Does Design Software Replace the Pencil?

There is no substitute for working through tough technical problems with the good old fashioned pencil and paper. In fact, the process helps the mind work through each step of the calculation, and gives the engineer, a “feel” for the design problem. This in turn leads to better judgment to make a final design decision. You cannot beat computers and software for quickly calculating complex mathematical problems, but if the user does not thoroughly understand what is going on in the software, then the entire process results in a semi-blind series of scenario analysis inputs and results.

However, we should not discount the power and benefits of computing power and smart software. On the contrary, we should leverage them, but only once we thoroughly understand the problem. The biggest mistake an engineer can make when first confronted with a new complex problem is to sit in front of a computer and attempt to solve it. This moment should be reserved for rough calculations using a pencil and paper, allowing the mind to absorb the problem. Even if this process only takes 10 minutes, this is a crucial first step that should not be skipped. Then once the problem is thoroughly understood, detailed design and scenario analysis using software can dramatically improve the design cycle time, perform more precise calculations, test for countless failure scenarios, and ultimately produce a better performing product that gets to market sooner. Furthermore, we all make mistakes. So checking the “pencil” calculation in the software, and vice versa, is a great way to minimize hand calculation errors and software input errors.

Therefore, the answer is not one or the other; it is the smart use of both pencil and software.

Christian Vardin, P.Eng
ControlEng Corporation