How is the engineering industry changing as the digital age surges?

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For years, engineering has been an industriously diverse area to work in. When many people think of the word ‘engineer’, what’s the first thing that comes to mind to many? It may be someone who fixes your boiler or your internet when it’s broken. Or more traditionally speaking, someone who works on huge structural objects such as ships or buildings.

The definition of ‘engineer’ as found on Google is the following: ‘A person who designs, builds, or maintains engines, machines, or structures.’ Secondly, it gives this: ‘A person who controls an engine, especially on an aircraft or ship’.

Some would argue that these definitions are exceptionally out of date where today’s engineering jobs are concerned. The industry is changing as we become more reliant on the benefits of the digital age. With new inventions and start-ups occurring progressively, becoming an engineer has never been more exciting. The developments in the defence sector have been rapid and ongoing. I spoke with several engineering professionals about their roles and the place they have in the ever-changing engineering industry. To me, engineering is all about solving problems – and a need for that sort of work (and therefore certain types of employees) will never disappear.

I spoke with Jonathan Hawkins, the Technical Director of Newbury Innovations Ltd, an electronics design company based in Berkshire. There are of course jobs in most sectors that exist now that perhaps didn’t five years ago. Hawkins explained: “The ability to develop software for modern media (apps, web, and cloud) and connect them to electronics that the same developer has designed exists more now than from five years ago. This is because technology isn’t static and a move in technology inevitably means a modification in the type of resources required.”

Technology is definitely not something to be described as ‘static’. If anything, it’s moving faster than ever. As Hawkins states, with apps and cloud technology growing in popularity, engineers need to be aware of these technologies and the impact they have on engineering as a sector.

So what should we look out for in the next decade regarding jobs in the engineering industry?

Ga Lok Chung, a customer experience and digital change consultant, engineer and STEM ambassador suggested that there are three potential growth areas for engineers to look out for in the next decade:

  1. In IT – there will be a significant migration to cloud services such as AWS and Azure; companies migrating to legacy will face extremely complex transformation programmes that will last at least five years. It will require lots of people with design, data and system knowledge. Other companies may decide it will be easier to build and spin up a new company infrastructure to support new customers, then slowly migrate old customers.
  2. In bio-engineering – fields such as genome sequencing for medicine, nanotechnology and manufacturing with graphene, breakthroughs in manipulating things at a molecular level will create brand new industries.
  3. In energy – as prices increase on fossil fuels and global warming starts affecting food production, greater investment and risks will be taken with solar and nuclear fusion creating new specialist roles.

Even though the industry may be evolving once again, the skills needed by engineers never really changes. The ability to solve problems and work as a team, and generally being innovative are all traits of a successful engineer. Useful knowledge of mathematics and physics has additionally always been a desired trait. If you’re able to learn as much as you can on the job and to adapt, then it won’t matter how much the engineering industry evolves in terms of your employability.

Engineering is no longer seen as a purely industrial and manufacturing world. The industry is focusing more on our impact on the environment and using adaptive technologies to help combat it. I spoke with Simon Crowther, who won Young Entrepreneur of the Year at the Great British Entrepreneur Awards and has been voted as a Top 100 Visionary Leader in the World by Crowther is the founder of Flood Protection Solutions Ltd, and has been running this business for four years.

Crowther emphasised the importance of engineering in the environmental sector. He said: “There has been a move within the civil engineering sector to work with nature and the environment, rather than battling it with concrete. Within my industry (flood defence) the Wildlife Trust is calling on the Government to invest in natural flood defences as natural solutions may help prevent or reduce the impact of flooding in the future. Habitats such as bogs, moors, ditches, leaky dams and grasslands can all help ‘slow the flow’ and ultimately reduce flooding without the need for concrete. Financial incentives, consumer consciences and an awareness of climate change will lead to far more engineering jobs related to environmental engineering. Lean manufacturing will become more commonplace – reducing waste, and thus our impact on the environment. It is becoming fashionable to be ‘green’.”

As the environmental factor takes hold, Crowther illustrated the benefits of being part of the competition. He highlighted: “There is a huge opportunity for the UK to be at the forefront of green technology in the next 5–10 years. If we invest in the right engineering now, not only can we drive a positive difference globally, but also capitalise on the financial benefits.”

“The UK is currently going through a period of phenomenal engineering achievements, with the likes of Land Rover, Dyson, and McLaren all pushing boundaries of what’s possible.”

It’s not just changes in technology that are affecting the engineering industry. Engineering (and many other industries) are becoming more and more data-driven. This is a consequence of technology advancement such as IoT and a demand from the modern-day consumer. Alain Waha, an engineering data scientist  at BuroHappold Engineering commented: “We see more engineering work done in the form of computational engineering: writing code to solve the problem, approaching engineering using systems thinking, and using deep learning to seek insights.”

He said: “We want to use computers to handle greater amount of data to increase their resolution of the design, and using IoT data to inform operation of the systems. The [engineering] industry will be fully data driven; designing for outcomes rather than function.”

From an increase in demand for smart consumer tech to providing necessary environmental equipment, engineering as an industry is being looked at in a whole new light. Careers in the ever-popular defence sector are also evolving. Building defence equipment and innovating new technology is still much-needed, however jobs revolving around data intelligence and surveillance are now entering engineering territory. Being analytical, logic-driven and perceptive are all personas of an engineer in the defence sector.

When you search ‘define engineer’ in Google, approximately 58,000,000 results come up (January 2017). Engineering is an incredibly diverse industry. If there’s an area that doesn’t appeal to you because of your initial thoughts on what engineering actually is, perhaps you should look further afield. It’s more about a rise in digital careers rather than a fall in traditional ones.

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