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Should Engineering Students Learn Pencil-and-Paper Drafting?

By DE Editors

In his June Degrees of Freedom column, Steve Robbins, DE’s executive editor, asked if engineering students should be taught pen-and-paper drafting before being taught computer-aided design. DE s readers responded. Below are excerpts of the letters to the editor we received.

“Get those students some computers and 3D software!

“I have been a mechanical designer for many years. I started back in the day when pencil and paper was the only option. Now all I use is 3D CAD.  That said, I don t have any advantage over somebody that never used pencil and paper. The fact is the sooner a student gets to learning CAD software  the better.

“My sons started learning Autocad at 12 years old. Now they are learning Maya (animation software) in high school and I can t believe how talented they are. Part of the success is because they are comfortable working in 3D and are familiar with the software. They get ideas into the computer model almost as fast as they think of them.

“I am surprised this discussion still take place, especially at the university level.
" Miguel S.

“There are indeed several elements of discipline, orderliness, logic, and process that are imparted by the experience of manual drafting.  Many of these can also be disseminated through training in electronic drafting (2D CAD) as well.   In that regard I would jettison the mechanical process but definitely hold onto the electronic process.

“That said, there is some question whether 2D CAD does or will have a place in the future and whether it should be part of the curriculum.  

“In many industries (but not yet all) there is very little need for traditional drafting with fully dimensioned drawings, yet industries where it persists suggest that a fundamental competency on the part of the graduate engineer is still valuable.   Whether there are staff members to create drawings or perhaps only fabricators who create and use them is irrelevant to some degree " the engineer needs to fully understand the entire process by which the concept in his or her head is converted to reality in order to be effective in using all available resources to execute, extend, and innovate.   If that process still includes traditional, fully dimensioned drawings, it is important for the engineer to understand why they are important in order to work effectively with that supplier or fabricator.

“I would also like to make a seemingly contrarian statement regarding the reliance upon computers in design.   Too often I have seen engineers and designers get completely wrapped up in the tool (CAD) and the boundaries it imposes by procedures that the creative element of design gets constrained to what the limits of what the software can do, or even worse, the time it takes to execute a design limits the opportunity to explore other radically different alternatives.   It is a bit over-simplistic but computers don t enable you to create faster, they only enable you to erase faster. Creation or innovation in design doesn t come from the computer, it comes from the brain.
“To that end, I continually espouse my own firmly held belief that the most important tool in creative design after the brain is still the pencil.   With it I can create a wide range of thumbnail sketches of features, concepts, or details far faster than any modeling tool on the planet.   I can then pick and choose and ponder which to pursue in the CAD process.   Certainly there are new insights, refinements, and even innovations that occur in the CAD process but the ability to think of a concept, then capture it quickly, and then move on to other concepts is probably one of the most ignored skills that I strongly feel SHOULD be taught.   It is akin to the brainstorming process but in physical design it is often necessary to capture to paper in order to free the mind to think in new directions.   In short: Work the brain and the pencil before engaging the computer.

“Regarding how I ve developed this perspective "I grew up under, then on a drafting table in the ’60s and ’70s (my father was a consulting engineer in private practice), and I transitioned to CAD in the early ’80s (2D, 3D wireframe, and finally solids).   I ve been doing mechanical product and system design since 1980 and in private practice as a consulting design engineer since 1988.
  " Michael M.

“For my day job I m a mechanical designer, but for the last 10+ years I have been instructing mechanical design.  After reading your article I thought I should share my experiences and conclusions because I have asked my self the same questions.  

“From basic drafting to the final design courses I allow my students to use their tool of choice.  This could be board drafting, 2D electronic or SolidWorks or Inventor.  We instruct them in the use of the tools and how to design. By limiting the students knowledge of various tools you will handicap them in today s job market.”
"  Michael H.

“I did technical drawing at high school and what was very valuable was learning sections and intersections of objects.  We also learned rudimentary pencil drawing.  Actually, I learned how to cheat at that by drawing heavy partial lines where I knew they were good and extended them later.

