to have resulted from the increase in speed and capability of both software and hardware. Models that used to take several hours to run, for example, now run in five to 10 minutes. And although many stress that the computer is “just a tool” like any other, some believe it has gone beyond that state.

“In the past five years it has come to the point where you couldn’t now take a computer away from staff — it has become required in order to do the job, like a phone,” says Mark Boucher, chief technology officer of Stantec Consulting of Edmonton, which employs more than 1,200 professionals in its 25 offices. “E-mail is now critical, and in terms of design and drafting, we couldn’t do it any other way.”

Stephane Gauthier, the information technology manager at Dessau-Soprin, a firm of 870 professionals based in Laval, Quebec, agrees. “There is a lot more e-mail and internet research,” he says. “People are using it 100 per cent more than five or six years ago. It has become a need for everyone to have a computer.”

“I don’t think [computers] are a tool any more, they’re a necessity,” says the IT manager of a large southern Ontario firm.* “When I started in 1985, we had half a dozen and shared them. Now new staff need a computer right away. If one goes down, even for an hour, staff are just sitting there. And in the past year I’ve noticed that new graduates are engineers and designers: they no longer pass work off to CAD staff.”

“Fourteen years ago it was five per cent computer drafting,” says Robin Lapointe, P.Eng., owner and manager of Lapointe Engineering, a small firm in Kitimat, B.C. “Within three years, the figures reversed completely [95 per cent computer drafting, five per cent hand drafting]. Two years ago Microsoft Outlook was still mainly for e-mail. Now scheduling and everything is done on Outlook — interoffice meetings are all generated through the scheduler.”

While he feels computers have become more advanced over the past five years, Peter Chang, P.Eng., a principal at Adjeleian Allen Rubeli in Ottawa, isn’t ready to concede them ‘beyond-a-tool’ status. “They’re still used as a tool, not a fully integrated design system. Programs are bigger, more complex and more analytical: some are far better, some are not.” He adds: “The cost has come down considerably.”

Decreasing costs have played a major role in increasing computer use. “Usage is up dramatically over the past five years — we have put a computer on everyone’s desk in that period — it was too expensive before that,” says Carol Hinde at Buchan, Lawton, Parent, a small Ottawa firm that does much of its work on the “soft” side of engineering. “Ten years ago we had two computers for word processing; two SE Macs for administration, finance stuff and limited desktop publishing; and two computers dedicated to data manipulation and analysis,” she says, explaining that now the firm has 14 iMacs; five G3s and ibooks, three PCs for running AutoCAD, as well as two servers.

Obviously, the massive increase in the use of electronic mail and the internet has had an effect on most businesses, and consulting engineering companies are no exception. “Over the past five years, the internet has influenced the way we do business a whole lot,” says a systems manager at a mid-size firm in the Northwest Territories. “E-mail is replacing the fax; we research on the internet instead of phoning suppliers, so information is available seven days a week, 24 hours a day. Transferring information between five offices has become more efficient and faster.”

Keith Garratt, P.Eng. of Coles Associates in Charlottetown, P.E.I., who is working out of an office in Boston, Massachusetts, also enjoys the new export possibilities: “Five years ago it was hard to do international work because all the high-tech equipment was at home. We recently completed a project in Argentina and had staff there and at home work on it together, virtually in real time.”

Anne Hamelin of J.L. Richards in Ottawa feels more thought is put into how computers are used these days. “We try to get most out of software and out of the individual: it’s more of a meld of mind and computer at every level.”

“We’re making computers work more efficiently, not fighting them,” agrees Sean Belanger of McIntosh Redpath Engineering in North Bay. “And we’re making sure there’s a lot of redundancy — if we lose data, it’s money — it cost us reimbursable hou
rs to put that information in.”

Storage is another aspect of computer use that some see as having come a long way recently. “The quantity of stored data has increased three orders of magnitude in the past three years,” says Ian Davies, manager of technology of Delcan Corporation of Toronto. “NAS (network attached storage) and SAN (storage area network) are options we’re looking at. It’s not so much the amount of space, but the management of the data in storage.” Davies also sees an increase in the use of e-mail and of web technology, such as browsers for aspects of project control and interaction with clients. There is also increased interest from clients in complete project management packages, including executive information packages available “24/7.”

