Can Innovation Really Replace Intellect? Engineering Skill

Expert Insights

Very few industries have felt the positive technological wrath more than the engineering sector.

Design and development alike have been massively influenced by the immense capabilities presented by rapidly emerging technologies. However, can we become too overly reliant on these emerging pieces of tech?

Here, with Oasys, who provide column design, we take look at engineering’s relationship with innovation and human ability.

One must remember, the equipment which is used to produce high quality items in the manufacturing industry does so because it is successfully controlled by a highly skilled individual.

The age-old saying of a ‘a good workman never blames his tools’, plays particular importance when considering this event. The aforementioned phrase makes no reference to a bad work man.

Although highly sophisticated technologies that enhance efficiency will make an incredibly talented engineer better at their jobs, it could result in a low skilled worker becoming worse at their role.

Despite what history may have taught us, in that automation and robotics will soon find a way of replacing everything, it seems unlikely that there will ever be a true replacement for genuine engineering skill.

There is no denying that computer-assistance is phenomenal in the various shortcuts it can help one take however, it should remain as that — an aid. The successful link between computer programmes and engineering skill varies depending on which part of the AEC industry they are being used in. To understand how this factor can impact their relationship, we must first look at the three main stages of engineering design.

    1. The design of the concept: During this stage, the majority of the design comes from the imagination of the engineer, supported by some simple sizing elements or calculations.

    2. The draft and analysis: At this stage the concept design is brought into the real world more earnestly, checking that it is feasible and how it will succeed. This stage is predominantly computer-based, using programmes such as building design software to help engineers work to a greater degree of accuracy.

    3. Detailed design: Unsurprisingly, this stage of the process is when the design becomes much more detailed. At this point, the design is almost completely computer-based, with analysis happening in the background.

Everything a computer will learn will be initially implemented by a human mind however, that previous step has required imagination and understanding on behalf of the human, something which seems unimaginable.

But, it’s not just the imaginative aspect that machines cannot replicate in full: fine tuning, for example, still needs a guiding human hand in order to ensure the outputs are correct.

While leaps and bounds are certainly being made in machine learning, whereby computers can now make decisions based on historical data and records, it is highly unlikely that this will develop to the point where human skill and judgement become obsolete.

However, there is no suggestion being made that judgement made by a human is always right and otherwise irreplaceable. Mistakes can be made when writing the programmes designed to support design, or further along the line when inputting data into these programmes.

Either error will result in an inaccurate output. For this reason, the topic of automated checking — whereby computer programmes will check the input against previous projects and their success or failure — has been a hot point of discussion within the AEC industry lately. However, it is worth bearing in mind that the majority of engineering disasters have occurred due to something unusual; that is, something that has not happened in previous related projects.

While rule-checkers help when situations where rules apply, they aren’t able to flag something that hasn’t happened in previous records, i.e. something unusual.

Take the Millennium Bridge’s creak — it was failed to be picked up at any stage by the design’s code. Programmes failed to predict the wind instability of Tacoma Narrows. While engineers can make use of a value judgement, computer programmes do not. As the world changes, engineers will make a value judgement to adapt their designs accordingly.

In order to calculate said judgements, regardless of whether it is done through human or machine capability, a formula must be established. There are several structures and designs that have had formulas developed exclusively for them.

For example, the original formula creation for shell structures had to be created by expert mathematicians to ensure success. Now, with Finite element Analysis, almost any form can be analysed — but that does not mean these forms are always sensible.

There’s a certain amount of tension between architects and engineers surrounding this. Where engineers are seen as wanting functionality, architect are seen as wanting novelty first. But this disparity makes for the perfect partnership towards the best designs.

As we’ve previously suggested, history has, on countless occasions, threw up technologic innovation to replace natural human functions that no one could have ever predicted, and for this reason, we aren’t going to say never. However, from the various points we’ve touched upon, it appears incredibly unlikely that engineering will ever be fully replaced by the preexisting technologies which have, to this date, rapidly developed it.