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WEC 2019 Day 2: Is the future of engineering human?

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Is the future of engineering human? It’s a big question, but a panel of experts had a go at finding an answer during the opening session of day two of the World Engineers Convention, happening now in Melbourne.

Moderator Jon Williams, Partner and Co-Founder of management consulting firm Fifth Frame, actually began the discussion with a question for the audience: How optimistic are you about the future of engineering? 

As the responses poured in (on a scale of 1-5, 5 being very optimistic, 1 being ‘we’re doomed’), it became clear that while there’s some uncertainty, many feel there will still be a place for engineers in the future. 

Panelists responded that the future of engineering is absolutely human, but all were in agreement that this will only be the case if the profession can shift in some fundamental ways.

John Sukkar.

Advances in technology are enabling new ways of working and thinking, said John Sukkar, Director – Engineering and Design for Data61. But rather than fear how technology might impact the role of engineers, he said the profession should see this as an opportunity.

“As we go through digital transformation, it’s not an elimination of jobs but rather a shift in skill sets,” he said.

Take manufacturing as an example: 50 years ago, it was a very labour-intensive industry, but today many processes are automated. As we move into Industry 4.0, the same shift is likely to happen for more professional services roles, like engineering, law and medicine.

Rather than be a threat to engineers or taking jobs, Felicity Furey, Co-founder of Power of Engineering and Director of Industry Partnerships at Swinburne University, said tech will amplify our abilities and allow engineers to achieve more with less.

However, she emphasised that as technology makes inroads into industry, the skills required to be a ‘good’ engineer will change. 

“We will need engineers with empathy, ethics, good communication skills, collaboration, creativity and a healthy dose of scepticism — you can’t get that from tech,” she said. 

“We need the left brain and the right brain, the art and science, to come together.”

Meredith Westafer, Senior Industrial Engineer at Tesla, agreed, and added that regardless of what the future brings, the core purpose of engineering will remain the same: solving problems for people. 

“What will change is how we do that,” she added.

As tech frees engineers from the more repetitive or mundane tasks, Westafer said they will be able to concentrate on interesting and creative work — “work with a purpose”. She added that this makes it imperative for organisations to start thinking about the message they broadcast to the world about what it’s like to work there.

“Being able to attract the best talent is doing something people want to do – it’s the message you send about why your organisation exists,” she said. 

She spoke of an experience that, based on the murmurs of agreement from the audience, is a familiar one for engineers: in school, engineers are encouraged to “think big”, but once they enter the workforce, they often become hobbled by processes and the ‘this is how it’s always been done here’ mentality. 

“Let creative engineers create if you want to retain them,” she implored. 

Automating ethically

As technology takes over more of these tasks, though, engineers face an ethical dilemma: if there is a gradual reduction in people’s involvement in more manual or repetitive tasks, do engineers have a responsibility to keep people in jobs — even if they don’t need to be there?

Meredith Westafer.

To answer this question, Westafer drew on her own experiences working to design Tesla’s Gigafactory, which does incorporate autonomous technology. 

“As someone who has installed a fair amount of automation, it’s important to understand things from the side of the people displaced by the technology,” she said. 

Crucial to this is thinking about the types of jobs replaced; many of them are mundane or dangerous jobs, jobs “we don’t want humans to be doing”.

“We have an ethical imperative to keep people safe,” she said. 

“If [technology] is replacing a good job, organisations are ethically bound to retrain people. I don’t think it’s immediately obvious that organisations should be taking care of that, but if you put the onus on the person whose job is being replaced, that’s just not right.

“We need to automate ethically.” 

What are the right skills?

Upskilling the current workforce is one thing. But what about for the next generation of engineers? If the future is uncertain, how can we prepare people today to deal with the challenges of tomorrow?

In her role at Swinburne, Furey said they took this question to industry and asked engineering companies what skills they need in their organisations. The answers surprised her.

“We thought for sure it would be technical skills, but actually they came back with skills like communication, collaboration, being able to influence people, even knowing how to write a good email,” she said. 

She believes that in order to teach these skills, students need to be working on real-world projects and solving real problems as part of their degree. 

Sukkar said cultivating the skills future engineers will need also means “encouraging and rewarding people for taking risks and thinking big”.

Furey agreed, and said ‘why’ will become the most valuable question an engineer can ask. Organisations need to encourage this behaviour, she added.

“Create psychological safety in your organisations to encourage people to take risks. Give people the freedom to fail,” she said. 

Felicity Furey.

As the role of engineers changes, all the panelists agreed that they are looking forward to seeing more engineers in leadership positions. According to Furey, 21 per cent of S&P CEOs come from engineering backgrounds, which is more than lawyers or accountants.

She said the skills required to be a great leader are changing, and engineers have an amazing opportunity to step up to the challenge.

“The top skill required to be a leader today is to empower people … it’s no longer about command and control, it’s about support and empower,” she said. 

It also swings back around to the ‘why’, Westafer said, and great engineering leaders need to actively encourage that in their organisations. For example, she said Tesla CEO Elon Musk pushes first-principles thinking for all their work.