The Merchandise*

Figures for the quantity and type of computer hardware in offices shown in Table 2 , page 38 are, in many cases, rough estimates. Note also that the numbers represent a very small sample i.e. the 28 firms that participated in our survey.

Among those firms, IBM clones (and lesser-known brands) are by far the most common equipment. The clones amount to 244 of the 384 total number of desktops owned by the small firms surveyed, 537 of 682 owned by the mid-sized firms, 535 of 947 owned by the large firms; but only 1,435 of 5,600 computers owned by the four mega firms. Several respondents commented on the reliability of Dell machines, with which they had recently replaced outdated equipment.

Software

Microsoft’s Windows operating system (versions 95 to 2000, NT and XP) is used by all the 28 firms we interviewed, although several also use Linux and one firm uses mainly Macintosh O/S. Microsoft also wins hands down as the most common (not always most popular) general purpose software, with MS Office products ranging from Office 97 to the XP version in use in 26 of the 28 firms. Corel Suites is used by 11 firms, and while Lotus Notes was mentioned several times in connection with scheduling, Lotus SmartSuite was mentioned only twice.

Most (about 82 per cent) of the responding firms are AutoCAD users; 11 per cent use Bentley MicroStation for design either exclusively or along with AutoCAD. Small firms appear to use AutoCAD almost exclusively, while the larger the firm, the more likely it is that another software option is available to its designers.

Like its office product, Microsoft’s project management software (MS Project) is commonly used, but not particularly well liked. It seems to be one of the few project management packages that are seen to be affordable, easy to use and to integrate with existing packages and office processes. However, it was also viewed as not very effective.

“Software firms have to start producing higher quality stuff,” says the information technology manager of a large multidisciplinary firm in southern Ontario, who feels software reliability is a major problem: “Especially Microsoft — there are so many patches it’s hard to keep up.”

Networks

Eleven of the 28 firms have gone beyond the standard local area network or LAN (which connects individual PCs and devices to servers) to establish “intranets.” Intranets are used for company-wide access to a wide variety of data: accounting reports, scheduling, time sheets, online orientation for new staff members, training, contact management, staff skills inventory, project management software and company policy documents.

“The next step is sharing large project data among offices on our intranet,” says Peter Embleton of ADI. “[Outside] firms now do this for you as a service.”

Of the small firms surveyed, two have their own wide area networks (WANs). One of the small firm’s networks connects offices in Sudbury, Ontario and Tampi, Arizona. A WAN covers a geographically dispersed area, sometimes using high-speed dedicated connections. Two of the mid-size firms have WANs, as do all the large and mega firms.

What functions are computers used for?

An attempt to quantify what functions are computerized in a consulting engineering office proved impossible. Respondents indicated that more or less every function — analysis and design, project management, administration and communication — were computerized to some degree.

Asked what kind of jobs cannot be computerized, respondents mentioned the obvious one — the daily contact with clients required for project management — only a few times. Responses tended to refer to specific tasks, such as site inspection and surveying, both of which may not require computers at the information gathering end, but would still result in the production of a report or some form of data entry into a computer. As one interviewee says, “Everything is at least somewhat computerized,” or put another way, “Computer technology touches all aspects of our business, but is not necessary to all aspects.”

In one mega firm, purchasing is only just becoming automated, while several firms of varying sizes cited aspects of the accounting process, such as expense accounts, as still being manual. For others, preliminary design, or initial review of preliminary designs is done by hand.

“Design (of subdivisions) is done through assessing land and services — that’s a thought process,” says Fred Vierhout, a designer at D.G. Biddle & Associates in Oshawa, Ontario. “Site inspection is qualitative, experiential,” he says, adding that contract negotiations are another area that computers have not affected.

Productivity gained?

When asked whether they measure staff productivity on computers, only one respondent said “Yes,” although many sounded as though they wished they could. “We measure productivity on equipment on a case by case basis, if there’s a particular concern,” says Ian Davies of Delcan. “It’s part of a process of saying ‘Do we need an improvement in processes and products here?'”

While most agree that productivity has increased, particularly in the last two years or so, mainly as a result of better programs (including more stable operating systems that are less prone to crashing) and improved machines, several respondents noted that the ease with which revisions can be made cuts into productivity gains, in some cases negating them.

