Siemens electronics plant in Amberg, Germany

Future workplaces: automated, connected and data driven

Image credit: Siemens

Automated, connected and data-driven? How will the big engineering and technology companies operate in 20 years’ time?

Have you ever tried to get a major technology or engineering company to explain what they’ll be doing 20 years from now? Some won’t talk because they don’t want to give away trade secrets. Others say they can’t comment because it’s summer and everyone who could is on holiday. Some agree, but say nothing much more than that everyone will be using their product to solve the problems of the day and they’ll be global industry leaders. Others just won’t play ball, full stop.

The rare few who say something meaningful tend to do so based on an assessment of what they know now and of what they believe will be desirable and possible in the future. Some look at potential technological developments. Others imagine what is currently impossible.

Nearly everything companies say, however, is designed in one way or another, to further their own interest. Why not? The global marketplace is competitive. Looking 20 years ahead, it is likely to be even more so.

By then, there will be more people (around nine billion by 2040, according to the 2015 United Nations’ World Population Prospects report) using more energy, needing more products and services and experiencing bigger problems. By 2050, 70 per cent of the world’s population will live in cities, many of which were built for much smaller populations, the World Health Organisation says. Earlier this year, multinational professional services network Price Waterhouse Coopers (PwC) predicted that the world’s economy could more than double in size by 2050 as a result of technology-driven productivity improvements.

This, then, is the context in which today’s engineering and technology giants will be operating in 20 years’ time. And according to Andrew Bolwell, global head of HP Tech Ventures, it will be a world where companies will be dealing with issues created by increased stress on the environment and natural resources, not to mention trying to meet the needs of new waves of consumers entering the global economy, in competition with their existing rivals and new companies and start-ups from all over the world.

Bolwell believes the future of engineering and technology will be particularly affected by changing global demographics. He explains that tech-savvy (Gen Z) people, born since the mid-1990s, will make up 36 per cent of the global workforce by 2020. By 2030, 1.4 billion people will be over 60, living and working longer. “New products, services, and go-to-market strategies will no longer be one-size-fits-all,” Bolwell says.

It won’t all be change, however. Brian Holiday, managing director of Siemens Digital Factory, says today’s challenges – electrification, digitisation and automation – will still be there in 20 years’ time.

Scott Aitken, European managing director of the global engineering, consultancy and construction company Black & Veatch, adds that companies will still need to find ways of making high-quality services affordable.

Technology is the answer to this, Aitken believes. Over the next 20 years there will be significant changes in the way the major companies use technology.

Holiday envisages that by then Siemens will be using more efficient, intelligent manufacturing processes with technology and expert systems to enable higher output.

“We’re struck by the possibilities of the internet-enabled fridge,” he says, “but just imagine in industry, the level of information that can be easily extracted from industrial devices and collated to provide some serious business insights.”

According to Bolwell, everything will be smarter. “Objects, devices, buildings – everything around us will be infused with machine learning and artificial intelligence,” he says.

HP also claims that by 2022, 3D printing will be used in full-scale production. However, Professor Mark Skilton from the Warwick University Information and Systems and Management Group says that for this to happen, 3D printing needs to be faster and improve underlying material science, so a range of materials can be used more efficiently.

HP is already working on 3D printing with major manufacturers, as well as platform and software developers such as Nike, BMW, Siemens, Autodesk, Protolabs, Arkema, BASF and Evonik. HP says its Jet Fusion 3D printing solution unveiled in 2016 is the first production-ready 3D printer, and claims it is 10 times faster than alternative 3D printing technologies. Apparently, it can also address the 3D equivalent of a 2D pixel.

“Accelerated innovation is enabling new technology components to mature and become commoditised, transforming them into building blocks for new breakthroughs,” Bolwell says. “This rapid pace of technology change will continue because digital technologies generally follow an exponential trajectory versus a linear one. That’s why in 30 years’ time, our mobile phones won’t just be 30 times, but a billion times more powerful than they are today.”

Dassault Systèmes, a French multi­national software company, expects it will be providing technology support for companies operating in a world with unheard-of levels of automation. A company spokesman says that in 20 years’ time the internet could be connecting self-driving cars, earphones containing heart rate monitors and smart pills that enable doctors to tell whether a patient has taken their medication. The firm predicts there will be over 200 billion devices, basically anything that a chip can fit inside.

Holiday says that in 20 years’ time, Siemens will be working on systems that serve multiple functions. The company has already signed a deal with Airbus to apply electric motor technology to short-to-medium-range passenger jets, and Holiday expects that this will come to fruition around 2030.

“Many companies will change from more traditional concerns into new areas,” suggests Kevin Stansfield, a principal with Price Waterhouse Coopers’ strategy consulting business, Strategy&.

