As a baby boomer engineer, I’ve had the opportunity to live through remarkable growth in the way computational analyses are performed. As this article’s title suggests, over time I learned how to use slide rules, punch cards on main frame computers, hand-held calculators, floppy disks, the Cray super computer, and today’s networked desktop work stations. I still prefer to develop preliminary designs using pencil and paper, but I don’t miss inverting large matrices by hand. And I can’t remember the last time I performed a moment distribution by hand using the Hardy Cross method. Today’s documentation of engineering work can be remarkably intense.

My father was a mechanical engineer, and I always admired his seemingly innate ability to understand thermodynamics. I chose to go the structural engineering route, as statics and stability were more my speed. Through my fifty years of engineering education and professional career, I appreciate learning how to apply appropriate algorithms to solve specific problems. Experience in the office combined with job site observations and interaction with fabricators and installers have instilled confidence to use theoretical models that reasonably predict actual performance. And further confidence is generated by the rather unique culture in the curtain wall industry whereby we often execute full scale performance testing of our bespoke project designs.

I marvel at the speed and complexity of digital simulation using advanced finite element analysis. But I’m always aware that these precisely made components will be assembled in a world where building construction tolerances can impose unanticipated variables. Engineers still wrestle with how to appropriately model structural behavior at shims and slots and other messy boundary conditions. I guess the challenge of solving designs with new materials, new applications, and new expectations of performance has kept me interested for fifty years!

I want to encourage you that each project you tackle today will sharpen you for the next job. As you persevere with budgets and deadlines, good work gets done. I look back at the many projects I’ve worked on and the teams of architects, developers, contractors, and subcontractors.

It is amazing, rewarding, and yet humbling to see the numerous buildings in cities around the world that CDC has had a part in design and engineering. Leveraging technology has enabled us to serve a large and diverse client base, often with repeat business.

But it has been the operators of that technology, YOU, who have fueled the success of our practice. Keep looking for better algorithms and testing new tools that may advance our productivity and accuracy. Who knows? You may invent a 21st-century slide rule!

January 2020


Charles D Clift, PE