#8 - The Computer as a Tool

One impression I get from fellow engineers is that the computer is a blank slate that does everything we used to do manually - only more efficiently. I think this obscures what a computer really is, a tool. A very useful and powerful tool definitely, but still a tool.

It might not seem like much of a distinction, but a tool influences the way you create. If I asked you to sketch something, I would wager that your approach would change if you were using a pencil or a pen. And even that would change if you were using graphing paper or plain paper. The capabilities or relative strengths and weaknesses of the tool change how you approach the task. You might be more willing to put lines on a paper with a pencil and more thoughtful with a pen. Maybe the graphing paper encourages you to draw a more geometric shape than the plain paper.

It seems like we rarely talk about what influences using a computer might have on creation. Certainly, there has been debate about using computers in art, nobody equates an oil painting to a Photoshop job. But in engineering, we never talk about how things might have changed with the widespread use of computer-aided design (CAD). CAD is what is used nowadays to design practically everything three dimensional. In theory, you can replicate 100% of what was done by hand. You can create virtual sketches and curves and manipulate them easily. And at the end, you have the added benefit of getting a 3D model that you can virtually spin around.

But I do think that something as simple as the defaults in CAD programs - the way curves are constructed for instance - lead us down a design path. Not necessarily better or worse, but an influence for sure. One of the most interesting examples around this thought is Adrian Newey. Newey is currently the chief technical officer of the Red Bull Racing Formula One team. He has ten Constructor’s Championships under his belt, the most of any designer in Formula One history. To this day, Newey creates his designs using a drafting board.

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“I’m probably the last dinosaur in the industry that still uses a drawing board,” he said, and nearly winced, calling himself a “creature of habit.”

He’s a bit self-deprecating in his reasoning, but the team apparently employs five people (!) to scan and convert his designs to CAD models. Even if you imagine one person is employed full time to run out and buy a new scanner every time someone goes Office Space on one, that’s incredible. I can only speculate that means his designs are difficult to digitize (perhaps standard computer generated curves don’t match) or drawing gives him freedom for more rapid iteration. Though he’s no doubt a genius, I wonder if that slightly different approach and perspective to his CAD-using peers gives Newey an edge.