When Did Engineering Become Simply a Paper Chase?

This article was written by Ryan Nabozniak, an application consulting engineer at Aucotec.

ryanI was introduced to the engineering discipline by my father, an electrical engineer. He would bring home parts of models that modeling teams built out of plastic pieces to visualize how a facility would go together. When he talked about engineering, my frame of reference (as a 5-year-old) was that my father drove trains, a train engineer.  

When I told my friends my father was an engineer, they also thought that meant he drove trains. For a 5-year-old, it was the coolest type of father to have (better than having a father who was an accountant or a lawyer — boring!).

As I got older, my father introduced my brother and me to Star Trek. Every week, we would gather around the family television to watch Star Trek reruns. Chief Engineer Scott was one of my heroes. I would later adopt his mantra, “Captain, it cannot be done! But I’ll give it a shot!”  

Weekly, Chief Engineer Scott performed impossible engineering miracles with antimatter, warp drives, and exotic technologies that hadn’t been invented, or even thought of, yet. I was enthralled and would tinker with the early computers my father brought home and the TV remote, just like Chief Engineer Scott did. To me, between the ages of 8 and 12, that’s what an engineer was. What a fascinating and exciting life they had!

We would also watch old James Bond films, and I was endlessly fascinated with the inventions that Q would present to James Bond as part of his missions.

As I got older, I realized that I wanted to pursue a life in the applied sciences — that I wanted to troubleshoot, invent and make things just like my heroes, Q, Chief Engineer Scott, and my father.

But soon after college, I took my first job – with my father – and reality hit –

The bulk of my job was drafting and designing drawings. I was completely divorced from what I was drafting or designing, and I spent the majority of my days checking for consistency between these drawings. Managers would rail against me for the tiniest mistakes and would use my failure at being unable to pay attention to exacting detail as a warning to others not to follow the same path.  

Projects became shorter and shorter, and expectations became higher and higher. I watched colleagues and friends leave engineering altogether, because, like me, they had entered the profession in the hopes of creatively solving problems, inventing new products and solutions, and possibly saving the day or changing the world.

The reality, however, was that we spent our days scrutinizing sheet numbers and references to make sure they were consistent across drawings. Infighting between disciplines was a daily occurrence, and protecting the firm from lawsuits due to human error a necessity.

Eventually, I found I was the person I least wanted to become – an overbearing project lead who came down hard on junior engineers and designers for their lack of attention to exacting details — just like I had been criticized for when I started.

My love of the profession and my hope that I would one day become like my heroes were gone. I wasn’t solving problems or coming up with creative solutions for customers and colleagues. I was pushing paper and, as a lead, using the lash of my tongue on others to achieve the same exacting standards.

Where did it all go wrong?

Three things seemed to create a perfect storm during my career –

  1. An increase in lawsuits by owner-operators against engineering firms. The quality of engineering (interpreted as consistency and accuracy, not innovation or creativity) became a key measure within projects. Public failures of engineering designs drove this new reality.
  2. Increasing competition from overseas firms and the offshoring of jobs. This meant that, to win work and stay in business, firms had to consistently cut their bottom lines (i.e., staff and hours). The result was high turnover and burnout.
  3. Siloed systems and tools that did not keep up with the new reality.  Vendors have tried and, for the most part, failed to address the real needs of engineers within this new climate.

So where do we go from here? Is there a way out?

The short answer is – Yes.

To get to that answer, consider the following –

What do you dream of doing within your engineering department? Do you want to create drawings or design systems? Do you want to work on projects that are adversarial or cooperative? Are you happy with the current manual cross-checking of documents, deliverables, and data across disciplines, or do you want to be free of this by using an automated system?

If you’re happy with the way things are — pushing paper, focused on mind-numbing details, not interested in a system approach — then this article will not help you.

If, however, you want to break down silos of miscommunication, to design systems instead of simply drafting, to work on cooperative multidisciplinary projects, to be free of mindless quality checking and quality assurance, and finally to lower the costs of your engineering projects while still maintaining creativity within your staff and effectively competing against low-cost rivals, then maybe we can help you.

Engineering Base is the system to help you break out of the endless nightmare that you find yourself in. Intrigued?

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