“At university I got out of drafting because I had already done it.   But, this is in 1969. We were taught CAD and I did a parametric study of a steering layout.  The others in the design class used paper and pencil.  

“At my first job with IBM I helped work on a 2D parametric geometry and finite element engine.   So, in 1971 I was optimizing part geometry graphically online.  I was also running FE analysis online "they let me use a whole 360/65 "interactively.

“Why the hell would anybody use pencil and paper 40 years later?  The first line you put down is wrong AND in the wrong place.  I still see advice on using 2D Autocad and cringe.  

“Parametric modelers are the ONLY way to go.  

“To be competitive you need to come out with the best possible and well optimized product right out of the gate.  Otherwise, your competitor will see room for improvement and steal your advantage. It does have one bad side effect: If there is no room for improvement then there may not be a next product for you to design.”
" Chris P.

“I found your article both interesting and disturbingly dismissive. I do not disagree engineering students should have access to the latest tools but I fail to see these tools providing the base training required to make an all round good engineer.

“I spend a major part of my week training people (college students) in the use of AutoCAD and Inventor in the context of their engineering subjects. Whilst CAD is both great fun and extremely useful, teachers using CAD need to ensure they are covering basic geometry, projection, shape generation, etc. using old style techniques, where possible, with CAD tools.

“Many problems I see on a daily basis, in industry with shape generation can be sheeted home to the fact the new engineer knows what shape s/he wants but has no idea how to create it if the CAD system does not have it built in.

“Equally the CAD industries push for 3D in preference to 2D is another example of an equivalent piece of out with the old stupidity. Both 2D and 3D are needed and SHOULD be taught as fundamentally equally important tools. Using 2D, many of the old skills can be introduced, practiced and understood and then used when and where appropriate. After all that s what an engineer should be doing "making design choices.

“The flip side of this argument would see basic math dumped. Why bother teaching tables or why 2+2=4? After all, calculators do the job (no slide rule or long division needed). Why continue to waste time teaching students to hand write? Even you indicated typing was faster. We could save a lot of time teaching if we only had to ensure the student knew which formula to select to calculate a columns strength and with the right tools the correct solution would be found; but would we have created a good design engineer?

“The old draugthing skills MUST be taught. If CAD tools can be used to do this, all the better. If they cannot, then there is no alternative but to use older methods.

“It would be very useful and I would enjoy seeing this topic discussed more fully, Steve.”
" Paul W.

“I did the drafting in high school and some simple CAD tools in college.   I m currently in a position that still considers 2D CAD as an engineer s skill and not as a  technician.  Though that seems to be the way things are moving.  3D CAD is already mostly a technician s job in automotive (where I am currently) and is in large part how aerospace   has been for some time (where I used to work).   Maybe that is the point of view that the administrators are taking.  So, the question is, is CAD relevant to an engineer s ability to innovate and/or iterate through a design quicker than having a technician do it?
" David T.

“There is as much purpose in teaching hand-drawing as there is in teaching how to use a slide-rule.  And the earlier the exposure to 3D CAD the better.  I can t give you any specific data on productivity or what the job market is looking for, but in 13 years my company has never hired someone who couldn t use CAD, and we re trying to use 3D as much as possible.”
" James I.

“I would be very interested to hear what others have to say about the question you raise in this column.  I m not a draftsman, architect, or mechanical engineer "well, I guess I am an architect of sorts:  a systems architect.   (I don t have the title, but that s what I do.)   But I do mentor my boys FIRST Robotics team, and one of my areas of responsibility is the design of the robot.   We use Pro/ENGINEER to sketch our designs and ideas.   We re still relatively new at it, but we re finding a significant amount of value in sketching our designs in a CAD environment before we take saw to sheet metal.

“So, given my limited experience in the subject area, perhaps I don t really have any right to express an opinion on the question, but I think this may be useful.  