Skilton adds that there’ll be more hybrid engineering companies working in algorithms, materials, concept design, blending AI with engineering skills.

Some major players are already diversifying. Amazon is reportedly testing a US military food-preservation technique called microwave-assisted thermal sterilisation, which enables processed food to be kept for up to a year without refrigeration. A study the company commissioned earlier this year claimed people will soon wear fitness trackers inside their body. 45,000 robots already operate in 20 Amazon fulfilment centres automating the picking and packing process. Amazon recently backed an electronics start-up, hoping to produce a phone to rival Samsung’s Galaxy 8 and Apple’s iPhone. It is developing voice-based AI devices, and is reported to have a secret tech team working on healthcare technology.

Google, too, is going for diversity. It has its own augmented reality computing and virtual reality platforms, launched earlier this year on the Asus ZenFone AR. Its Deepmind research division has written two papers explaining how AI might predict the future. Parent company Alphabet has developed a theoretical system that stores renewable energy in molten salt instead of batteries. The hope is to develop lean, cost-effective energy storage devices, similar in the concept to Tesla’s power pack.

Both Google and Amazon have shown an interest in providing energy to homes through smart tariffs that would see people charged more during peak hours in the morning and evening and less off-peak.

Facebook hopes to use AI to better identify people’s interests and suggest groups, and presumably advertisements, that might be of interest to them. It also envisages a time when AI can recognise unsavoury or offensive content. Users today have to report this content for Facebook staff to review.

Automation and AI will affect companies’ operations, too. According to Warwick University’s Skilton, in 20 years’ time most companies will have devised virtual facsimiles of their physical assets and factories: “Three-dimensional models of operations that enable them to add in intelligence and planning.”

Aitken suggests that these intelligent digital asset maps will be able to adapt to changes made, understand the change and re-engineer the system. “This process will become more automated as AI, and our trust in it, develops,” he says.

Skilton believes it’s possible that consumers could even use these design libraries to build their own devices.

Stansfield thinks that automation and the availability of standard engineering designs will erode a lot of the market for traditional engineering companies. “Companies will use analytics, cloud computing and high-speed data networks to manage cities in more pragmatic, smart ways, so people can use public services more efficiently,” he says.

Holiday believes Siemens, too, will soon be investing in products and services that support megacity infrastructure and lifestyle, with, he says, an increased focus on smarter, smaller, shared and sustainable solutions.

Dassault Systèmes is already promoting its 3DExperience platform as a way of simulating Internet-of-Things devices in a virtual environment to enable users to discover whether different scenarios work and if they are safe.

Dassault’s 3DExperienCity product provides a collaborative environment for creating updatable virtual models that enable urban planners to digitally study and test ideas, and to help them consider the impact of urbanisation locally and globally and explore potential futures.

“If we analyse the patterns and interactions between people and systems – such as transport and waste management – we can develop cities that are still robust while also being highly efficient and sustainable – but in new terms,” says Ingeborg Rocker, vice president of 3DExperienCity.

Rocker is also an associate professor of architecture at Harvard University. She argues that no two cities are the same, so standardisation of infrastructure doesn’t work. Cities need to be viewed and planned as a living whole. “Planners must examine the potential impact of changes, even small ones, on the whole city,” she adds.

Holiday sees Siemens getting more involved in smart city infrastructure by designing traffic management systems. “Autonomous vehicles need the infrastructure to guide and interact with them,” he points out. 

Siemens is already taking part in the UK CITE project, where automotive, infrastructure and service companies will trial connected vehicle technologies on 40 miles (65km) of roads around Coventry, using DSRC and LTE wireless technologies. Siemens is developing, supplying and installing roadside units that will communicate with vehicles and traffic infrastructure. Road trials are due to begin in 2017. The company is also involved in vehicle infrastructure projects in Newcastle, the Netherlands, Florida and Michigan.

Wastewater treatment plants, too, could change over the next 20 years. According to Black & Veatch’s Scott Aitken, by 2037 many of them would have become bio-resource and energy production factories. “There is huge value in natural resources in waste treatment plants,” he says. “Phosphorus, for instance, is a finite element around the world, fundamental to food production.”

Aitken sees Black & Veatch increasingly working on ways to help utility companies use wastewater: for producing bioplastics that will naturally degrade when they go into the environment, and also for nutrient removal and capture. “Nutrients like ammonia, nitrogen, take oxygen from the water, which isn’t great for fish life,” he says, adding that wastewater might be usefully diverted to water-stressed areas.

Further into the future, Aitken imagines that Black & Veatch will be looking at the potential impact of antibiotics in wastewater flows and the genetic engineering of waste­water bacteria, so that it can operate in cold temperatures.

Skilton thinks that by then, technology research and development will focus increasingly on nanotech and microtech and on designing sub-components within components.

