Computers have become a powerful tool in the field of engineering. Before the widespread availability of computers, mathematical models of engineering problems needed to be simplified to the point that the calculations could be reliably performed by a single individual using a calculator or slide rule, and, fortunately, for many engineering problems, simplified models were adequate. However, as process complexity and engineering design complexity increased, engineers increasingly turned to computers for help in managing and automating the large number of calculations required.
The computational tools used by engineers have evolved considerably over the past few decades. In the 1960s and 1970s, computers were not widely available, and they were a specialized tool that was operated by highly trained individuals. In the 1980s and 1990s, computers became widely available, but the engineering software and computational tools were relatively simple compared to what is available in the twenty-first century. The individual that was using the computer general understood the calculations that were being performed, and the computer was primarily a tool for automating those calculations. Many engineering students during this time learned to program in either FORTRAN or C, and the programs written by engineers were frequently limited to a few hundred lines of code. More specialized and easier to use programming environments like MATLAB and IDL were also developed during the 1980s, and they usually helped to decrease the time required to write a computer algorithm, but they increased the time required to execute or run the algorithm.
The trend toward greater specialization and ease of use in computational tools continued in the twenty-first century. The various fields of engineering saw an exponential increase in powerful and easy-to-use tools like AutoCAD, SolidWorks, ANSYS, and Aspen. (Clearly, it is a good idea to choose a name for your software that begins with “A” so it appears first alphabetically.) The individual that uses these software packages may have some understanding of the calculations that are being performed, but they almost never fully understand the calculations and in some cases have no understanding of the mathematics that is being performed by the computer. Today, engineering students are typically taught to use multiple computational software packages during the typical undergraduate education. The irony of this situation is that students often do not understand the calculation being performed by the software – they do not know the limitations of the mathematical models, they do not know the expected accuracy of the approximate solution, and they do not always have the intuition necessary to recognize a highly incorrect result. Another loss associated with the rise of specialized software tools for engineers is that it is often very difficult to find a computational tool for a new problem. The software often works well for the limited range of problems for which it was designed, but, if an engineer wishes to analyze something new or include some change that takes the problem just beyond the range of problems for which the software was design, that engineer is often “out of luck” because no computational tool is available to help.
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