09 January 2014 | Focus Articles | thomas thomas
You only have to look at the top emerging engineering technologies from 2015’s World Economic Forum to realise that civil engineering is changing fast. Fuel cell vehicles and distributed manufacturing will soon alter how road and rail is used, increased robotics and adaptive materials are challenging traditional construction processes, improved artificial intelligence and neuromorphic technology will enable ‘thinking’ machines to inspect and diagnose issues, and connect automatically to provide solutions more effectively than humans for physical assets.
Add these new capabilities to the challenges of urbanisation, growing population density, diminishing physical resources and related skills shortages and you can see that constant innovation is going to be the only way forward. What does this mean for the engineer of 2025? Tomorrow’s engineer will not only have to be completely at ease working in a 3D digital universe alongside computers as colleagues, but also primed to innovate 24/7 while assessing vast amounts of information.
While supercomputers might be able to crunch exponentially increasing data from the Internet of Things, it is engineers who will be asked to be make recommendations on the best way forward. Picture a railway engineer: today he or she would expect to check most work on site, with all the problems and dangers of access. In the future, inspection data might be collected by robot or drone and reviewed initially by a computer, with only exceptions being flagged for human inspection.
Human engineers will therefore be asked to spend their time on suggesting radically innovative ways of approaching problems rather than reviewing and approving processes.
This future – and we’ll see its impact as early as in the next 5 years – requires a radical change of approach by engineers and their employers. The new world demands a more contrarian and creative mindset which looks for step change, rather than incremental improvements.
It is also less comfortable career-wise: individuals and companies will have to make a substantial psychological and financial investment to keep up; high-end decision-making and greater public safety risks may also need an engineer’s competence to be assessed the length of a career.
Overall the message is clear: innovate and invest in the right skills now and you will be able to deliver growth in the short and medium term, fail to do so and you will irretrievably decline. Are we ready for this future? From the initial findings of a survey conducted in early 2015 most employees recognise the issues but have not quite accepted the speed at which they are approaching: BIM for example is still being challenged as of uncertain long term value, whereas it could offer a way of radically changing the way asset management is undertaken.
Our immediate priority is to recruit and mobilise teams to fulfil contracts already awarded; looking at radical technological solutions that could ensure skills shortages do not derail future major projects but enable them to be delivered 100% more reliably and safely is not within scope.But we need to think and act differently: such short sightedness could lead civil engineering as we know it to be overtaken by other more dynamic sectors and competitors, or even supercomputers.
Click here to download The Institution of Civil Engineers Skills Report 2018