One day recently someone asked me, "Do you agree that the quality of engineering design has fallen over the past years?" My answer was yes, the quality of some engineering design has in fact declined as the profession of engineering has given way to the business of engineering.
To find out what to do about it, we have to look at why it happened. I talked to some friends about the causes.
The key event that has led to this decline was the unfortunate acquiescence of the National Society of Professional Engineers to the antitrust claim by the U.S. Dept. of Justice in 1964, leading to the elimination of a minimum fee schedule. Yes, the schedule had been misused in some instances. But the reason behind the schedule still remained—the need to provide a source of funding for services that an engineer has an ethical (if not legal) duty to supply, but that the client does not necessarily want and certainly does not want to pay for.
Let's compare the situation to medicine.
If I go to a doctor for elective surgery and discuss the costs in advance, I will be told of a charge for disposal of "infectious waste." We all know the response that I would get if I say, "Don't bother with that service, I will bring a plastic bag and take care of that myself."
And so it should be with engineering services. Many clients of engineering services would be just as happy without an environmental, safety or constructability review. And if the client is only willing to pay for a part-time safety inspector, the engineer often is pressured to provide none and disclaim responsibility. (But if an attempt is made to allocate responsibility for safety to the contractor—the one party insulated from responsibility by workers' compensation laws—is this an effective allocation or ineffective delegation?)
One friend I talked to about the problem notes the difficulty of educating the client that the cost of supervising the commissioning of complex systems can't be absorbed by the overhead of the design process. The minimum fee schedules promulgated by NSPE and other professional societies were primarily to assure funding for those services that the client does not want, such as a second review of drawings (about which the owner may think, "I already pay for one review, do it right and I don't need a second review").
Another friend disagreed with the idea of a decline. He argued that most engineering design today is superior, based upon the education of our younger engineers, improved communication among professionals and modern tools now available to designers. But he admits that the quality of many sets of plans put out for bid could be better.
Defeat on fee triggered quality decline.
He asks, rhetorically, "Why do they call it insurance for errors and omissions?"
Perhaps the same economic pressure that rushes the second review of calculations also precludes a proper overview of the project design. Do all of the required submittals in the specifications actually apply to some product to be used on this project? Has anyone checked about local fire codes? For that matter, other than the sales reps, have any of the designers actually been to the site? Or are only the bidders expected to visit the site?
Some of the problem may even be an unintended consequence of the modern tools. The introduction of 3-D and 4-D CAD systems certainly provides killer graphics for the client. But I'm reminded of the story of the young engineer being sent to hand-deliver an important package requiring special instructions to the post office. Along the way through the building, several other senior engineers accost him, each demanding he deliver an additional package. By the time he reaches the post office, he has forgotten the special instructions for the first package.
In achieving the superior productivity demanded of today's competitive climate, the design engineer must act as his or her own secretary, clerk and draftsperson—depriving the engineer of the the crosscheck for errors provided by subordinates. To this is coupled the reduced (or non-existent) overhead budget for peer review or review by the senior engineers of the firm.
The answer, I suppose, would be for the professional societies to set minimum levels of service that may be purchased. Rather than a minimum fee to support an overhead for internal peer review of one in five projects, which is not chargeable to any one project, perhaps we should advocate a requirement of licensure that a 10% surcharge on fees be reserved for such purpose.
Or would the U.S. Dept. of Justice decide that too is harmful to our ultimate client—the public? Let the Dept. of Justice tell that to the bereaved and the survivors of the Kansas City Hyatt.