“When I entered college in fall of 1982, I had already been writing programs in AppleSoft Basic on my school s Apple II+ for two years.  Two of my first four programming courses required writing programs on punch cards, and a third one encouraged it, although we weren t prohibited at that point from using the Ontel terminals to enter and run our software.  Most of us punched cards for that class anyway, because you could almost always just walk up to a punch machine and use it, but you had to wait, sometimes an hour or more, to get a seat at a terminal.

“I do not know whether any professional programmers were still using punch cards.  I doubt it very much.  I know that in my 24-year career, I ve never seen cards used for anything but note-taking and desk-leg shimming.   So was my experience in card-punch exile a waste of my time and money?

“I don t think it was. Learning BASIC from the AppleSoft Tutorial had given me some bad programming habits, and having to punch each card helped me retrain myself. I began thinking about logic in terms of loops and subroutines, and things that could be pulled out of one program and used again elsewhere. It only took one accidental spill of a box of cards to convince me that, although the line number field might be optional, it was still a really good idea to use it.  And to make sure that, between indentation and long variable names, I didn t exceed the 80-column limit, I often wrote my symbolic in pencil and paper before heading over to the computing center.   Finally, after writing several programs on cards, once I finally got to use a terminal "and later, my very own workstation! "I really appreciated the convenience it afforded me.  Although there was something disconcerting about not having a physical box of cards to take home:   what if something happened, and the mainframe lost my files?  I d have to retype my program from a printout, and then deal with any typos that crept in.

“Similarly, I suspect that, because CAD programs are written to replace the mechanical pencil, compass, straightedge, and French curve, a foundation in the use of those tools to produce engineering drawings could be of considerable value too.  If nothing else, it might help the budding engineer understand why the programs work the way they do.  And once they earn the right to use big engineer tools like CAD, they will appreciate them all the more.  

“Certainly one can learn to be a superlative mechanical engineer without ever using producing a pencil-and-paper drawing, but I think even if there is little educational value in working with the fundamentals of a profession, there is still some sort of value in understanding first-hand how our professions pioneers had to do the job, and how far we have come from there.
" Edward A.

“Just read your article in June 2010 edition of DE and in regards to your question: Do future engineers need to learn mechanical drafting with pencil and paper? I d have to say absolutely not. I ve been a CAD designer for 35+ years and worked with a lot of young engineers. When I started in CAD back at GE Aircraft in the mid 70s, not many graduating engineers had any CAD training. Many had drafting, but CAD was so new not many colleges had worked it into the curriculum yet. It wasn t until the early to mid 90s that I saw graduating engineers come in with CAD knowledge.

“Contrast that to today where CAD education in engineering education is more the norm than the exception. I can unequivocally state that a graduating engineer better have some CAD training because all of the engineering interns I work with do. Companies rely on CAD and associated third-party analytical software that interfaces with CAD heavily. With all the emphasis there is these days on 3D prototyping, product life cycle management, etc., a graduating engineer is severely handicapped if they don t have this experience.

“Just my opinion.”
" Michael S.

“I ve been in the drafting & design field since 1985. I started learning drafting in 1984 in high school on the drafting board and have made the transition to CAD, starting in college in 1986. I currently use Autodesk Inventor and have used AutoCAD since R10 (as well as MDT, a little Cadkey and dabbled a bit with PDGS).

“I think it would be a disservice to engineering students to not teach them drafting starting on the drafting board and learning for several weeks how to put lines on a piece of paper with a pencil, as it still is sometimes the easiest way to quickly get an idea across. Then they should be taught CAD, preferably on more than one current CAD system, i.e. AutoCAD or Inventor and Solidworks, Pro/ENGINEER or Catia (and ones targeted to their intended field), to give them some broad education on what the CAD software in use today can do. Many of them may only dabble with CAD once they get into the field but a good background in drafting and CAD can make it easier when the need to take classes to learn a specific software that the company they hire into uses. It s like teaching kids how to do math, it can cripple them if they only learn to use a calculator. Instead, start them off using their fingers and a pencil and a piece of paper, then once they know the basics learn how to get the most out of a calculator/computer/spreadsheet program.

