Canadian Consulting Engineer

The Catch-Up Game

January 1, 2007
By Andrew Walther, P.Eng. APW Engineering

Computer-aided drafting and design technology have changed the way engineering organizations operate. CAD software applications and the hardware that supports them have had an impact on the roles of c...

Computer-aided drafting and design technology have changed the way engineering organizations operate. CAD software applications and the hardware that supports them have had an impact on the roles of consulting engineers’ employees, their business processes and how they hand off and deliver projects to clients.

Unfortunately these impacts have often gone unchecked, forcing many firms to be reactive as opposed to proactive in their approach to technology. These days, we seem to be caught in a never ending cycle of catching up. It is not uncommon to hear phrases like “… We are continually purchasing software but only use a fraction of the available capabilities.”

This article discusses how employee roles in the engineering industry have changed as a result of integrating design and CAD technology. It will be the first in a series of articles that examine how CAD technology is affecting engineering companies.

Ensuring your return on investment

The software manufacturers have been aggressively producing new releases of their products for years, and many engineering companies are having to purchase software through annual subscription programs. The manufacturers’ approach has made it difficult for the engineering industry to fully capitalize on the potential of CAD technology. And since software and hardware represent such a heavy capital investment for consulting engineers, firm owners and managers must seriously question the return on their investment.

Consulting firms are also struggling to find the skills to make the best use of CAD technology. In the last five years software and hardware have been evolving at breakneck speeds. This fast pace has resulted in an increasing gap between what technology offers and what the engineering industry is capable of doing. A technology industry oriented towards making profits, coupled with an engineering industry geared towards production, has resulted in technology’s expanding functions being grossly underused.

Roles of drafter and designer have converged

First, let’s consider how the evolution of Computer Aided Design (CAD) technology has affected the roles of drafter and engineer. Traditional engineering processes were based on two distinct roles. First the engineer manually added details to a hardcopy plan of existing conditions. The drafter then reproduced the details using proper drafting techniques and standards.This iterative exchange between drafter and designer continued until the drawing reached a state of completion, whether it represented a concept, preliminary design or detailed construction documents.

The introduction of computer aided drafting applications such as AutoCAD (Autodesk) and MicroStation (Bentley Systems) decades ago replaced the common drafting medium of mylar and ink. Computer aided drafting applications allow drafters to organize categories of data onto named layers (AutoCAD) or levels (Microstation). Many organizations create standards for producing the content of the drawings and organizing the data.

As the use of computer aided drafting applications increased, other software companies began offering discipline-specific programs that worked directly within the drafting applications. These third-party add-on programs introduced a range of design functions to the computer aided drafting environment. As a result, drafters were now working directly with design tools intended specifically for the land development, architectural, mechanical, electrical and other specific industries. Drafters found themselves getting more involved with design tasks because their primary tool had changed.

Conversely, many engineers and designers began working with the design-enabled drafting software and were producing their own drawings. With the improvement of the third party design applications, drafters were getting more involved with design tasks and designers were becoming responsible for their own drafting. The traditional roles of drafter and designer began to converge. We can see the evolution of these roles in the transition of the CAD acronym. CAD used to stand for Computer Aided Drafting and nowadays it represents Computer Aided Design.

Today’s computer aided design software applications are more versatile and powerful than ever. The CAD environment that used to consist of simple entity based graphics (lines, arcs, polylines, text etc.) has since become one that incorporates intelligent design objects. These design objects allow designers to explore alternative options quickly and efficiently. This whole concept is referred to as “model based design.” You essentially build an accurate and complete three-dimensional model in the graphics environment, and then extract the data required for tendering and construction. Pre-developed and standardized styles control both the display of the design objects and the annotation to label them. When the CAD operator modifies the parameters of a design object, the software automatically updates the annotation. Model based design is a revolutionary means of completing designs in a graphics environment.

With this latest evolution of CAD technologies, the need for a full time project drafter has been significantly reduced. Let’s fast forward through the next five or 10 years. Considering the historical trends of CAD technology, one can expect that the traditional role of the drafter will eventually be eliminated. With object-based CAD, designers can create designs and the drafting and contract documentation becomes a direct by-product of the design process.

Engineering companies must seriously consider this fundamental shift in designer and drafter roles as they grow and evolve into new technology. When existing employees retire or move on, firms should give special consideration to hiring people who possess the skills not only to complete designs but also to produce the required documents that support those designs.

The most significant challenge is finding people with those combined skills. Engineering and technical schools need to be aware of the changes taking place in the engineering workplace and adjust their curricula accordingly. These changes are beginning to happen but need to occur at a much quicker pace.

Hiring and training staff

Once a firm has managed to attract the right employees, how it trains those people and makes the best use of their skills is crucial. If the employees’ abilities are not channeled in useful ways, the company’s investment in ever-more sophisticated CAD technology will be largely wasted.

Often companies hire new graduates and immediately provide training on a specific computer application, but that kind of training is a role that the post-secondary educational institutions should be fulfilling. Another problem is that any of the consultants who provide training services to new hires are not directly involved with the convergence of the design and drafting roles.

The whole approach to technology integration is generally inadequate. Companies typically provide a week of training to employees and then check in a year later to find that staff have reverted back to their old methods due to the ongoing demands of the project. Consulting firms need to review how well they are using technology as part of their weekly business operations, instead of letting things go on unchecked.

Firms can do a number of things to ensure employees are optimizing CAD technology. Annual one-week courses, delivered during the slower times, are inadequate because the employees are overloaded with information. And most of the information will not be directly applicable to their short-term project workload. The result is that the employees quickly forget the material.

Instead, consulting firms should hold shorter duration courses that address current project requirements. Also, firms should focus their energies, bearing in mind that every organization has its gurus on one hand, and those who struggle with technology on the other. Keep on top of employees’ ind
ividual capabilities, set minimum bars for them, and provide them with assistance where necessary. Finally, consulting firms should seek assistance from individuals who not only possess the skills to teach, but also have experience in consulting engineering.

The convergence of the design and drafting roles with CAD technology changes engineering business processes in many other ways, especially on large projects that require the involvement of many disciplines. Engineering consultants therefore will be doing a great service to themselves by mapping current business processes to understand exactly how CAD technologies affect their project workflows. They could be implementing new business processes that make the most of their investments. Our industry’s transition to model based design technology is just beginning. Time and effort spent now carefully planning this transition and integration will pay for itself in the future. Further articles will discuss these issues in more detail.

Andrew Walther, P.Eng. is a principal with APW Engineering of Vancouver, who helps public and private sector engineering organizations optimize their use of civil engineering and GIS technology. E-mail


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