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The Engineering Drawing environment: from paper to electronic and beyond

Let’s go back nearly a hundred years in time when many of the celebrated civil engineering wonders were built: The Panama Canal, the Hoover Dam, and the Brooklyn Bridge. The profession of drafting emerged as a vital but distinct discipline needed by engineers to document their design. Its focus was on the production of engineering drawings ready for a contractor to build from. This historical journey will put things in perspective and serve as a base from which to project the role of printed drawings in the future when Engineering-as-a-Service (EaaS) becomes the norm.

L to R: Panama Canal, Hoover Dam, Brooklyn Bridge

History is a tool for identifying the causal relationship of fundamental concepts and the nature of those relationships, when concepts and their relationships are examined along a timeline spanning generations. Keeping this definition of history in mind, we'll explore three drawing environments and how each plays out over time. You will then be able to extrapolate from the evolution of engineering drawing, whether printed engineering drawings still have a role in the project you are undertaking, or will your customer be better served if you have engineering drawings take on another form.

None of the three engineering drawing environments we explore will vanish. Each will continue to play a role long into the future. Which specific engineering drawing environment dominates in your work will be determined by the types of clients you serve and the projects you undertake.

Considering that the production of engineering drawing is your livelihood, the only advise worth giving, when it comes to the selection of the drawing environment you choose for your project, is to only select the best you can afford. It is a mistake to settle on an inferior environment because it did not receive the attention to detail necessary for the finesse and flexibility demanded by professionals who work on vital projects that impact the many.

Drafting Table, Geometric Instruments, and Supplies

The dawn of the Industrial Age (oil production, car manufacturing, railroad industry, electrification) coupled with massive public infrastructure investments in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw a significant increase in the reliance on engineering disciplines to build the modern world. This also meant an exponential increase in the volume of engineering drawing production. Up until the 1960's engineering drawings were hand-crafted by draftspersons using a drafting table, tee-squares, templates, geometric instruments, engineering scale, pens, pencils, and erasers. If your projects require the development of engineering drawings on paper by hand, you will find excellent advise in the "Selection of Instruments" chapter of the 1935 book "Engineering Drawing, 5th Edition" by Thomas E. French on how to select the best drafting tools and supplies for your work.

Tee-Squares to Computers

Tee-squares and triangles have largely been replaced by Computer Aided Design and Drafting (CADD, more commonly referred to as CAD) software in the professional engineering/architecture and the manufacturing industries.

Much like the drafting board and tee-square helped draftspersons create drawings through the use of geometric shapes, CAD today helps create drawings through the use of geometric modeling tools. This means that the core data structure that defines the CAD file format is focused on the geometric properties and attributes of entities drawn.

All drawings created in popular CAD packages today use geometric elements such as open- and closed-shapes, surfaces, and solids as their basic building block. These elements have geometric attributes such as coordinates, level, color, weight, and style, and they support links to optional non-graphic data.

To take CAD beyond the creation of drawings with geometric tools to the simulation of assets such that these simulations are useful beyond just the design stage of a project will mean the adoption of file formats and systems of a different nature. That is what component modeling is all about, and is discussed later in this introduction to engineering drawing environments.

History of CAD

Considering that CAD came into widespread use after the introduction of the IBM-compatible personal computer in 1981, many believe that CAD originated with the PC. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The work of Dr. Ivan Sutherland in the early 1960s was a milestone in the development of vector-based computer graphics software. His 1963 doctoral dissertation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) described Sketch-Pad, an interactive CRT graphics system that could be used to draw a line on screen when a light pen was tapped to identify its start and end points. His thesis described data structures for storing geometric entities that formed the basis upon which today’s CAD systems are based.

At about the same time, several large companies in various industries also began experimenting with computer graphics as a means of developing design drawings. Aerospace companies such as Boeing, McDonnell Douglas, and Lockheed began to explore ways to exploit computer graphics technology for the design of aircrafts and missiles. Automobile manufacturing firms such as General Motors began work to apply computer graphics technology to design cars. Electronics companies such as Motorola, and Fairchild began to use this technology for the design and manufacture of printed circuit boards.

