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Software and engineers must evolve together

Software and engineers must evolve together

by PENG LIU

This article first appeared on Arup Thoughts.

Will we ever see computers take over from engineers? I don’t think so, but I do think the two will evolve together.

An engineer’s tools used to be his/her brain, a pen and some paper. To design a structure, you simplified it into a model that you could calculate by hand. The first computer-aided structural analysis software appeared in the 1960s. Today, structural analysis software is developing into structural design software, which uses engineers’ language instead of terms from finite element analysis (FEA) theory. 

As a result, the daily work of many structural engineers does not necessarily relate to structural theory but more focuses on coordination and updating models. Many argue that we should not rely too much on the software. However, this seems irreversible as building configurations get more complicated and software improves rapidly. The data structure of engineering software has gone from simple, floating point numbers to smart objects with attributes and behaviours. The digitization of design knowledge at element level (such as members and joints) is being developed to a very sophisticated level. 

Similarly, the coordination of structural elements with other disciplines used to be carried out by engineers. Now this is also being automated thanks to the fast development of building information modeling (BIM) technology. 

Human engineers usually still handle high-level design intelligence, such as determining a structural system. However, on a recent super high-rise building project, China Zun, we hard-coded into a parametric design environment the logic for an engineer to decompose a tall building structure into components and elements and thus build computer models. 

Designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox, at 1,732 ft, the new China Zun Tower dominates Beijing's business district.

Designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox, at 1,732 ft, the new China Zun Tower dominates Beijing's business district.

By controlling about 1,000 key parameters, the system could easily generate hundreds of different structural models, each of which contained 400,000 final variables. Algorithms then helped the engineers find the most cost-effective schemes. 

This can’t replace human intelligence, of course. However, the enormous knowledge-storing and calculation capacity of computers can certainly be put to good use. So I don’t think it’s time to panic just yet. Engineers today actually have more freedom to create innovative systems and configurations than ever before. Think about the difference of a car in 1960 and a Tesla today. Think about the 3D-printed connections. Computing power has made these things possible. It's just that as software evolves, so engineers must evolve, too.

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Peng Liu is a structural engineer in the Beijing office of Arup.  

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