Stansfield believes that more and more engineering companies will join forces with technology partners or invest in companies that develop new technologies.

Yet while everyone has an opinion on what might happen in the future, even the most well-informed commentators can never really be sure.

In 1903, the president of the Michigan Savings Bank, Horace Rackham, suggested that investing in the Ford Motor Company was a bad idea, Apparently, he believed people would still be travelling on horseback in years to come, and that the motor car was just a novelty, a passing fad. Ninety years later, Ethernet inventor Robert Metcalfe predicted that the internet would collapse within a year. Thomas Edison, Thomas Watson, Steve Chen, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer are just a few eminent industry leaders who have made what turned out to be some pretty shaky predictions.

No wonder so many of today’s big guns are reluctant to talk. 

Experts' predictions

How will engineering work change over the next 20 years?

Brian Holiday, Siemens: Engineers will increasingly need to be multi-skilled, able to operate in mechanical, electrical and software roles.

Kevin Stansfield PwC: The role of engineer will shift away from first principles and design to a role where they need more knowledge of the IT system they’re using.

Mark Skilton, Warwick University: There will be changes in the cost ratio of physical product and human labour. In the automotive industry, today about 60-70 per cent of manufacturing costs are human, but moving forward that will reduce to around 40 per cent.

Scott Aitken, Black & Veatch: Engineers will be working with AI systems as the norm, using advances in processing power that’s available now and digital data from clients and customers. With the tools available, engineers will be more creative.

Holiday: Engineers will be dealing with unprecedented levels of data.

Stansfield: A new graduate engineer might get a role and training with one company, but then break away from the traditional company employment model and work freelance, or on a project by project basis.

Skilton: University engineering qualifications will be more IT-based in the future.

Stansfield: A platform like Uber will probably emerge for certain types of engineering services and skills and supplies. This matching of skill sets to needs will appeal to younger people.

Spokesman, Dassault Systèmes: Engineers will be free to do the interesting and creative work while machines and computers do the boring repetitive tasks. People will become more relevant for their creative and innovative skills and ideas.

Andrew Bolwell, HP: Companies will need to look at how they can attract and retain a diverse workforce containing over-60s and internet-savvy Generation Zs.

Stansfield: People won’t need to be in the office the whole time to work effectively. They might be part of a project team in one city, but based in another.

Holiday: We’ll be less hung up about whether we’re in an office or in another place where we can contribute to the world of work. Offices will be less accommodating of full-time deskbound staff, but still set up for people who need to meet. Smart office buildings will make maximum use of data. Virtual factories will use simulated design, intelligent tools and robotics. They will use integrated software systems that enable us to bring together design, simulation and control so you can better design a product. There will be a shortening of the product-to-market design cycle.

Experts’ predictions: how will engineering work change over the next 20 years?

Brian Holiday, Siemens: Engineers will increasingly need to be multi-skilled, able to operate in mechanical, electrical and software roles.

Kevin Stansfield PwC: The role of engineer will shift away from first principles and design to a role where they need more knowledge of the IT system they’re using.

Mark Skilton, Warwick University: There will be changes in the cost ratio of physical product and human labour. In the automotive industry, today about 60-70 per cent of manufacturing costs are human, but moving forward that will reduce to around 40 per cent.

Scott Aitken, Black & Veatch: Engineers will be working with AI systems as the norm, using advances in processing power that’s available now and digital data from clients and customers. With the tools available, engineers will be more creative.

Holiday: Engineers will be dealing with unprecedented levels of data.

Stansfield: A new graduate engineer might get a role and training with one company, but then break away from the traditional company employment model and work freelance, or on a project by project basis.

Skilton: University engineering qualifications will be more IT-based in the future.

Stansfield: A platform like Uber will probably emerge for certain types of engineering services and skills and supplies. This matching of skill sets to needs will appeal to younger people.

Spokesman, Dassault Systèmes: Engineers will be free to do the interesting and creative work while machines and computers do the boring repetitive tasks. People will become more relevant for their creative and innovative skills and ideas.

Andrew Bolwell, HP: Companies will need to look at how they can attract and retain a diverse workforce containing over-60s and internet-savvy Generation Zs.

Stansfield: People won’t need to be in the office the whole time to work effectively. They might be part of a project team in one city, but based in another.

Holiday: We’ll be less hung up about whether we’re in an office or in another place where we can contribute to the world of work. Offices will be less accommodating of full-time deskbound staff, but still set up for people who need to meet. Smart office buildings will make maximum use of data. Virtual factories will use simulated design, intelligent tools and robotics. They will use integrated software systems that enable us to bring together design, simulation and control so you can better design a product. There will be a shortening of the product-to-market design cycle.

Recent articles

Info Message

Our sites use cookies to support some functionality, and to collect anonymous user data.

Learn more about IET cookies and how to control them

Close