“It’s not about building an electric car the way everyone else has built an electric car. We need to be asking ‘what is the real question we are trying to answer? What is the problem we are trying to solve?’ and then work from there,” she said. 

To find this mentality for future Tesla engineers, one question Westafer always asks during interviews is: If I have a manufacturing line that is 1000 m long, how big is the factory?

“If someone responds with ‘you haven’t given me enough information’, they aren’t hired,” she said.

“I’m looking for people who ask as many questions as they want. What are we optimising for? How many parts are there? What are we building? That’s the kind of thinking we are looking for.” 

At the end of the sessions, Williams polled the audience with the same question as at the start: How optimistic are you about the future of engineering? 

Perhaps luckily for all, and as a testament to the quality of the insights shared by the panelists, engineers came out of the discussion more optimistic that people have a place in the future of engineering than when they arrived. 

Is the future of engineering human?

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Predictions about how technology will change engineering can get pretty dire — to the point where some are unsure if people will still have a place in the profession in the future.

But if you ask Jon Williams, Partner at Fifth Frame and panellist at the upcoming World Engineers Convention, that’s a stretch.

“Clearly, the future of everything is human, or else there is no future,” said Williams, who will be moderating the session ‘Is the future of engineering human?’ on day two of WEC.

What’s up for debate, though, is how the role of engineers will change in years to come. Will engineering become a profession where automation and artificial intelligence perform the majority of tasks with a few human overseers? Or will it be a thriving, design-led profession doing better things, with technology as an enabler?

A mix of skills

According to Felicity Furey, Co-founder at Power of Engineering and Director of Industry Partnerships at Swinburne University, the importance of keeping engineers in the equation will only increase as the world becomes a more complex place.

“Our designs are affecting more people every day, and the scale at which we influence the world is pretty big,” she said. 

“Now we’re dealing with very complicated projects and lots of systems. As engineers, we need to consider how everything works in the system, and how our projects and design absolutely influence that bigger picture, and not just the individual projects that we’re working on.”

Creativity and adaptability will define engineering into the future, she said, combined with the logical problem-solving that is every engineer’s bread and butter. 

“It’s no longer acceptable for engineers to go and build things … without community consultation, and that makes our projects better, because you get people on board early and it’s collaborative,” Furey said. 

John Sukkar, Director — Engineering and Design, CSIRO Data61, agreed, saying that while the need for technical skills won’t change, being able to understand and apply human-centred design will be in demand.

“All things being equal, an engineer who understands the customer problem and the ecosystem where their project is going to live — I think they’re the ones that will really excel,” said Sukkar, who will be appearing on the panel with Furey and Williams.

Changing expectations

Part of this requires preparing the next generation of engineers to work and thrive in this changed environment. Through her work with Power of Engineering, Furey sees firsthand how young people today perceive engineering — and it’s not always accurate. 

“Men in overalls fixing cars” is a common response, she said. While some engineering roles do mean wearing hard hats and working on construction sites, the possibilities of what engineers can do and accomplish is almost endless.

“That’s the point of our work: to shift those perceptions,” Furey said. 

So to is changing perceptions about what skills are required to become a successful engineer. Her biggest focus is communicating that mathematics and science are important, but so are complex reasoning, problem solving, collaboration and communication.

“I think it’s important that students can think for themselves and think through problems … critical thinking skills can be more important than knowledge, so students aren’t just asking ‘How can I memorise this maths? Is this going to be on the test?’,” she said.

The great enabler

“The pace of change and our inability to predict the future in even a short time frame” are massive influences on the future of work, said Williams. He added that change will continue — and likely accelerate — so “we need to go with it”.  

Technology can help bridge some of this gap, but future engineers need to think of it as an enabler instead of a replacement, said Furey.

“It’s really important to remember that technology is just a pathway, and it’s an enabler — it’s not the solution. Rather than think ‘AI will do this or that’, we need to think through what’s the problem I’m trying to solve and how could this help me solve that problem,” she said.

Technology is already so pervasive, Sukkar said, that every engineering role will come to require some skills working with data and digital systems. However, he feels technology should be used to augment human capability, rather than replace it.

“I think we’ll see a future where people are supported by machines to be able to be more productive and more functional,” he said.

He emphasised that while being familiar with digital technologies like data analytics, autonomous systems and artificial intelligence is good, these systems will make the human side of engineering more important.

“As we start having human-machine interfaces, as we start having autonomous and intelligent machines navigating their own way around society, human-centred design is going to be critically important to guide engineers on how to build ethical things,” Sukkar said.

Purpose is also becoming increasingly important within the engineering profession. Furey said she is surprised at how important issues like sustainability are to students she meets through her workshops.

Starting with ‘why’ is something Sukkar strongly believes in as well.

“As engineers, as an engineering community, whether we’re very early in the research stage and innovating in technology or whether we’re late-stage, actually building the integrated solutions or solving an applied problem, you have to start with why you are doing this,” Sukkar said. 

