DN Staff

November 4, 1996

4 Min Read
What awaits engineering, class of 2046?

What will the design engineering profession be like in 50 years? Predicting the future is always something of a risky business, as any stockbroker will confide. One wonders how much of today's business and engineering environment could have been predicted merely 25 years ago, never mind 50. So it is with a spirit of adventure that I describe here the evolving engineering profession .

Yesterday. Back in 1946 when Design News was first published, life was relatively simple, though it seemed complex at the time. A bachelor of science degree in engineering sufficed as the educational goal, and most engineers anticipated working for either one or two firms until they retired.

A college degree was perceived by many as the "beginning of the end." At that time, the half-life of the design engineer was approximately 20 years, i.e., half of what was learned would no longer be useful in 20 years, and half of what would be needed by then would not have been learned. Many of the engineer's activities were relatively routine and demanded little creativity.

Engineers used support technologies such as slide rules, mechanical calculators and typewriters, and triangles.

Organizations then were autocratic bureaucracies that relied upon micro-management, linear processing, and strong functional departments. However, this environment assured continuing employment as long as the engineer was loyal and did not make waves. Environmental pollution was of little concern, as it was assumed that natural resources were unlimited.

The business environment was stable, real competition was scarce, products were mass produced. Customer service often followed the Ford's Model T philosophy: "Customers can have any color they want, as long as it is black."

Today. In 1996, the design engineering profession differs significantly. Today, a master's degree is the norm for engineers. Many engineers realize they are "free-agents" who may work for a number of firms. The quality of their careers will be determined by how well they can keep their education, training, and work experience current and how well they apply their knowledge to the work of the firms that employ them. Since the half-life for an engineer today is as short as three or four years, depending upon their specialty, this is especially important.

Supporting technology for engineers now includes computers, electronic calculators, smart and portable phones, CAD/CAM, groupware, computer databases, computer laptops, and more.

Organizations increasingly behave more like networks. Those who have the necessary competence, often including cross-functional teams, make the decisions. Concurrent processing is the norm, and quality products that delight customers are the focus.

Considerable concern exists over environmental pollution and natural resource conservation. The business environment is dynamic and must respond to a host of worldwide competition. Mass production techniques are starting to deliver customized products. The prevailing business philosophy is to provide customers with whatever they want before the competition.

Tomorrow. In 2046, a doctorate or some other professional degree will be the norm for engineers. Most will work as free-agents in cross-functional teams for a number of firms over a broad network where they will practice only the most highly skilled aspects of their profession. Technicians and others as required will perform the more routine functions of their work.

With the extensive utilization of massive databases, simulation, automated design, expert systems, and the like, the engineering community will have experienced a seismic shift in the practice of their profession. No longer will engineering predominately function as a left-brain activity that relies upon logical, rational skills. Instead, engineering will evolve into a more professional right-brain activity, which is intuitive, subjective, holistic, non-linear, non-programmable, and organic.

This change will have profound effects on both education and the practice of engineering. Engineering education will broaden, focusing not only on the basic sciences of physics and mathematics, but also on liberal arts. An engineering internship will follow which will teach students the current state of engineering practice. As medical doctors are trained today, so too will engineers be trained in the future. After successfully completing the internship, engineers will be granted licenses to practice and to guide new engineering interns. In this way, they will be continuously upgrading their engineering knowledge and skills. The half-life concept will no longer be relevant.

Engineers and engineering interns will be integrated into networks of cross-functional teams. When grouped together, these teams will form the basis for virtual corporations. These teams will be virtually co-located electronically, yet probably be physically remote from each other.

Portable offices will replace large central office complexes. Extensive services and support from computer-based facilities will grant engineers logistical flexibility.

The business environment will involve worldwide competition. Customized products will be developed quickly through world-class mass production, development, and marketing techniques.

Whatever the challenges facing engineers, the profession will be poised on the cutting edge of technology and business.

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