There’s been talk about “going paperless” for decades. The conversation has, of course, evolved over time—but what’s really at the root of the discussion? Putting buzzwords aside, what do all these paperless initiatives mean when it comes to engineering drawings?
Going paperless is about much more than saving trees or meeting an environmental sustainability target. It’s about removing our dependency on static objects like paper (or PDFs) as the authoritative source of product information. Likewise, the concept of Model-Based Definition (MBD) goes beyond just replacing drawings and requires looking closely at the value that product information adds at every step of your development processes. In the same way that engineering design is about properly defining a problem so that it can be properly solved, the business and organizational aspects of engineering need to be approached the same way.
Any engineering team or organization that wants to keep up and adapt needs to ask questions about the role drawings play in their process. What are we doing with the drawings we create? What are the goals, today, of reading a drawing? What’s the information we really need to communicate when we use a drawing to do so? How easy is it for the recipient to understand the intent of what’s being designed? How can we ensure that the recipient is reading the correct version of the drawing?
These are big and difficult questions to answer. This post gives insight into where we’ve come from, where we are, and where we’re going when it comes to the future of engineering drawings and how engineers and other stakeholders work together across the product lifecycle.
The Decades-Long Push for Paperless
Talk of paperless workplaces is nothing new. Back in 2017, a Xerox survey of more than 1000 companies in the United States, United Kingdom, France, and Germany found that over 80% of respondents wanted to cut paper out of their processes. And in this 2016 article Jason Albanese traces the concept of going paperless all the way back to a 1975 article in BusinessWeek before pointing out that, “Four decades later, we're still chasing the paperless office dream.”
What it means to go paperless is different across different industries and organizations. In engineering, there are still some very real barriers to a fully paperless world. For instance, not every jurisdiction allows for digital engineering stamps, which means ultimately some documents will get printed so they can be physically stamped—no matter what organizational initiatives are in place.
But realistically, this is a culture change. It’s not something that can happen overnight (or, apparently, even over several decades of nights). As Albanese notes, “In the height of the Digital Era, we're not lacking the means to eliminate paper from the workplace, but we are lacking the mindset.”
Going Beyond Buzzwords and Looking at Process
The whole idea of going “paperless” has been around so long, it’s easy to dismiss it as just another buzzword. Another idealistic phrase that will never be fully achieved. Another unrealistic goal. But when you go beyond viewing the concept as a buzzword and start to look at how paper fits into your overall processes, you can gain better insight into why we’ve been hearing the word paperless for so long in the first place.
Paper is a tool, really. There’s nothing special about paper. Having an engineering drawing printed out on a piece of paper doesn’t make you a better engineer. It doesn’t give you a better design. At the end of the day, paper (or even “digital paper” like a PDF of a drawing) is just a way to communicate. It’s a form of a contract between an engineer and a machinist or fabricator, describing an idea that needs to be made into something real. It’s part of a process, and cutting something out of a process isn’t always straightforward. Sometimes it requires a bigger change to the process overall—but just because that’s a difficult change doesn’t mean it’s not a worthwhile one.
Paper is a static object. A drawing is a derivative. When you have a piece of paper, or an engineering drawing, these objects have no way to tell you if the information you’re looking at is out of date. In that sense, every drawing produced has the potential to become a ticking time bomb. One small (but crucial) change to a model, and that drawing that already exists is no longer accurate. The processes we’ve developed for engineering design exist for a reason, yes… but that doesn’t make them perfect.
Engineering Drawings: Where We Are, Where We’re Going
Will engineering drawings ever become entirely obsolete? Maybe not. It’s possible there will always be some cases where there’s a need to create a drawing, just like there’s a good chance paper will continue to have certain uses for the foreseeable future. Right now, there are shop floors where a physical drawing is the better choice over trying to access information on some type of screen. That’s simply the truth.
But we are at a tipping point. Technology moves fast, but transitions still take time. Over the past years, as we’ve tried to shift toward new ways of working, there have been clunky tools with poor usability that have caused more frustration than efficiency (looking at you, 3D PDFs). So it can feel easy to recall frustrating experiences and conclude that “sticking to the old way” is better. If it ain’t broke, right?
And of course, we shouldn’t want to go paperless or eliminate engineering drawings for the sake of it. With today’s technology, though, our ability to authenticate data is better than it’s ever been. The clunky tools were stepping stones. Now we have the potential to move toward a world where information can be better trusted, because it’s linked to the original source data. Changes can be made that update everywhere in a controlled and traceable manner. Engineers have developed rich language tools for communicating functional tolerances through GD&T, and with MBD this information can be annotated directly onto the design geometry—rather than onto a projection of that geometry on a 2D sheet. With Model-Based Definition, you can know that what you’re looking at is the correct and current information. That’s why the top teams are already taking steps toward it, and why more and more engineers and executives are educating themselves on how to make the shift to MBD happen.
Engineering drawings still have a place in our processes right now. Maybe, to some extent, they always will. Yet it’s not technology that’s holding us back anymore. It’s us. Where the engineering world goes over the coming years and decades will come down to whether we collectively begin to believe that a better way is possible—because if we can believe in a better future, we can build it.
After all: isn’t that exactly what engineers do?