The structural-engineering industry is being rocked by a sizable earthquake of changes right now.
“There are just so many fundamental industry factors affecting the future of structural engineering,” says David Odeh, principal at Odeh Engineers. “One scenario is that engineers become irrelevant.”
That’s a major professional concern among structural engineers, and their anxiety is mostly driven by three factors. First, the enormous advances in computer modeling has led to significantly more complex structures. “It’s almost a self-fulfilling prophecy, or a feedback loop,” Odeh says. “More advanced modeling and analysis leads to more complex designs. And that leads to yet more complex proposals, which call for even more advanced computer tools.”
But paradoxically, as traditional engineering tasks are increasingly automated, actual engineers can seem (and feel) less important. This is the second factor: “When traditional tasks are turned over to advanced solutions, supplemented by cloud-enabled access to calculating power, the reduction in engineer time, and required skill, can be enormous,” Odeh says.
On the surface, it might seem as though structural engineers could go the way of the dinosaur. “For example, selecting member sizes for steel-frame structures is a task that used to require days of painstaking work, as a structural engineer worked from tables and exercised considerable judgment,” Odeh says. “Now, that’s almost a trivial task—for a 100,000-square-foot building, it can take seconds, and the resulting design will be more precise and better optimized.”