Has CAD killed the designer?

Contributing editor Jon Excell talked to several design engineers to find out if CAD systems have de-skilled the design process

In the not-so-distant past, the creation of a new product was a lengthy process. However, in recent years, the growth in functionality of CAD tools has enabled us to dramatically compress the time it takes to design, engineer, prototype, test and manufacture new products. These once sequential steps may now run concurrently.

Today, many of the tasks to which the designer once devoted a large portion of time are carried out at great speed by the computer. Artistic skill is not essential now that the drawing board has been replaced with CAD’s geometry creation capabilities; and slide-rules and calculators are no longer a vital component of the designer’s armoury. Furthermore, before a single component is manufactured, the design engineer can now practically eliminate risk and uncertainty by developing and testing a 3D design on computer before it actually goes into production.

The CAD revolution is indeed far reaching, and new tools emerge regularly. For example, AutoCAD has recently formed an alliance with Netscape, making it possible to use CAD over the Internet, and knowledge based systems, such as I-CAD, can even make design decisions, albeit mundane decisions, based on the rules which have been fed into the computer.

Undoubtedly, time and money are being saved, but, given the multifarious tasks performed by CAD tools, it seems reasonable to ask whether or not the designer has been usurped by the computer. Is it the case that the designer can get away with being less intelligent now that the skill is contained within the software of the application programme? Or, has CAD simply removed the laborious aspects of the design process and opened up greater opportunities for intellectual exploration and creative freedom?

The premise that CAD has deskilled the engineer is an emotive one which, predictably enough, is energetically denied by design engineers. However, it seems that CAD tools have rarely been embraced without, at least, a few minor reservations. Jim Wilson, chief designer at Lucassen Young, has a clear perception of the negative and positive sides of CAD.

Like many parents, Wilson was introduced to the computer age by his son, who, as a computer scientist, suggested he invest in TurboCAD. The decision to do so is not one he regrets; lead times have been dramatically shortened and less time has to be spent on laborious areas of design. The recent design of a four piece telescopic boom illustrates this perfectly; `… the job of calculating the stresses was horrendous, it used to take months, now it takes half an hour …’ says Wilson. However, he does have reservations. Wilson is concerned that CAD has removed much of the romance from designing. CAD has, he claims, encouraged among younger designers, an absence of artistic skill, and he is disturbed that because of CAD’s diagnostic capabilities `the younger engineer is not putting his personality into his work …’. Wilson points to the disturbing trend towards uniformity in car design. One only has to look at the new MG; a car which once evoked images of open country roads and cult sixties crime-busters now has a shape which is more reminiscent of the Sierra.

Wilson’s concerns are largely dismissed by Ken Sears, chief engineer of vehicle design at Lotus. Sears agrees that CAD has `taken the skill out of artistry and the presentation of the idea’, but he is adamant that the young engineer’s streamlined understanding of the design process is not a problem. Ultimately, says Sears, `all the designer needs to do is design and if complicated arithmetic can be done quickly on the computer then it merely frees up the engineer’s time……’. The thinking process is not deskilled, says Sears, `if anything it is enhanced.’

Sears is also dismissive of the notion that knowledge based CAD systems are eating into the realm of the designer. At Lotus, I-CAD is, he claims, simply used to save time which would be spent on complicated geometric calculations. Design rules are written into the computer, and considerations such as the size of the wheel envelope are resolved rapidly. Lotus has also recently developed Integrated Car Engineer, a knowledge-based system which is being marketed by Concentra. Here, all of the design rules related to ergonomics and legislation are captured on computer. The system is not, says Sears, replacing the engineer, but it enables him to have instant access to knowledge which would otherwise be spread throughout a vast network of people: `it gives the designer greater opportunity to design and cuts out time delays.’

Sears’ undimmed enthusiasm and Wilson’s reservations both boil down to the same thing: recognising the limitations of CAD. As with all new technologies there is a danger of being blinded by science. But, as was the case with desk top publishing, it appears that with CAD the initial excited flirtation with computer technology has given way to a level of sophistication which dictates realistic appraisals of CAD’s worth.

David Young, an architectural designer for IBIS, encapsulates this climate of realism when he says that `CAD should mean computer aided drafting, not design!’ Furthermore, few designers really believe that the time will come when a computer can capture the spark of human creativity which is essential to the design process. Alan Kingsbury, chief designer for Short Brothers, relates this to the limitations of CAD when he says that `…the computer is a geometry creation tool, but in the aerospace industry, design is primarily down to human experience’.

Indeed, it seems that CAD tools only truly come into their own when users recognise these limitations. Mike Pearson, a partner in Pearson Design, a creative design consultancy, says that many of the designers he meets are computer operators first and designers second. In this sense, Pearson hints that CAD could spawn poor designers, but he is also quick to point out that `when a poor designer uses CAD, mistakes are shown up instantly’. For Pearson and his partner Ed Matthews, CAD is a tool which complements, but could never replace, the `cerebral input’ of the designer.

The loss of the drawing board and the attendant decline in artistic skill is mentioned again and again by designers, although most admit that their worry is based on sentiment rather than any real risk to their roles. Colin Reynolds, engineering director of Endoline Machinery puts it clearly when he says that `it’s a shame younger engineers generally know less about artistic design but on an intellectual level they have to think just as much.’ However, Colin Reynolds does suggest that the reason so many engineers are using 2D CAD software is because the `drawing-board mentality’ prevails in most areas of industry, a notion corroborated by Ed Matthews’ claim that `creative people never stop sketching.’

So, if the only perceived casualties to CAD are artistic skill and Jim Wilson’s unpopular suggestion that computers breed uniformity, what of Ken Sears’ claim that the thinking process has actually been enhanced?John Freeman, proprietor of Computer Bureau Services, runs a design bureau based on TurboCAD; he is also the founder and runner of the only TurboCAD user group. Freeman harks back to the old days of engineering: `the engineer had to manufacture a new part, piece parts and draw by hand general assembly drawings; there were no shortcuts.’ By way of illustration, Freeman describes how he was once asked to manufacture a video monitor case, with a gentle curve of a 5 m radius, for use on an aircraft. What was an essentially simple task took a frustratingly long time. Now the job can be completed in under a day. However, Freeman insists that because the process has been speeded up, the designer now needs `if anything, a better insight into design’. What he is saying is that it is relatively easy for an engineer to follow a clearly delineated series of steps but to carry out all of these steps simultaneously requires far more mental agility. Other designers agree; Ed Matthews admits that the designer has been `forced to embrace a broader set of skills’.

In addition to this increased mental agility, the designer has been granted a greater freedom than ever before. CAD has helped to strip away time delays and all the associated detritus of the old design process, giving the modern designer an uncluttered, satisfying environment in which to work. Ken Sears of Lotus is scathing about those who lament the passing of the old ways and fail to realise that such division of labour with the computer creates opportunities for the designer to work spontaneously; `when the calculator was invented people didn’t carry on using long multiplication and division’. Mike Pearson and his partner point to the same advantages when they discuss the way in which CAD helps the user eliminate risks at an early stage; `CAD allows the designer to manage the uncertainty of the design process…you can be a lot more certain that something’s going to work’.