“Our CEO insists we haven’t gained any productivity because of the proclivity to redesign and plot things again to fix tiny mistakes,” says Peter Embleton of ADI. “Clients have gained quite a bit: better designs, more choice.”

Carol Hinde at Buchan, Lawton, Parent believes it’s very “person-specific.” “In some cases there’s been a big improvement, but in other cases there is a tendency to be over-perfect because they’re more aware of the ease of making changes. It’s kind of a double-edged sword: lots of advantages, but now higher expectations, such as reports that look like magazines.”

The ease and speed of designing on computers is sometimes contributing to the erosion of profit margins. “We now give a client three design options instead of one because we can do it faster — profit margins have gone way down,” Embleton says. He adds that the price for bottom-end work has been driven down because one-person operations can do it cheaply thanks to computers.

Still, some firms use any “downtime” resulting from increased computer speed to further enhance productivity: finding new ways to do things, such as centralize a list so the information is all in one place for users, or installing new software on a temporarily underemployed person’s machine.

Here the “generation gap” plays a part, according to Roger Beeson, manager of the civil engineering department at Lapointe Engineering. “Graduates are now all touch typists — they didn’t used to be.”

How effectively do consulting engineers and their staff use software? Paul Cripwell of J.P. Cripwell Associates, an Ottawa technology advisor and management consultant specializing in high technology, says using 10 per cent of a package’s capabilities is about average. This figure may seem low, but when you consider the features in a program like Microsoft Word, and how much of the program most of us need, want or are capable of using, 10 per cent sounds about right. For general
purpose software used by technical and support staff (word processing mainly, but including use of spreadsheets and other programs offered in office “suites”), effectiveness was rated by our respondents at anywhere from 10 to 80 per cent, while technical and specific purpose software started at 10 per cent and went as high as use “to its fullest extent.”

Others point out that once everyone starts using something like Word or AutoCAD, it’s very hard to change, even though they believe another program (such as MicroStation for drawing) might be better. And a lot of programs are getting more complex than they need to be, with 20 new features in each upgrade, when a user may only want one.

Costs and benefits

While there seems to be almost unanimous agreement that computers save time, and while many feel they couldn’t do what they do now without them, the question of whether they save money tends to elicit a laugh, a long pause or an emphatic “No!”

Many of those questioned had the sense that there should be a financial advantage, but they couldn’t quantify it. Shawn Crosby’s response is typical: “I know there have been some savings because managers have commented on realizable efficiencies.” Crosby is manager of information systems at Jacques Whitford in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.

“There are savings in terms of productivity,” says a systems manager at a firm in the Northwest Territories, adding that even after the cost of the technology is covered, the company saves money. “For instance, we used to send information by modem. Our peak phone bills were $3,500 a month. Now we’re paying far less for internet service.”

“Overall business has increased more than what we spent on hardware, but it’s hard to put a number on the amount,” says Rick Miller, IT manager of Stebnicki Robertson & Associates in Calgary. “Our net [profit] has increased.”

“I have seen cases where people voice a need for increased automation, but it doesn’t make sense from a cost/benefit point of view,” says Ian Davies at Delcan. “We have been very careful about this. The main aspect of cost/benefit is time: if it saves time, it saves money, and you can pass this on as a competitive edge in your bid.”

“You’d think [computerization would result in savings], but that’s not the way it works. Spending that much money allows a greater amount of work to be generated. It’s a necessary evil — we have to do it to compete,” says Bill Walters of KGS Group in Winnipeg.

“In terms of cost per drawing, we haven’t saved, but the quality delivered to the client is better,” according to Peter Embleton at ADI. “In the last three years the infrastructure costs have gone way up, with anti-virus programs and firewalls continually changing. There’s also been an increase in overhead staff (computer management staff). And we now give the client three design alternatives instead of one because we can do it faster.”

Speaking for the definite “No” side, Robin Lapointe says he’s never seen a saving at Lapointe Engineering. “People tell me we will be more efficient with computers, but we use more paper now than we ever have. And if I take all the time I invest into learning how to use the computer, it would have been easier to hand write those letters.”

