As computer systems become more sophisticated and capable of performing complex technical tasks, what impact will this have on professional engineering?

As computer systems become more sophisticated and capable of performing complex technical tasks, professional engineering may undergo changes – similar to those that greatly reduced the roles of skilled craftsmen during the Industrial Revolution and manufacturing trades during the 20th century.

During the Industrial Revolution, highly skilled craftsmen were largely replaced by mechanised processes overseen by tradesmen. These mechanised processes have now been computerised, replacing those tradesmen with fewer technicians.

In this article, the first of a two-part series, I consider the trends in draughting and identify barriers preventing adoptions of integrated 3D CAD in some sectors.

Emerging Trends in Draughting
Draughting has almost entirely moved from manual drawing to a few ubiquitous Computer Aided Design (CAD) systems such as AutoDesk (AutoCAD) and Dassault Systems (Solidworks). Three dimensional (3D) design is becoming commonplace in most industries and enables realistic modelling of buildings, equipment and services. The individual models from different disciplines are normally imported into a common platform for coordination and clash detection.

While the time taken to model an object in 3D CAD may be similar to the time taken to manually draw the same object, small changes can be made quickly and inexpensively. Previously manual draughting departments included a large pool of ‘tracers’ reproducing drawings to make relatively minor changes. 3D CAD has significantly reduced the cost of an iteration of design development.

Large engineering draughting departments with a variety of levels of technical and design capability have been replaced by smaller teams of skilled CAD operators. Training programmes have evolved to prepare work-ready CAD operators, rather than on the job development from tracer to lead draughtsman over a number of years.

Integrated 3D CAD
Software vendors, consultants and other industry participants are transitioning towards designing directly within collaborative and integrated 3D CAD platforms, thus allowing continuous and real time coordination of design between different contributors. These 3D CAD systems include integrated Building Information Management (BIM) systems, supported by database functionality that is useful beyond the construction phase of a project and into asset maintenance.

Heavy industrial designs have been fully 3D modelled for a number of years – generally by larger multidisciplinary engineering consultancies under a single commission. This is because industrial projects are typically bespoke and the cost of rework to resolve clashes onsite is very expensive and disruptive to operations. Clients have seen the benefit of using more expensive drafting platforms and larger multi-disciplinary consultancies, rather than managing the interfaces between multiple design packages.

Other segments, such as building design, have been slower to adopt integrated 3D modelling. This in part has been due to prevailing engineering services procurement strategies and allocation of design scope within the supply chain.

Engineering services are generally split into several separate commissions by discipline. Also some elements of the design, such as building ventilation, are only developed to a conceptual level by the design consultant with a performance specification, and then detailed by vendors. This is slowing the universal adoption of integrated 3D modelling and is an area of focus amongst engineers working within the buildings segment.

Integration of CAD models is likely to be mirrored at an organisational level with a shift to multi-disciplinary engineering consultancies. The adoption of integrated 3D CAD has been easier with the multi-disciplinary engineering services procurement strategy favoured by the heavy industrial market; compared to the buildings market that favours procuring separate single disciplinary services. Single discipline engineering consultancies are likely to form collaborative relationships with other consultancies to take on multi-disciplinary consultancies, be absorbed into existing multi-disciplinary consultancies, or be challenged by shrinking niche markets.

I’ve summarised the CAD trends below:
Aspect Historical Current Emerging
Draughting Manual CAD Integrated CAD
Team compositions Draughting teams with a range of skill levels Reduction in ‘tracing’ positions Shared CAD with less back-office personnel
Industry structure Small single disciplinary consultants and large multidisciplinary government engineering departments Large multi-disciplinary and specialist single-disciplinary consultancies Smaller multi-disciplinary consultancies


Some market segments such as heavy industrial have almost completely moved to integrated 3D CAD and are enjoying the benefits of fully coordinated design and realistic visualisations. And they are now moving to more sophisticated systems that depend on having a fully realised and complete 3D model of a facility. Other market segments have been slow to adopt integrated 3D CAD, perhaps due to project engineering procurement practices and allocation of engineering scope between designers and specialist vendors.

Future trends in engineering are considered in the second part of this article, including the effects that these are likely to have on team compositions and the structure of engineering services consultancies.

In the second part of this series, I investigate the trends in engineering calculation and convergence of draughting and engineering into common automated systems.

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Tom Morten

Principal - Project Management

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