Will we still need engineers in the future?

Will we still need engineers in the future?

26 February 2020
Engineer future technology
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The question is not as strange as it might seem. Given the phenomenal growth of digital technology, robotics and artificial intelligence, where does this leave the engineers of tomorrow? How will they interact with all these new systems? Will smart machines be able to replace human ingenuity? Are engineers worried? And are they preparing themselves for the sea changes that are around the corner? We asked two engineers to help us take a look into the future.

Robotics, digital technology and AI are already part of engineers’ daily lives. And no one can imagine being without them in the future – neither the people involved in their development nor their users. Quite the opposite in fact. “In the world of engineering, and in our company in particular, one of the key innovation priorities is digitalisation”, explains Claire Deligant, a bioscience engineer by training and now an Innovation project manager at Assystem. “Digital tools and artificial intelligence can help us, for example, by enabling us to analyse big data much more quickly. This is a real plus for being able to make more fully-informed decisions more rapidly. But ultimately, it will always be the human engineers who have the final say. AI, robots and other tech creations are all tools thought up by engineers to be used by engineers in particular”.

So, as far as Claire is concerned, this new technological revolution is not something to worry about in terms of her professional future or that of engineers in general. Rather, it could be an opportunity. But an opportunity for what? “To restore engineers to their former glory” reckons Robert Plana, Assystem’s Chief Technology Officer. “At the moment, many engineers spend a lot of time reading documents. They use these documents to extract the information they need which they then store in Excel files or something similar. Their role in this case is just to run checks, which isn’t much value added for an engineer. But if engineers can develop a model to enable repetitive tasks to be performed automatically, or for tasks to be carried out at a speed that would be impossible for a human being or even an army of people, then they can return to their value-creating role. The new tools and systems that are now available or are in development put engineers back into their rightful role of designing, modelling and analysing results. And they also increase their ability to take fully informed decisions”.

From theory to practice

On paper, therefore, this revolution appears to be more beneficial than detrimental to engineers. But to get the most out of it, won’t engineers’ training – particularly in information systems – and their working methods need to change? The answer to that question is a definite yes. “Engineers are having to, and will continue to have to, draw on their professional knowledge to configure systems that optimise processes, design models and then analyse results so they can take the right decisions. At the same time, we need engineers specialised in digital technologies – particularly data scientists – to develop new languages and optimisation algorithms and, going forward, new innovations based on artificial intelligence. And new ways of interacting will need to be integrated for these projects, both upstream and downstream, Robert explains. But at the end of the day it’s a self-fertilising system. Sector-specialist engineers are learning about digital concepts (to a greater or lesser extent) on the ground, and digital-specialist engineers are learning about what specific businesses and sectors are looking for.” For instance, it’s now quite common to see task coupling systems set up in companies between sector-specialist engineers and engineers specialised in data and coding.

Aside from these changes in their traditional training, above all engineers now need to have an open mind and to enjoy team work, particularly with people from different disciplines. It’s these soft skills that will be necessary to reap the full benefits of the current technological revolution.

Robert goes on to say: “The engineering profession remains an exacting one, with engineers having to constantly discover new approaches and new technologies that push the boundaries of what we’ve learnt. This is how engineers will continue to be useful. Otherwise – and here I’m deliberately exaggerating – an engineer’s role could just become that of a scientific secretary.”

The real challenge: using these new tools effectively

While all these robotic and digital innovations can bring out the qualities of engineers, they can also pose a challenge to their ingenuity. “There’s no point in digitalising just for the sake of digitalising”, Claire points out. “It’s true that new technologies can be impressive and even amazing. But why do we actually develop them? What does society gain from them? Engineers don’t just make and produce things for fun or for the “wow effect”. The overall aim is to be useful for society, to help people live in better conditions or in better health, etc. Bringing new tools on board is therefore a necessary step, but we need to know why we’re using them.

The main objective put forward for integrating new technologies today is often to achieve productivity gains. But other aims can be to get a better understanding of complex projects and assignments or to enhance security. “For example, we can optimise the management of co-activity, or in other words, task coupling. This is particularly relevant to the nuclear industry, where, when part of a plant is shut down for maintenance, 15,000 tasks have to be carried out that are all inter-related. Similarly, with the new tools and systems available to us, we can more effectively manage our work in line with the resources we have. This is known as constrained optimisation”, Robert explains.

So, the overriding goals of engineering are to have a better view of the complexity of projects, better understand project variables and better anticipate faults and failures, “in order to ultimately have much more robust and resilient infrastructure architecture.”

On this front, Claire thinks we need to go further in the reflection process about the uses of new technologies and, more generally, the future of engineering: “The production methods we use today date from the industrial revolution over a century ago. But our lives and the challenges we face are completely different from then. For example, we now need to think about issues such as fighting climate change and protecting the environment. And it’s in this area that I think engineers – whether or not helped by new tools – can really make a positive difference to society. By thinking up and making the springboard for a positive industry”.

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Robert Plana

Chief Technical Officer Assystem

Claire Deligant

Innovation Project Manager Assystem

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