Modern Family: The New Relationship Between CAD Technician and Engineer

by Shaun Bryant
- May 29 2014 - 4 min read

Okay, so I am no young hipster when it comes to CAD and drafting. I have been around the block a few times, been on the drawing board, used acrylic pencils and Rotring pens, and was there when we had the second “industrial revolution” from MS-DOS to Windows (ooh, color!).

Back then, we still had the gruff engineer with the big eyebrows and his mechanical pencil, doing the calculations in the engineering pad, passing me the structural steel and reinforced concrete calculation sheets (affectionately known as “calcs”). It was then my job to draw the structural information from the calcs and the survey information (also in a survey pad).

Those were the days, eh? But does that hierarchy still exist? Do you still find that engineer-technician relationship nowadays in a modern CAD office? When I first moved on to CAD from the board, I was just 18, and all my engineers and fellow drafties were in their 50s. Because I was the youngest and (allegedly) the most computer-literate, I was sent on the AutoCAD training course, and, in turn, I ended up training the other seasoned drafties.

The Traditional Approach

Traditional civil and structural engineering (in the UK) normally involved having a Principal Engineer, with a number of Senior Engineers working below them. The Senior Engineers were normally assigned a number of draftspersons (drafties, as I mentioned earlier). The workflow was that, as the Senior Engineer calculated a safe structure using the appropriate standards, the drafties utilized their calcs and survey information to create 2D drawings, enabling the contractor to physically build the structure. When CAD came along, the workflow initially remained the same. At the same time, though, computers became the norm for structural analysis and design, and the rigid boundaries between the role of the engineer and the draftie became more blurred, especially when third-party companies started to program proprietary interfaces between analysis/design software and CAD software, allowing the calculations to link to the CAD drawing.

CAD technician
Fig.1 – Typical Engineering Equation (in writing).

The Modern Approach
So, is that original engineer-technician hierarchy still around? Do architects still wear bowties and waistcoats (vests to those Americans reading this)? Well, you don’t see many bowties anymore, but the roles still exist; it’s just the workflow and process that has changed, along with the tools of the trade. (For the record, I have actually seen a resurgence in bowties recently, but I think this is purely as a fashion item, not as a definition of an architect per se).

Drawing boards have gone, and the laptop has become the CAD workstation. The engineer also has a laptop; he or she is just running different software. All of the design information now resides in a central 3D model (normally on a server) that both the CAD technician (draftie) and the engineer have access to (via a client connection or a cloud connection). CAD software such as Autodesk Revit allows the CAD manager to provide specific permissions to the 3D model, allowing for the clear definition of roles when working on the 3D model (known as “worksharing” in Revit). The engineer can take the structural CAD model and run either a computer-based or cloud-based analysis on it, and the CAD software will let the CAD technician know what changes need to be made to make the structural part of the 3D model stable and adhere to the appropriate standards. The engineer will know how to drive the CAD software so that they can use the structural analysis that is built in and also manage the project (again, Revit is a prime example of this). This is how things have changed. The roles are still there, but the management hierarchy has become much flatter than the traditional model. Many duties are now shared in the all-encompassing 3D CAD environment in which we now live.

CAD technician
Fig.2 – The structural analysis capability in Autodesk Revit.

There are still little pools of tradition out there. But the times they are a’-changin’. BIM technology is rapidly becoming the norm. Using the central 3D model is not going away. It is becoming the hub of all design and drafting. Sure, I miss that traditional way of doing things, but I do believe in progress, and BIM is that conduit.

The tech is also moving forward all the time. Mobile technology is now the default, not the pioneer. I would be lost without my iPhone and iPad, and I run numerous CAD apps on both. I still use the laptop for the “big” apps; for example, I can’t see a full version of Revit on a mobile phone around the corner just yet! But at the same time, I can perform the role of CAD technician, CAD manager, and Senior Engineer directly from my iPad, using the cloud. The tools are becoming much more accessible and the management structure flatter. As I said, the roles are still there; it is just the manner in which they are performed that is changing. Check out my article on mobile technology for a bit more of an in-depth read and more understanding of how mobile devices and apps are changing how CAD technicians and engineers work.

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