Is the future of engineering human?

The world is currently undergoing what many call, the fourth industrial revolution. This revolution is seeing technologies such as The Internet of Things, robotics, virtual reality and artificial intelligence changing the workforce and everyday life.

The creators of these technologies and the problem solvers that will tackle the issues this revolution presents are ironically the same, they are engineers.

At the World Engineering Convention held in Melbourne this week, day two was kicked off with an enlightening panel discussion based on a simple question: Is the future of engineering human?

The panel featured Meredith Westafer, Senior Industrial Engineer at Tesla, John Sukkar, Director of Engineering Design at CISRO and Felicity Furey, Co-founder of Power of Engineering and Director of Industry Partnerships at Swinburne University.

When posed the question, ‘Is the future of engineering human?’, the panellists agreed on one idea.

As Ms. Furey summed up, machines will take on the mundane jobs, allowing engineers to focus on thinking, learning or creating in the future.

Mr. Sukkar was also of the view that engineering will only be augmented by machines and technology.

“Skillsets are changing but the products are not going to design themselves, we will still need engineers. We still need the knowledge and the ability to think and learn and design new things, whether it is in manufacturing, construction or digital technologies,” he said.

The discussion then lead to the industry’s ability to attract and maintain engineering talent. It also debated how engineering talent can be defined and what it might look like in the future.

Ms. Westafer explained her idea of attracting talent is through the way in which engineering projects or objects are communicated.

This idea was expanded upon by Ms.Fury, she stated there is a need to change the language in which engineering is described from the outset.

“If we say things like build structures, write code and research or analyse data that actually can switch people off engineering, particularly girls… but if we use words adaptable, creative, organised and motivated that can actually turn people onto engineering,” Ms. Furey said.

In order to keep talented engineers in the work force, Ms. Westafer explained that engineers need to be able to do what they are best at.

“It’s important to give engineers the freedom to do the design work. I think that this is the most commonly held complaint in the engineering world,” she says.

She highlighted that often on an engineer’s first day in the job they are sat down and told of strict processes to work by and restrictions around approvals for any new ideas.

“We need to give our engineers the ability to actually engineer,” Ms. Westafer said.

The panel agreed that to prepare for the future, engineers will need to be good thinkers, and exhibit strong soft skills such as communication or basic reading and writing.

The panel discussed that these kinds of skills will be needed so that engineering can continue to play a large part in solving issues worldwide, alongside new technology.

“Now we often don’t know what the problem is that we need to solve and there are multiple solutions, I think when we get into more of those problems that will be challenging and our straight to the answer processes might not work in those situations,” Ms. Fury said.

With the overall theme for the conference being ‘Engineering a sustainable world: The next 100 years’ the panel agreed the profession will need many people of different backgrounds and mindsets to tackle the problems of the future.

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