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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. 

WEC 2019 Day 1: Why engineers are vital to more liveable cities

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It’s only fitting that a discussion about what makes for liveable cities should take place in the most liveable city in Australia. 

Engineers from around the world met in Melbourne for the World Engineers Convention (WEC), which kicked off today with a look at the role the profession plays in creating urban spaces where people can live, work, play and thrive — now and into the future.

Professor Carlo Ratti, Director of the Senseable City Lab at MIT and Founding Partner of Carlo Ratti Associati, summed up the reasoning for creating more liveable, sustainable cities in four numbers: 2, 50, 75, 80. Cities take up 2 per cent of the planet’s surface, yet they have 50 per cent of the world’s population, consume 75 per cent of the energy and generate 80 per cent of emissions. 

“Making our cities more sustainable can have a huge impact at the global level,” he said. 

Stephen Yarwood, an urban futurist and former Lord Mayor of Adelaide, took up this message and said the exponential pace of technological advancement offered so many opportunities for engineers and city designers. 

He pointed to innovations such as 3D printing, peer-to-peer networks like blockchain, autonomous technology, ‘smart’ technology, and mobility as a service (MaaS) as forces that will have huge impacts on how people live in and move around cities. 

“Technology will create a new urban operating system … data will become an overlay for cities, which will become these complex systems and operate almost like living organisms,” he said. 

Both Ratti and Yarwood agreed that the amount of data we can now capture is “a bit of a Pandora’s Box”, but, for now, the benefits outweigh the negatives.

“We can see dimensions of the environment we couldn’t see before, which lets us solve problems in different ways,” Ratti said. 

Knowing your end user

Later, Yarwood was joined onstage by Marco Assorati, Operations Regional Director SAE and Oceania for Salini Impregilo; Paul O’Halloran, Executive Director Network Integration for Metro Trains Melbourne; and Tanya Ha, Director of Engagement for Science in Public and WEC Master of Ceremonies for a panel discussion about engineering liveable cities. 

One common thread throughout the discussion was the importance of stakeholder engagement.

Assorati used a current Salini Impregilo project — the Perth Airport rail link — as an example of how the company prioritised communicating with end-users. He said it’s important to keep communities and end-users informed because “their lives are most impacted by these changes”. 

O’Halloran added to this by saying that, as a transport operator, it’s important to share information with end-users in an accessible way so people can make the most informed decisions about how to get from A to B.

A question from an audience member about how to balance short-term and long-term goals sparked a wave of nods from many others in attendance, as it’s a common problem experienced by those who have to forecast for future demand, which many engineering roles do. 

O’Halloran said it’s a hard task, but it’s important to plan in a way that’s agnostic about factors such as political cycles, as infrastructure spending in Australia can depend on who controls Parliament.

Assorati added that while we can’t predict the future, “we can be prepared for it”, and that means creating infrastructure that’s adaptive. 

“The key to liveability is not necessarily building more things, but we need smarter ways to build things,” he said.

It’s definitely true for Melbourne, as the things that make it liveable now will change as the population grows, said O’Halloran. What’s important, he said, is doing the most with what you have.

“Building new infrastructure needs to be done, but with moderation — we need to optimise what we already have,” he said. 

More than city centres

Later in the day, several speakers added to the conversation about the future of liveability by sharing their experiences on topics ranging from smart infrastructure to community engagement, and where engineers fit into the mix of creating sustainable urban landscapes. 

As a reminder that liveability doesn’t just apply to large capital cities, WSP New Zealand’s Philip McFarlane presented insights on how to enhance liveability in smaller or more regional areas through community-centric approaches and affordable digital tools.

The team reported on Building Better Homes and Cities, a National Science Challenge research project in New Zealand that involved partnering with two regional district councils to identify what’s required to create an affordable yet comprehensive community-centric approach to asset management. 

The project came out of the need for councils to connect with communities when making asset decisions, and to help councils answer some pressing questions like what level of service people are willing to pay for, and what’s the ongoing conversation.

“Regional areas have smaller everything — smaller budgets, smaller resources — but their people have the same needs as cities. How do we develop affordable tools to address this?,” he said.

“How do we capture needs and wants of the community, and how do those change over time?” 

Through their work, the WSP team identified key factors for determining what will be useful digital tools. They found creating ‘smart cities’ isn’t about implementing the latest, shiniest piece of technology. 