He’s not buying the savings-due-to-increased-productivity argument either. “When we used to do designs on the table, the table would dictate the time it took to get the project out. Now we can draw it by tonight, but there’s no time to massage it or think about it. In 22 years, I have not met a client who’s in a rush for a mistake.”

“I don’t believe it saves an iota, I believe it costs us,” says Harry Daemen, P.Eng., manager at C.J. MacLellan & Associates in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. “The thinking that revisions are now simpler, results in increased re-work.”

“It costs more,” agrees Peter Chang of Adjeleian Allen Rubeli, “especially when you have to replace software. We have to update CAD every year, and it doesn’t get any better. [Software licensing] is a licence to steal.”

“If I answer that right now, I’d say ‘No’ because of what we’ve spent on upgrades this year,” says Glenice Knight, office and accounts manager at Davis Engineering and Associates of Clarenville, Newfoundland when asked if computer technology brings savings. “But another year, I might say ‘Yes’ because of phone and fax expenses saved thanks to e-mail.”

“The saving is that if I didn’t have computers, I couldn’t be in business,” says Bob Lorimer, P.Eng. of Lorimer & Associates in Whitehorse, Yukon.

Staff and training

Two factors that apparently have a considerable impact on staff “comfort levels” and their ability to use computer technology to its full potential are the age of the staff and the attitude of a firm’s leaders. Some respondents set the cut-off age for those who fully embrace technology at 40 years and under. Others merely noted that some senior staff still prefer dictaphones and typists.

Training is an area seriously in need of improvement according to respondents. Education of any kind is not a line item in many of the firms’ budgets. Twenty-five per cent say there simply is no computer technology budget at their firm. The most common response was that training is done “as needed,” and the funds come from the “general” budget (32 per cent of the firms asked). Two smaller firms report computer training budgets of $1,500-$2,000 per person, while at one medium-sized firm each employee was allotted $250 annually.

Have staffing needs changed with computerization? Although some of the firms involved are too young to have existed before computerization, the vast majority responded to this question with a ‘Yes.’ Many noted the need for computer-literate staff, and the spectre of age was raised again. As one manager put it, rather bluntly, “The people we’ve had from day one have to keep upgrading their skills or they’re no good to our firm.”

“Technology is becoming very pervasive, so you need people who are proficient with it,” says Mark Boucher at Stantec. Another mega firm manager agrees that overall requirements for computer literacy are significantly higher than they used to be.

Peter Embleton of ADI believes the requirement for design staff has changed. “We don’t need as many professional engineers around to design because, in theory, we should support them with more ‘techs.’ We also don’t hire as many high school grads; a higher education level is required.”

Others, particularly in medium-size and smaller firms, note that secretarial and administrative staff have had to change more than the professionals. In some firms support staff are trained in more than one position so they can do double duty.

According to Robin Lapointe of Lapointe Engineering: “Clerical staff duties have shifted somewhat — they’re more ‘computer operators,’ not ‘secretaries.’ People type their own letters, the front desk formats them and sends them out.”

In general, the feeling seems to be that while computers have increased productivity, this has not necessarily resulted in a decrease in the number of staff required. “We have had to allocate more man hours to taking care of the system — computerization has added to our manpower requirement,” says Rick Miller at Stebnicki Robertson. However, he adds, “it has also increased the productivity of the people we have.”

Digital scares

Asked about their anxieties for the future, many answered that they were concerned about offering the services clients are coming to expect, such as project ftp sites, while ensuring that information isn’t tampered with. “It’s a challenge to provide the level of service people are looking for and maintain the level of knowledge to protect ourselves from Joe BadGuy on the internet,” says Shawn Crosby of Jacques Whitford in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.

“With wireless technologies and the way companies are using the internet as part of their infrastructure, I can see where there could be a huge backlash in putting all those eggs in one basket,” says Bill Walters of KGS Group of Winnipeg. “The internet is a wide open, insecure frontier. If we all embraced this technology at once and the in
ternet were crippled, it would be a disaster unlike any mankind has known. But we’ll have to embrace it too, just to do business.”

