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4 Ways Engineers can Avoid the “Dark” Side of Technology

By Greg Koontz, PE, LS,, President, Koontz-Bryant, P.C.

I have been working in the civil engineering and surveying field for over 30 years and there have been some amazing advances in technology. I hate to admit that I had a slide rule in high school and probably still remember how to work one. There have been so many changes that affected the consulting engineer and how they go about their business in the last three decades. For the young guys it is hard to believe that calculators first became an every day item in the late 70’s and there really were no PC’s until the early 80’s (and the first models only had floppy drives – no hard drives).

Within a couple of years, PC’s were the norm. AutoCAD and Micro Station were quickly becoming some of the main production software packages. Everyone was off and running with new technology, completing projects at record paces. Now, 30 years later we can do a million times more work on our phones than we could with these early PC’s, and today you can buy a terabyte of storage for under a hundred dollars.

As technology advances, some interesting trends are developing in our industry. Young engineers are smarter than ever and can really fly when it comes to the new technology. They seem to have had calculators from birth, phones and computers in elementary school, and they can run the wheels off any computer or software program. Give them a project, and they will turn it around in no time flat. Jobs that previously took months to put on paper can now be generated in weeks, even with twice the amount of information required per current regulations.

But I have come to wonder, is there a “dark side” to the unbridled speed that technological solutions provide in our industry? Is it possible that these tools hinder the true understanding of a project? As wonderful as technology is, it creates new challenges in quality control of the final product. Lines are drawn on the screen, but do our new engineers truly understand how they apply to the actual work in the field? Back in the day, when it took two months to produce a drawing, an engineer had plenty of time to think and study these design challenges. A deep understanding of the project was obtained as the numbers were crunched and the plans were drawn. The design process took quite a bit of time to get through, but the actual process of drawing individual components gave the engineer an in depth understanding of how each part was put together.

Today we may be saving our clients a lot of money, but less time is spent dealing with the details of design issues as we use software to get those answers for us - right or wrong. How many times have we seen design elements that stick out like a sore thumb to the experienced engineer, contractor, or construction manager, and wonder how we ended up with this for a design?

As a business owner and seasoned engineer, I have felt the need to put together a good system of dealing with the continuing challenges of changing technology as it relates to the way employees obtain real project understanding. The following are four simple steps to utilize technology to increase efficiency without compromising the quality of the project:

1. Acknowledge that our use of these technology tools does affect our employees’ ability to obtain true levels of experience and project understanding involving key design principals.

2. Make sure every engineer, technician employee, etc. has a good understanding of the key design principals that have always been critical to your company’s success and are often buried within complex software tools. Create specific training classes with multiple exposures to the key design principals, providing hands on reference material and manuals.

3. Identify what is really necessary to check final design solutions created by complex software packages. Specific checks of information entered into software may not be enough, and the creation of printable, visible intermediate steps to allow thorough checking may be required.

4. Arrange as much exposure to the actual construction process as possible. This exposure gives an entirely different perspective than what otherwise may only be seen on a computer screen.

Implementing a plan to ensure that employees understand the key design principals used by their software/technology will allow your company to continue to turn out quality work in record time. If you have any questions please don’t hesitate to contact me at 804-740-9200 or via email.