Ever wonder how contemporary structural engineers complete their projects and what tools help them do their jobs most effectively? Long gone are the days of slide rules and compasses. From drones to computers and the latest design software, technology is constantly improving and providing engineers with better and more accurate tools.

As research and technology evolves, structural engineers have an ever-increasing array of tools available to them. Demands on engineers have driven them to look for ways to complete tasks quicker and more cost-effectively. However, a delicate balance exists between expense and efficiency without sacrificing accuracy and completeness of design.

No magic button

Structural design is much more involved than simply “clicking a button” on a computer.  That is merely one step in a series of decisions and judgements required to arrive at a complete design.

As engineers, we are often asked: “Doesn’t software do it all for you?” We are far from that level of processing. Software can be very useful, but also quite limiting. At best, software can take on a few design tasks, but often the user has to spend time learning and managing the software in order to understand the quirks of each program – or risk arriving at the wrong answer.

This is why we teach young engineers that when using design tools, a wrong answer can be reached just as easily as the right one! Therefore, it is always important for structural engineers to look closely at their designs and calculations and verify their work!

Engineering software and specialized tools

There are several types of software that structural engineers utilize today. They include:

  1. Purchased engineering software
    Engineering programs offer many tools with different functionality and output. More advanced software utilizes Finite Element Models (FEM) which offer greater flexibility for different framing and loading conditions. However, these models don’t always behave like the materials they are designing, and caution must be used when employing them. More basic programs are based on straightforward computational processes, similar to spreadsheets, that allow users to arrive at quick answers for basic design challenges.
  2. Spreadsheets
    Traditional spreadsheets have been used by engineers for decades. Spreadsheets provide a great deal of flexibility to tailor designs for specific criteria and results, although they can be time-consuming to set up. When using spreadsheets, a thorough quality control and review process is required to ensure that there are no errors.
  3. Drones
    A newcomer to the investigative side of structural engineering, drones can cover a large area quickly and have proven to be useful in accessing areas that are difficult to reach. It is likely that as drones are outfitted with better gear for testing and documenting, they will become more prevalent in our industry.

Other traditional office tools

Other traditional office tools structural engineers utilize include:

  1. Email, word processors, and other office software
    These tools have also become staples for conducting business today. Coordinating projects and corresponding with clients – once done by a structural engineer’s administrative staff – are now written by the engineers themselves and sent via email.
  2. Digital cameras
    Traditional digital cameras and those on smartphones have revolutionized the way structural engineers gather data and present them to clients. In “the old days,” pictures were taken on film, sent out to be developed, then taped to pieces of paper for inclusion in a paper-based report. Now, pictures can be taken and verified in the field, then pasted directly into a digital report.
  3. PCs, laptops and tablets
    The electronics age has spurred the development of these important tools, which have become a major source of investment for engineering and design firms today.  
  4. Cloud storage and computing
    An emerging trend is to store files in data centers using a cloud service. Cloud computing also provides access to software through the cloud, which is more cost-effective and lower maintenance for smaller firms like ours. However, this limits options for using, sharing and storing the (sometimes hefty) files we generate. Currently, multiple storage services must be utilized, which limits flexibility between platforms.
  5. Pencil and paper
    There is simply no replacement for a trusty pencil and calc pad in the hands of a knowledgeable engineer who thoroughly understands engineering principles.  These tools can be used almost anywhere….no batteries required!


No engineering report is complete without drawings or sketches that properly convey design intent.

Prior to the 1990s, most drawings and sketches were hand-drafted. Manual drafting is mostly a thing of the past, along with that highly specialized skillset. Today, Computer Aided Drafting (CAD) has replaced hand-drafting and has become the mainstay for creating drawings in our industry. Now, we are able to import or export CAD files directly from design software and share these files easily with our clients and team members.

Within the past 10-12 years, Building Information Modeling (BIM) has been making a push to the forefront of design. BIM allows users to create three-dimensional models that include all building and system components. With BIM, a complete model that is coordinated among all disciplines is generated and can be used throughout construction, allowing for estimating, ordering and coordination.

A complete and accurate BIM model can also be used by an owner or property manager for ordering parts and equipment down the line. Knowing the expected lifespan for products and assemblies allows for better planning of future repair costs.

The most important tool

While these are merely physical tools that an engineer utilizes, the most important tool that any engineer possesses is his or her mind.  As the old analogy reminds us – a saw and hammer can be dangerous to the casual user, but in the hands of skilled carpenter they can be used to create truly amazing things!

If you need to consult with a qualified structural engineering firm about an upcoming construction project, look no further than the experts at Top Level Engineering. We would be happy to put our tools of the trade to work for you!  

Contact us today at 703-738-9913 to schedule a consultation and learn more.