Walters has noticed an “alarming increase” in the number of virus attacks in the last year. “It’s up to 35 a day rather than five. I spend two hours a week dealing with viruses now; these used to be once-a-month events. We recently cut off our SPAM relay protection for a test. In 45 minutes someone found out and started using our server as a relay. Our server would normally process 1,500 SPAM messages in a day with protection; during the period that the anti-SPAM relay was disabled, that number reached about 8,000 messages an hour.”

Predicting the future is what worries Mark Boucher at Stantec. “Technology changes so fast it’s hard to keep up. The IT world moves so rapidly — my concern is making the right decision today that will meet the firm’s long-term strategic goals.”

Licensing costs and policy changes (Microsoft’s name came up again) are seen as a serious problem at several firms.

There are also concerns about a loss of creativity, or imagination. “Make sure the computer is used as a tool and doesn’t replace knowledge or practicality of design,” says Peter Chang at Adjeleian Allen Rubeli. Although one dissenting voice suggests that drawing with CAD actually enhances the imagination because the process is much faster and the result is so much neater, most respondents agree with Chang.

“We have to be careful with CAD design that designers don’t lose sight of the big picture,” says Peter Embleton of ADI. “A project has to be a seamless whole. If your design package provides you with constraints, you work inside those constraints and you may miss an obvious solution.”

“My number one fear is that designers are going to lose the feel for their design,” says Robin Lapointe. “It will look good on the computer. They think they’re visualizing how it will go together, but they’re not. My number two fear is that people think e-mail is some magical tool and everyone is reading all their messages, but it doesn’t happen that way.”

Personal use of e-mail and the internet during business hours can also wreak havoc with productivity in any company that provides access for all of its employees. Some consulting engineering firms combat this by only having internet access on a few shared terminals. One small firm’s IT manager says he tested monitoring software at his firm and was shocked by the result. “It was quite disgusting how much time was spent on personal use — it’s a wonder they got anything done. I would like to see it monitored [permanently].”

The way of the future

Half of the respondents feel the internet, e-mail or communications in general are the fastest growing areas of computer use. For the most part, the 24 firms that do have web sites use them for marketing purposes, while some use their sites for accepting resumes.

“Internet and web collaboration are going to become the norm for most of our firms,” says the IT manager at a large southern Ontario firm. He believes internet companies that host localized project sites, providing information without letting visitors to the site into the consulting engineering firm’s network, are the future. “Storage is a big concern as well,” says the same interviewee. “Everyone wants everything at their fingertips for a whole career’s worth of work.”

Keith Garratt, P.Eng. of Coles Associates in Charlottetown is a big believer in mobility, predicting that there will be more and more use of wireless, hand-held equipment. “I can leave the office now with my palm pilot and phone, and I have everything I need.”

But rather than simply expanding current uses, electronic communications should be moving in new directions, according to several respondents. “E-mail showed great potential two years ago, but now I’m not sure where it’s going,” says Stephane de Varennes, ing., a project engineer responsible for information technology at Bouthillette Parizeau & Associes in Montreal. “We can use it as now, or try to find some new way.”

Conclusion

After conducting all of these interviews and being bombarded by so many facts, figures and opinions, it seems unbelievably obvious to say that the machines are only as good as the people operating them, but that is what it comes down to. Computers save firms the most time and money when the staff using them are as effective as possible with the software, and have the right software to do the job.

This brings us to another piece of time-honoured wisdom — you have to spend money to make money. Formal training is costly and time consuming, but regardless of their other specific areas of expertise, an employee’s understanding of the technology is becoming a defining element of their capabilities, including their ability to save a firm time and money.

Alternative ways of educating staff may be a more cost-effective way of improving employees’ expertise. According to Paul Cripwell: “Part of the answer may lie in approaches that increase the overall office knowledge level about computers without relying on traditional training programs,” he says. “With increasing reliance on the internet and its unprecedented development, highly efficient, effective and evolving staff become more important still.”

<tclearly many factors affect the profitability and growth of Canada's consulting engineering industry, only some of which can be addressed by the firms themselves. But all the research indicating the importance of education to a healthy society can't be wrong: a greater emphasis on building a computer-literate workforce could be vital to the process of accommodating and enhancing the profound effect computers have had, not only on the practice of engineering, but also on the business of consulting.* Some interviewees did not want to be identified.

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Table 1: Equipment Ownership
HARDWARE:
Desktops & Laptops
Firm size
Average #
of units