CAD leaves glass half empty

Written by: Tim Fryer | Published:
I could not agree more. Being ‘old school’ and coming from an era when you served an ...

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I have spent quite a bit of time of late with the leading CAD suppliers and marvelled at the progress they are making. Even ignoring the glitz added by virtual reality, the amount of engineering power in the engine room of these packages is phenomenal. It is getting to the stage when concepts can be captured and turned into fully engineered products that meet required specifications - the engineering designer offering a guiding hand through the process, rather than wasting time personally conducting the engineering due diligence.

We all know that not enough school students are going into engineering and a common theory is that, for many, it is too difficult when there are less taxing ways of earning a living. This fantastic new and ever-evolving software can only be a good thing in this respect – school students can use their imaginations to create projects while only having to dabble in the technicalities.

What concerns me, whilst appreciating that in the face of some excellent technology that this is a glass half empty argument, is that engineers will evolve whose potential is defined by the tools they use. At the moment, our engineers have to go through university or apprenticeships to learn about engineering and, hopefully, the engineering is understood. But, as time progresses, there is bound to be more emphasis on design, rather than engineering, as the software is doing the engineering for you.

Fundamental engineering will then gradually become a forgotten art, which could be seen as unimportant if design engineers are churning out beautiful designs that are sound from an engineering perspective. But…

As someone put it to me recently, ‘kids know how to stick a couple of Arduino boards together and what that can do, but they don’t understand what the electrons are doing’. And without that ‘nuts and bolts’ knowledge, can engineering progress? Will true invention become impossible because our design engineers are designers rather than engineers? Could a designer come up with Mars rover, a Dyson cleaner or even a Large Hadron Collider? Or does that require real engineering knowledge?

It is, perhaps, an unnecessarily negative outlook and while engineers are being trained properly it should not become an issue. But with CAD packages becoming so capable it may be that current engineering education is like teaching students to use a slide rule after the pocket calculator had been invented.

If you have any observations, please add them as a comment below.

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I could not agree more. Being ‘old school’ and coming from an era when you served an apprenticeship on the shop floor prior to joining the drawing office. This was where you knew and had an appreciation of how the things were made enabling you to do good practical designs that could actually be made. Today there is in my opinion too much reliance on CAD. I am part of a team that interviews graduate engineers for potential employment and I have to say that many – not all – but many of them totally disappoint having no appreciation of basic engineering manufacturing practices. Some with little to no experience of workshop practices down to the basics of even knowing how to drill and tap a hole. How frightening is this? I do not blame the students but the universities and institutions for not teaching the ‘basics’ before allowing them near a CAD workstation. Yes I am from an era of working on the shop floor following onto the drawing office where I spent many hours on the drawing board progressing onto and welcoming the advent of CAD which has made my life so much easier but my point is that the foundation was there to begin with which is sadly lacking in today’s engineers. Many don’t have the passion for engineering and some appear to have a fear of it. If something goes wrong on their car or at home they don’t even attempt to find out what the problem is or even repair it – they get a man who can, normally an engineer! In short - you need to be an engineer before you can design anything. You need to have the passion for engineering and not the common reply that I get asking new grads why they chose engineering – ‘Well, my mum and dad thought it would be a good thing to go into’! Grads that we do employ and come under my wing are encouraged to sketch, sketch and sketch prior to committing to CAD which all seem to want to instantly do. Those that ‘jump straight in’ are not only limited by their basic engineering knowledge but are also limited by the knowledge of the CAD system as well as constrained by what the CAD system will actually let them do. They then invest so much time in their CAD model that when the design reqirements change they can’t change the model. Keep up the good articles.
It is interesting to also note that the lab content for engineering courses in engineering are being diminished in quantity and perhaps quality because of cost of provision considerations and a universities need these days to make a profit. The lucrative market in foreign (fee paying) students has also caught many on the hop as the, largely oriental, countries establish their own universities with those former students on their tutorial team.
If our Government is serious about helping to fill the skills gap, they need to encourage educational establishments to retain the essential lab-work, that underpins full understanding of engineering basics, and encouraging the students to take on challenging projects that begin to solve real world problems.
Additionally, there are many engineers in retirement or semi-retirement who may be usefully employed in backing up tutorial staff, even on a one day per week basis.

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