McFarlane said the first question to answer should be “How do you give purpose to data, and link it together so the community can understand it?”.

“For example, if I told people that for the price of a cup of coffee a day, we could have this piece of infrastructure — we need to develop that narrative,” he said. 

And from there, like anything else: prototype and test, test, test. 

From the ground up

Retrofitting existing communities is an important step in bringing more places into the age of the smart city, but what if you could create a smart, sustainable city from scratch?

That’s the situation Jonathan Howe, from Jacobs, found himself in when he became involved with the Australian Education City (AEC).

AEC will be a $30 billion “super city”, built on a 412 ha site located 25 km from Melbourne’s CBD. Creating this community from scratch lets “ideas come to life”, Howe said, and he’s excited by the prospect of creating an eco-city that puts community and people first — made possible by clever use of digital engineering. 

Use of digital technology proved invaluable during design, allowing the creators to “find the balance between digital expression and intuitive know-how”, Howe said, and allowed the team to “optimise recursive design cycles” and create an evidence-based design. 

“Data was invaluable to this process,” he said.

Digital twin technology was also crucial. For this project, Howe said they used both a data-rich model, and then a model that was “more creative” and focused on design expression. 

“Ultimately these two would come together, but there is a need to have both,” Howe said. 

“If you’re not doing a digital twin on this scale, you’re lost.”

While the project is a 30-year long game, Howe hopes it can serve as a blueprint and a benchmark for future sustainable developments.

Is the future of engineering human?

By | New technology and innovations | One Comment

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.

future of transport

How can connected transport help urban networks work in perfect harmony?

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Automation is just one example of how technology is influencing the design of future transport to challenge our current understanding of urban landscapes.

A blue, blocky, mini bus shuttles its way around the suburban streets collecting waiting passengers, humming to a stop as it lets people on and off. The bus is depositing people safely and efficiently between homes, shops and transport hubs.

There’s no polite nod to the bus driver as passengers alight from their ride – because there is no driver on this bus. The bus is automated. It knows where to go, and it senses when it needs to stop to let a person safely past. It ‘speaks’ to other vehicles it meets along its path so they both know which way to go. This is the future for automated vehicles like those being trialled in the University of Melbourne’s Australian Integrated Multimodal EcoSystem (AIMES).

Transport nirvana

Automation is just one example of how technology is influencing the design of future transport to challenge our current understanding of urban landscapes. It is a future in which the peril of human distraction and its potential consequences have become a thing of the past. An effective transport system plays a vital role in making a city liveable, and is a key driver of competition in the global marketplace.

In this sense, AIMES is at the top of its game as a world-first living laboratory based on the streets of Melbourne, established in 2016 to test highly integrated transport technology in a real-world environment. AIMES has grand plans to deliver safer, more efficient and more sustainable urban transport outcomes.

Together with a team of transport experts, Professor Majid Sarvi, Director of AIMES, is developing overarching infrastructure to allow all road users (drivers, cyclists and pedestrians) to connect with each other and sense their greater environment for distributed cooperative cognition.

 

This shared thinking approach allows road users to detect congestion hot spots faster and keep traffic flowing better. It will also make our roads safer.

“It has been estimated that connected transport can reduce the economic cost of road crashes by more than 90 per cent. And best of all, such a system can learn, improve and evolve. We call this new technological capability ‘intelligent connectivity’,” Sarvi said.

Success factors

A key driver of AIMES’ success lies in its collaborative approach. AIMES is an evolving partnership of more than 50 domestic and international transport leaders from industry, research and government. AIMES partners share a passion to work together to solve today’s city mobility challenges.

AIMES’ is network of smart sensors connecting all parts of the transport environment within a six square kilometre grid on the streets of inner-city Carlton, Melbourne. AIMES provides a unique platform in a real-world environment for collaborative technology trials which integrate the movement of all road users (people and vehicles) with transport infrastructure.

The vision from the team behind AIMES is as simple as it is complex: connected vehicles, connected public transport, connected pedestrians and cyclists, and smart public transport stations.

Hopefully that same blue, blocky mini bus will soon greet you at the train station to offer you a safe, efficient and smart ride home.

See this world-first living laboratory in action as part of an offsite tour at the World Engineers Convention, held 20-22 November in Melbourne. To learn more and to register, click here.