Engineers – Eternal apprentices?

Engineers – Eternal apprentices?

18 July 2019
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From steam locomotives to high-speed trains powered by hydrogen, from manual calculators to super-computers, from a one-dimensional view of building sites to augmented reality, the objects designed by engineers and the methods they use are constantly evolving. In a world constantly shaken up by new scientific discoveries and being pushed forward by digital transformation, engineers cannot allow their skills and mindsets to remain carved in stone. As demonstrated by both history and today’s “disruptive” era, engineering is the art of continuously learning and inventing. Read on for more details.

More than ever, an engineer’s DNA must contain the desire to discover new working methods and new opportunities for creation and application based on his or her specific expertise”, says Christophe Fournier, an industrial civil engineer and Cycle Sales Director at Assystem. “Basically, what drives an engineer is to always go one better” adds Ludovic Noël, Operations Director at Assystem’s Connect Business Unit.

So it goes without saying that curiosity, creativity and progress flow in an engineer’s veins. And it’s a good job too. In order to capitalise on their talents and meet the needs of their time, context or industry, they have to constantly build and adapt their skills and methods.

Just take the example of nuclear power plants. At the end of World War II when French power plants were built under the programme launched by General de Gaulle, nobody thought for one minute about when they would have to be decommissioned. Fast construction was of the essence, to give France its energy sovereignty”, Christophe explains. “Today, when we design a nuclear plant, we also have to draw up a decommissioning manual. This is a fundamental development in nuclear engineering. But a development that was brought about by experience and society’s expectations rather than a specific technology.”  

Digital technology – the uberization of engineering

All sectors of the engineering industry have experienced and are still experiencing crucial periods of adaptation. And digital transformation – which began in the 1980s and has gone global in the past 20 years – has increased the need for engineers to constantly learn and adapt.

I came across this in the automotive industry. The time required to develop a car was almost halved thanks to digital technology”, says Ludovic. “And we obviously had to adapt to a new way of working. First, we had to learn how to use the new tools: whereas in the past you would each design in two dimensions on your own computer, now you do the design on a single 3D model using collaborative working methods. It’s not the same thing.”   

The same trend is happening in building design, with the use of Building Information Modelling (BIM). So we have to be able to master new tools, or at least understand their scopes of application. And these developments go hand in hand with new ways of working and tackling projects.

More than any other modern-day transformation, the digital revolution will result in the disappearance of certain tasks traditionally performed by engineers, but at the same time will create new types of engineering professions. Data science is a perfect illustration.

Today, we still spend an enormous amount of time on documentary research. For example, when you want to know what type of concrete was used in such or such a structure you have to open up the plans and search. Which takes time. With data science, you’ll be able to use a search engine like Google and key in ‘What concrete was used for the V33 wall?’. Artificial intelligence will give you an instant answer as it will already have gone through all the documentary information.” Christophe adds.

For Christophe, this example is proof that “uberization exists at all levels of engineering”. This uberization often comes from engineers themselves, as part of their goal of always going one better. But Christophe adds a note of caution, “this evolution means we need to be ready for constant change and have the open mindsets that go with that. The “old-style” engineer sitting at his desk working out his three-span beam equations and basing his authority on his forebears’ expertise is now long gone.”  

Becoming self-learners

Does this mean that engineers need to master each and every technological innovation and know every latest design software inside out? No it doesn’t.

Ludovic is reassuring on this front: “Engineers don’t go non-stop from one ground-breaking innovation to another. Technical and digital changes don’t happen overnight. But we have to be attentive and open to these changes. It’s true though that digital is speeding up processes and causing the objects we design to become obsolete more quickly. So this has to be taken into account in the design process, whatever the sector concerned.” 

So how can we stay competitive in our industry? And how can we keep up to date while learning how to master new tools and new working methods? “More and more engineers will have to be self-learners in the future and shape their engineering culture by themselves” reckons Ludovic. Because quite simply, the training methods of the past won’t be suited to the needs of the digital era, with its fast knowledge sharing and new usages. Conference hall training sessions held over a week once every five or ten years now seem almost antiquated. “Training formats and material have already become more diverse and are being updated pretty much in real time now”. The methods of the moment are e-training, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) and peer-to-peer knowledge sharing on social media.

The very design of a tool now incorporates the learning process”, Christophe points out. “Today no-one comes to show you how to download and use an application. Engineering is also being led by this straightforward approach: how to make complex things in a simple way and easy to use.”

Engineers needn’t be worried by these new, continuous, learning methods and approaches. “But in view of all this, the term ‘continuous education’ is a bit outdated now”, Christophe comments. “We need to invent a new concept that factors in the ideas of being adaptable and intuitive.”

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Christophe Fournier

Nuclear Cycle Sales Director Assystem

Ludovic Noël

Project Director at Assystem Connect Assystem

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