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Viewpoint: Will Computer Programmes Replace Human Engineering Skill?

Will AI and machine learning replace human engineering skill anytime soon? What are the factors behind this question and are there good examples? John Hannen shares his viewpoint.

NO ONE COULD ARGUE THAT TECHNOLOGY hasn’t improved the workplace. Through new software and hardware, nearly every industry has received an upgrade to its working processes. There have been some concerns surrounding how far the advancement of technology will go—will it one day surpass the need for human skill? These doomsday-style prophecies for the workplace are, perhaps, a little too grandiose. After all, software and hardware are only as accurate and useful as the skilled operator. Put simply, there’s really no replacement for genuine engineering skill.

A Tool To Assist

Computer-based assistance really is just that: a tool to assist. 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. Concept Design —  At this stage, the majority of the design comes from the imagination of the engineer, supported by some simple sizing elements or calculations.
  2. Drafting and Analysis — This stage brings the concept design 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 (BIM/CAE/FEA) to help engineers work to a greater degree of accuracy.
  3. Detailed Design — This stage is when, as the name suggests, the design becomes much more detailed (and real in terms of constructability). At this point, the design is almost completely computer-based, with analysis happening in the background

It’s likely that such processes will always require an aspect of creativity and imagination — the ability to think outside the box and problem-solve in new ways. 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, it is worth bearing in mind that the majority of engineering disasters have occurred due to something unusual…



Naturally, human judgment is not flawless. 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.

The Millennium Bridge in London was closed immediately after it was opened. Engineering software and human judgement must go hand-in hand and machine learning and AI are unlikely to remove human engineers anytime soon due to a range of complex issues. (image: John Hannen via

There are many examples of such missed errors. For example, the Millennium Bridge’s well-known wobble was not picked up on at any point 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 for both human and technological processes to be as accurate as possible, formulas need to be crafted. 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 (FEA), almost any form can be analyzed—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, architects are seen as wanting novelty first. But this disparity makes for the perfect partnership towards the best designs.

About The Author

Amy Hodgetts is a content writer on behalf of Oasys, a leading commercial developer of engineering software. Ms. Hodgetts is a graduate from the University of Glasgow, with an undergraduate MA (Hons) in English Language.

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