Is engineering software the answer to your engineering problems?

This was a few years ago.  I was in the final round of discussions before the award of a job, with the CEO of a fairly large and cash-rich organization.  That far the discussion had gone on very well and the CEO looked extremely satisfied with our company’s credentials and ability to do the job at hand.  The CEO summoned his purchase head to join us.  I was getting ready to defend the price we had quoted. At that juncture, the CEO asked me which engineering software we would use to do the job. It was a simple and straightforward job that did not warrant the use of any special engineering software. I replied truthfully that we would use AutoCAD and excel. The CEO looked incredulous.

"Don’t you have any special software for this?", he asked.

"No", I said, "The job is simple and straightforward. It does not need any special software".

"But your competitors said they would use some special 3-D software for quantity takeoffs. Would that not ensure accuracy?"

I assured him that with our method and the quality controls we have in place, we would do an equally accurate job.

I thought he took an affront, almost a personal insult, to my saying that the job did not warrant the use of any engineering software apart from AutoCAD. I could see the job slipping away.

When the job did finally slip away, my fellow Director and I felt sorry for the CEO. And we were satisfied that we adhered to our company policy not to lie to a client.

Another CEO in a similar situation asked me whether we would use PRIMAVERA on a project management assignment.  The situation was similar to one described above but this CEO listened to what I had to say and decided to give us the job.

He was not a victim of the Software Panacea syndrome.

Very few people realize that it is the man behind the machine that counts. A better trained, more experienced person can do a wonderful job with software or without. Good, tested software works wonders in the hand of an experienced person.  But give the same software to an untrained or inexperienced person. You will invariably find that the job will be full of errors and will take more time to complete than necessary. The black box approach that most of the inexperienced users adopt is not only wrong but could be dangerous.

We have very effectively used 3D models to estimate some very complicated hydropower plants. It would neither be cost effective nor would ensure accuracy to use the same type of software to calculate architectural finishes on a rectangular 20 storied building.

We, at Gem Engserv Pvt. Ltd., are forever are in search of new and better methods to increase productivity and improve quality control. This quest includes an in-depth assessment of software that comes out in the market. Generally, new software that is launched in the market has some limitations or lacunae. This is inevitable. Software gets better and better with each new version.  But then there is a possibility that it might become difficult to use and might lose on its productivity side.

A trained user of engineering software whose senses have been honed after handling various types of jobs can quickly spot errors and inconsistencies in the output. He would have developed a professional sixth sense.

Recently our Chief Estimator found that tried and tested industry standard software was making some approximations while calculating formwork for the beam to beam junction. She could sense this only because she had a gut feel about the magnitude of the formwork quantity. She had developed this over the years and no software can replace this.

This reminds me of some incidence in the past.

I was a newly qualified engineer then. As any young civil engineer, structural engineering held all the glamor. Private jobs were hard to come by then so I held on to a job as a site engineer. One of my friends was working with an old structural engineering firm. I envied him.

But my friend was not happy. He always complained that he never worked on a real job. Instead his boss, the principal of the firm, periodically gave him about ten fictitious structural frames with complicated loadings and wanted him to draw deflected shapes of the frames under those loadings.  My friend started with getting all of the deflected shapes wrong. The matter did not end there. He had to work on the problems till he got all the deflected shapes right. Getting the deflected shapes right would take him next few days, and then he would get the next batch to work on. After a few months, my friend could get seven or eight out of the ten frames right on the first go. He was then given his first real job. Due to his earlier grounding, he could check the correctness of his analysis quickly and proceed with the design. My friend ultimately rose to become a partner in the firm and was well versed with all the sophisticated software. But he never left the habit of checking a deflected shape.  This training still continues in the firm and the firm still retains its position as a small but powerful structural consulting practice.

On the other hand, I have seen a team of engineers struggling for weeks to resolve the strengthening around an opening that was indicated in a stress graphic. This was found to have been caused due to an error in input. It was found out by their Chief Engineer who was visiting when he realized that the stress pattern was not consistent with the loading.

This reminds me of an old army dictum:

"A soldier with an unfamiliar weapon is more likely to shoot himself than the enemy"!


Jagdish Raje


GEM Engserv Pvt. Ltd.