From Drawings to Data: A Radical Paradigm Shift in Engineering

Leonardo Da Vinci Engineering Drawing

When it comes to your design projects, what’s your most valuable asset: your drawings or your data?

For centuries, the answer was drawings. Since before the time of Leonardo da Vinci — the first systems engineer and also the source of many of the earliest known engineering drawings — engineers have focused on drawings.

Today, that focus is changing.

We live in a data-driven world, and engineering is moving from a drawing orientation to a data orientation. For many people and companies, this represents a major paradigm shift, which can be a challenge. But forward-thinking organizations know that this change in perspective is necessary to drive innovation and competition.

To put this paradigm shift in context, let’s take a brief look at the three major evolutions that have happened in the way products, plants, and processes are designed.

Evolution 1: From paper to computers

It’s hard to imagine now, but just a few short decades ago, engineering design was all done on paper.

In A Brief Overview of the History of CAD, David E. Weisberg describes how modern engineering drawing and drafting developed. He notes that even in the 1400s, engineers realized that “drawings had to stand on their own merits,” which required great precision. It was around this time that Leon Battista Alberti proposed that engineering drawings should be in multiple views, laying the theoretical foundation for the 3D models we have today.

Although the tools and processes improved, engineering drawings remained primarily paper-based for the next 500 years.

Then computers changed everything.

Weisberg traces the history of the computer-aided design (CAD) industry back to 1969, when the first drafting systems became available. Now you could create your designs on the computer and save them as a library of documents. No more worrying about spilling coffee on your final drawings!

Moving from paper to computer represented more than just a change in how things were done. It changed what could be done. CAD allowed engineers to tackle increasingly complex problems. Look around pretty much anywhere today — from a grade school playground to a manufacturing plant — and you’ll see a product or a structure that wouldn’t have been possible without this fundamental shift.

Evolution 2: From drawings to drawings + spreadsheets

The second major evolution came when engineering drawings were linked to spreadsheets.

The first electronic spreadsheet program was VisiCalc, which was released in 1979. It was a very simple program that could do only a few basic calculations on a small set of numbers.

But it got the ball rolling! The first version of Microsoft Excel came out in 1985. Today, Excel is still widely used by engineers, empowering them to do complex calculations on large datasets. Engineers use spreadsheets to perform calculations, run simulations, store information about workflows, and much more.

This shift established a link between drawings and data. For the first time since the 1400s, drawings didn’t have to “stand on their own merits.” A drawing and its associated data could be stored, accessed, and manipulated separately.

Evolution 3: From drawing-oriented to data-oriented

Right now, we are in the middle of a third evolution. To sum it up: data is taking over.

Modern engineering design starts with a database. From this database, you can present the data in any format. P&ID? Check. Electrical diagrams? No problem. Charts, reports, analytics? You got it! The drawings that were once the central focus are now just representations of data objects that can be manipulated in an endless variety of ways.

Like the evolutions that came before it, this one requires engineers and organizations to adopt a new data-oriented mindset. This hasn’t been easy — many companies are resistant to change. But for those that have made the switch, the results have been tremendous, providing an innovative, efficient environment for design.

For example, companies are now starting to use data for predictive maintenance. Imagine getting data directly from the equipment installed in a plant. Using this data, you could predict, say, when a motor will stop working. You could order the necessary parts, make a maintenance call, and fix the problem before it happens. Instead of an angry customer dealing with an emergency shutdown, you now have a very happy one.

Engineering has a long history of changing the world. That’s due, in part, to the fact that engineering itself is constantly changing. Here’s to the data-driven evolution — or should we say revolution?

Data is the backbone of modern plant and process design. Learn more about Engineering Base, a revolutionary engineering platform for highly efficient, data-centric collaboration.

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