“Without learning the basics, it makes it harder to make an educated judgment as to whether or not the computer/calculator/CAD program is giving you a good answer.”
" George D.

“I am also an old timer who learned drafting on the board and I see NO benefit for students learning this today.

“What would they use it for and what would they learn?  You might as well teach them how to use a slide rule. This would be an utter waste of their learning time, which would be much better utilized learning how to use 3D CAD!

“What they should also learn is how something gets manufactured, just because you can draw it doesn t mean that it is easily manufactured.

“I hope that nobody I know is going to that unnamed college.
  " Brian L.

“I just turned 50-years-old and my memory is still good enough to recall designing and drafting on a giant drawing board.

“What a wicked thing to do to a young, up-coming engineering student, designer, or drafter make em hand draw something.

“When CAD systems showed up in the 80s, they were the greatest thing ever. I had a summer intern job with IBM, and first laid my fingers on a CAD system. There s no way that I would ever go back to board drafting.

“Two-dimensional drafting with AutoCAD became a huge success for good reason:  Copy an existing file to a new file, make all the changes, and whamo "done.  No more running drawing copies via that brown, hard-to-see-through sepia paper.  Then you burned your hand using an electric eraser, wiping-out all the stuff you intend to alter. Finally, you get to lay down some new lines, dimensions, whatever, for your new/altered design or drawing.   If you didn t like it more power erasing and repeat.

“(With CAD, there is) no more pen and ink on mylar or vellum media paper. No more templates to trace so we could make perfect circles and straight lines. No more lettering templates so everyone can actually read the info. And finally, no more smelly ammonia fumes from that blueprint machine.  Not to mention paper cuts + ammonia = severe pain, swelling, and prolonged healing times.

“CAD systems and pen plotters were awesome.   Now we have color laserjet printing. How many professors still use dot matrix printers ?
3D solid modeling software packages took designing to a whole new level.

“Students learn much more from the basic tutorials that come with each system than we ever learned in a drafting class.

“Young interns that I ve worked who have SolidWorks or Inventor classroom training are much more knowledgeable regarding part tolerances, adding mold part draft and separation, building working assemblies and drawings, etc.

“Every facet of the engineering profession will utilize some form of CAD/CAM/CAE software package.

“For what it s worth I say let go of the past and embrace modern technology.

“Product development, architectural and civil construction have all realized tremendous productivity gains from modern computer tools.”
  " Randy M.

“I am a continuing education student working full time as a design engineer.   I somewhat agree that we students need to have the newest and greatest tools available, although being someone who learned to use CAD first and then took an entry level class that taught the use of drafting paper  and pencil.  I believe this was very helpful as far as how to show views properly and just the basics of drawing.  We had a very short class on this and quickly transitioned into CAD but the “old drafting board and pencil really teaches some fundamental areas that the CAD system does automatically and a person may not catch a mistake when not given the opportunity to see it this way.  

“Some time ago I read an article on the slide rule and how we can learn a lot of basic concepts from the old-fashion way in the event that we don t have these tools available, especially in the event of a power failure or those back of the napkin times.

“We have also talked in my physics class about the use of software and not needing to know all of the formula necessary for these calculations.  If we just teach how to use the software and not the fundamentals of how the software works, and something catastrophic happens in the future, who will know how to get us back to that point if we all only know how to use the software.

“I do agree that we should be able to use all that there is to offer but sometimes it can be a distraction if used unwisely.  Just as you said, the CAD software today is relatively simple to learn and I believe that the basic fundamentals should be stressed more.”
" Sheldon M.

To submit your own letter to the editor, e-mail de-editors@deskeng.com.

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DE's editors contribute news and new product announcements to Digital Engineering. Press releases can be sent to them via DE-Editors@digitaleng.news.