LETTER: Can computer programs replace experience in structural engineering?

On Monday, May 6, a 5-storey building collapsed in George. Picture: Ayanda Ndamane / Independent Newspapers

On Monday, May 6, a 5-storey building collapsed in George. Picture: Ayanda Ndamane / Independent Newspapers

Published May 15, 2024


On Monday, May 6, a 5-storey building collapsed in George.

As a structural engineer with more than 10 000 structural design studies under my belt, the question arises whether computer programs can replace experience in structural engineering.

Most advances in earthquake design have been the results of observations of buildings that have been subjected to severe earthquake conditions. Analytical and computer modelling play an important role in structural engineering analysis, but its limitations should always be borne in mind.

On the other hand, experience is a very expensive teacher and fortunately, we do not have to relive all the experiences of those who went before us, especially the failures. It is therefore important for engineers to study structural failures in as much as they study structural successes.

No matter how tragic a failure might be, it would be far worse if a failure could have been anticipated and thus prevented.

Computer software is both a curse and a blessing. A computer does not work with ideas but is best suited for number crunching. It is therefore important for an engineer to know how to use this tool in structural design.

Also, structural analysis and design programs are complex and are often written by people with limited experience in design, construction and site experience.

The critical question is: “Can the civil engineer guarantee that the results and the modelling of the computer program are correct and is he/she proficient with the computer program?”

All young civil/structural engineers must bear in mind that before one can draw beautiful diagrams, they must ensure that they are familiar with the requirements and the constraints of that specific design, and that the mathematical calculations underpinning the designs are correct to avert a catastrophe.

In conclusion, if I were to choose between a super-computer program and a civil engineer with forty years’ experience, I will choose the engineer.

So, in my opinion computer programs cannot replace experience and if someone wants to be a good structural or civil engineer, then he/she must ensure that he/she learns something every day from the experiences of other engineers.

* Ishaq Ebrahim, Rondebosch.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

Cape Argus

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