What does the future of engineering hold?

Engineers are being split into two groups: One that is threatened by future change and one that is excited by the possibilities that the future brings.
By Ryan Nabozniak October 13, 2016

Ryan Nabozniak is an application consulting engineer with Aucotec. Courtesy: AucotecThe tools engineers use need to be interoperable and interchangeable to allow them to work across disciplines, departments, and industries. What’s happening in the industry now is pushing the whole field of engineering out of its comfort zone and requiring it to grow. This change is causing a fundamental shift in how and where engineering and construction work is done. The shift is split into two groups. The first group is uncomfortable because it threatens what they know. The second group is excited by the shift and sees endless opportunity.

Engineers today are wearing different hats. They’re taking their creative ideas and building products and businesses around them. Engineers are also more frequently collaborating with other professionals such as artists, ecologists, anthropologists, doctors, and pilots. They’re working to understand their needs and then turn those needs into workable products as well as new industries, buildings, and processes.

An example of this fundamental change is a young master’s student in civil engineering. The student was trying to model the work processes of underground sanitation crews employed by the city of Edmonton. He wanted to determine if he could better motivate these crews and find efficiencies using statistical modeling. I suggested that he talk to an anthropologist. At first, this might sound like a crazy idea, but given some thought and what he was trying to do—influence a diverse group of individuals—it wasn’t so crazy after all.

The same can be said of engineering companies, skid package vendors, systems integrators, owner operators, manufacturers, aerospace industries, process industries, pulp and paper industries, food and beverage industries, rail and transportation industries, power industries, medical industries, and so on.

Companies within these industries are challenged to rethink their traditional models of doing things. Silos and specializations simply don’t work as well anymore. Government and large, established industries have traditionally driven creative works and new technologies. These were benefactors with deep pockets. This is still true to a certain extent, but at the same time, industries and companies that didn’t exist 30 years ago have begun to radically change how we view the world and communicate with one another.

GE, a company with a tradition of innovation, has realized it failed to innovate internally. To solve this, it created an organization called the GE Centre for Innovation. The Centre comprises a number of small start-ups that are responsible for exploring radical ideas, creating innovative products, and turning their discoveries and developments into viable businesses.

It’s time we all looked at our companies, industries, and positions. It’s time that engineers decide if they want to be part of the past or part of the future. Engineers will face many challenges in this new world, and there will be personal and professional challenges along the way. Some may be content to let things happen to them so they can say they were right in the end. Other engineers, meanwhile, see the chance as an opportunity to create a better future. The latter group are the ones who will be pushing and striving for a better tomorrow.

Which group are you in?

Ryan Nabozniak, application consulting engineer, Aucotec. Edited by Chris Vavra, production editor, Control Engineering, CFE Media, cvavra@cfemedia.com.

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