“If you can always start with ‘why’, I think that’s going to be critically important for engineers who want to see the fruits of their work have an impact.”

Jon Williams, Felicity Furey and John Sukkar will be appearing on a panel discussing the future of the engineering profession at the upcoming World Engineers Convention 20-22 November in Melbourne. There’s still time to register! Learn more here.

How 3D printing, generative design and automation will revolutionise the built environment

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Advances in technology like 3D printing and generative design are helping reinvent building and construction for the 21st century.

Mention an industry that has been disrupted by technology, and manufacturing immediately springs to mind. For some, it’s a symbol of how innovations like robotics and machine learning are optimising processes and improving productivity.

But if you ask some in the construction industry, it’s a warning sign of things to come. According to Andy Cunningham, Regional Director at software solutions provider Autodesk, construction can be very tech averse. Thoughts of digitisation and automation play into two common fears about the rise of technology: one is the complexity involved; the second is job loss.

“People in construction and building tend to gravitate towards manufacturing as an example of what can happen,” said Cunningham.

The reality, he said, is that technology has the potential to solve some really big challenges in the industry.

“There’s a skills shortage in engineering, so the question becomes how can we implement technology to optimise our human capital, and in the process free up people to do more interesting work,” Cunningham said.

Pioneering technology

The overarching theme of the World Engineers Convention is sustainability, and making the built environment more sustainable can have a huge impact at the global level. At WEC, Matt Gough from Mace (a global construction and consultancy company and Autodesk customer) will feature as a keynote speaker, sharing more about the future of making and sustainability. He will focus specifically on how to address the housing crisis by creating capacity and scale, and reducing the impact on the environment at speed.

By 2050, the world’s population is projected to reach 10 billion people. In Australia, the current population of 25 million will grow to 41 million in that same timeframe, while the number of people dwelling in the country’s two largest cities, Sydney and Melbourne, will balloon to nearly 8 million each. That’s almost double the present day.

The challenge, said Cunningham, is not just to build more infrastructure to meet these future needs, but for the building industry to do more with less. Technology and the benefits it brings – data, reduced cost, increased productivity – will be crucial to achieving this.

“There are huge sustainability improvements to be had in construction: 30 per cent of construction material ends up as waste, and buildings consume 20 per cent of our water and 40 per cent of our energy. We can’t keep doing what we’re currently doing,” Cunningham said.

Developments like building information modelling (BIM), virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), and 3D printing are game changing for building and construction, and each brings something different to the table.

Generative design can explore thousands of new forms and help engineers tap into their creative side.(Image: Autodesk)

BIM, which Autodesk is known for pioneering, is particularly useful when it comes to optimising designs to be more energy efficient.

“The ability to learn what works, what doesn’t, and to optimise operations based on what the data is telling you to make buildings more sustainable is a huge benefit,” Cunningham said.

Learnings on a building-by-building basis can then be extrapolated to the wider network, he added.

“What changes can then happen on the macro scale for a whole city? We can supersize these learnings from individual buildings to see what needs to change and work towards creating more smart cities,” Cunningham said.

Beyond sustainability, Cunningham said technology is enabling imagination and creativity in the engineering profession as well.

One promising development in this space is generative design, where the user sets constraints and a program produces numerous options based on the parameters.

Cunningham also sees huge potential for integrating 3D printing and other manufacturing methods into construction processes to bring them into the 21st century.

“People still think of 3D printing on a small scale, but it’s now moving into new forms, incorporating new materials like metals and aggregates,” Cunningham said.

“Modular construction is also having a huge impact, and it’s bringing down costs and construction waste, and increasing productivity.”

An Autodesk 3D printer at work. (Image: Autodesk)

He points to some recent examples of how these technologies are helping companies become more innovative, all while helping reduce their footprint.

One is Factory OS, a company based in the US that is using a modular factory method in home construction. According to the company, this method is 20 per cent cheaper and 40 per cent faster than traditional methods.

Another example is Van Wijnen, a construction firm based in the Netherlands. They use BIM software to identify clashes in designs to reduce sequencing changes on site. The firm is also combining BIM with generative design to create a unique spin on urban planning by setting predetermined goals like solar energy potential, backyard size and costs – and letting the software generate countless layout options.

A Van Wijnen design.

Building a community

If past experience is anything to go by, it’s hard to predict how this technology will evolve in the next five years, never mind the next 100. But if he had to guess, Cunningham said he expects to see these technologies create new improvements across the building and construction industry.

“Advancements in material handling will be really exciting, especially the use of 3D printing. We’ll see forms we’ve never seen before and better marriage of form and function,” he said.

However, there’s one thing Cunningham is sure off: it has to be a better, more sustainable world.

“The construction space is the big piece of the sustainability puzzle … We can’t afford to engineer in isolation. It’s imperative to consider how the surrounding community will be affected – we don’t just build a building, we build a community,” Cunningham said.

“There are big benefits when these concepts get translated into the real world.”

The future of engineering innovation and technology will be explored in detail at the upcoming World Engineers Convention 20-22 November in Melbourne. To learn more and to register, click here.