Computer graphics systems at the time could only run on mainframe computers. Only large companies with dedicated computer support staff could afford to invest in the research and development of systems for such use. One thing was clear though. The use of interactive computer graphics was helping these companies save time and money.

In an effort to bring the technology to a wider audience a new generation of companies known as turnkey computer graphics vendors, came into being. Silicon Graphics, Inc. and ComputerVision were among the first in this genre of companies. These companies independently developed high-performance computer graphics systems and bundled hardware, software, support, and peripherals (graphics terminals, disk drives, memory, floating-point processors, pointing devices, printers and plotters) in a value-added package available from a single source.

The philosophy that drove turnkey computer graphics vendors was that many companies and government agencies have a need for computer graphics, but not all have either the technical or financial resources to develop such systems in-house. By investing in the development of this technology for a wider audience the cost per site would be much lower than if the system were developed for a single site. This proved to be a sound business principle, and such companies thrived.

Most engineering drawings from 1990s and onward were produced using CAD software. Virtually all owners on significant engineered assets require the production of engineering drawings in CAD software.

The Limitations of Design Applications Running Inside CAD

What drove the creation of the CAD software category and its data structure was the need to automate and impart greater precision to the process of creating drawings. CAD, during its infancy emulated the drawing creation process, nothing more. As CAD usage grew, the need to integrate engineering analysis and design functions within the computerized drawing environment also grew. This need was fulfilled by innovative engineering firms who relied heavily on CAD systems.

In time, CAD vendors began to gobble up engineering design software vendors who had extended their CAD environment with industry-specific solutions. These solutions extended CAD's geometric modeling features through the use of non-graphic data attributes to perform analysis and design tasks. Examples of such applications include: InRoads, Civil3D, STAAD-III, HydroCAD, Revit, and dozens of others.

These design applications offer tools that perform engineering calculations and generate, either automatically or semi-automatically, traditional 2D drawings as a by-product. But because the electronic drawing file format primarily stores geometric information such as entity type, element coordinates, color, layer, line style, and thickness, an engineering application of necessity stores its data either external to the drawing environment or extends geometric data with non-graphic attributes. For instance, in order to create a bill of materials, a BIM (Building Information Modeling) application needs a way to determine that the set of lines and arcs that looks like a door is tagged as a door and stores nongraphic data attributes it needs.

In other words, there are two key components to a design application that works within the electronic drawing environment: nongraphic attribute data and the add-on software that operates upon the data. Design applications work by interacting with both the attribute data and the CAD engine.

So long as the design application responsible for the tagged user data is loaded within the CAD environment, it will ensure that the tagged data remains consistent to design rules. Should you ever edit the drawing without the associated application loaded, the design file can become corrupt.

This is where EaaS comes in. It is based on the premise that systems that focus on the value of the data in enterprise-wide terms have the potential to offer far greater utility than geometric or other representations, which can be derived from the model on demand.

The Emerging EaaS

The emerging Engineering-as-a-Service (EaaS) environment, from the perspective of the CAD vendor, is the confluence of (i) cloud-centric design collaboration tools that implement object transaction management; (ii) software objects that can preserve their state from session to session; and (iii) the standardization of engineering object schemas. From the perspective of an engineer, EaaS is a digital environment within which to virtually simulate existing conditions and have proposed designs interact with those conditions in discipline-specific ways that follow the laws of reality. This evolution will lead to robust interaction with project and earned-value management systems to fulfil the "-as-a-Service" promise.

There is another important aspect to EaaS. With ready access to pre-built CAD models from vendors of manufactured engineering components, and the availability of cheaper labor for standardized engineering drawing production tasks that are being delivered online through global marketplaces, innovative engineering business will begin developing intelligent components for EaaS environments much like they had developed design applications to run inside the CAD drawing environment. These customized intelligent components will become the value-adds customers will benefit from.