Major Industry Trends
The engineering sector encompasses a bewildering array of possible roles, and touches virtually all other industry segments. The discipline of engineering is generally subdivided into mechanical, electrical, and chemical engineering on the macro scale. However, with its connotations of pragmatic manipulation, as in using a body of skill and techniques to achieve a designated impact in the real world, engineering as a term is now readily applied to fields as diverse as software, genetics, and finance.
On this last point, the College of Engineering at the University of Michigan, for example, offers a financial engineering degree, teaching students how to use applied mathematics to analyze financial derivatives. In fact, the original financial engineers, whom many blame for devising some of the complex derivatives that played such a big role in the current global banking crisis, were drawn from the fields of process and operations engineering, as well as from applied mathematics backgrounds.
Understanding the behavior of complex systems, such as near-turbulent water flows, is, after all, an engineering specialty, and is an essential part of propeller design. There are also numerous other classic engineering problems involving near-chaotic systems. Moving from this to spotting short-lasting, predictable trends in complex data flows, such as trades on millions of stocks, is not that big a jump.
For those concerned with educating the next generation of engineers, the way in which new fields, such as nanotechnology or genetics, are opening up rich new seams for engineering is not surprising. The US National Academy of Engineering (NAE) holds a symposium every year under the banner, “Frontiers of Engineering.” The 2011 Symposium is scheduled for September 19–21 at Google headquarters, and will look at four cutting-edge areas: additive manufacturing, engineering sustainable buildings, semantic processing, and neuroprosthetics. It is safe to say that none of these topics would have been on an engineering agenda a few decades back. This is a field that is constantly changing.
With drug delivery systems, advances in new materials have opened up new ways of administering drugs to patients using, for example, engineered particles providing sustained release of therapies over an extended time frame. With nanoelectronic devices, the search is on to find circuit concepts and sensor functionalities, such as new switches, that can develop new technologies for information processing to create wholly new kinds of computers.
In a book, The Engineering of 2020: Visions of Engineering in the New Century, published in 2004 by the NAE, the Academy points out that, in the past, “changes in the engineering profession and engineering education have followed changes in technology and society. Disciplines were added and curricula were created to meet the critical challenges in society, and to provide the workforce required to integrate new developments into the economy.”
However, today, technological change is occurring at a faster and faster pace. Engineering needs to apply some of its skills to anticipating future necessary advances, and adapting the education of future generations of engineers to be there “ahead of the curve,” insofar as that is possible, the NAE argues.
In fact, this is likely to be where the real locus of competition between nations and, indeed, between multinational and multidisciplinary engineering companies will lie in a few years time. Firms and nations that are best-placed with innovative answers to emerging global challenges, be these to do with food crises, aberrant weather patterns, or power or water shortages, will become the leaders in the field.
Simultaneously with all this, of course, established international engineering companies specializing in a huge array of disciplines, are essential generators of GDP growth in virtually all the developed, and many developing economies. This leads directly to the topic of outsourcing, which is one of the major themes in manufacturing, engineering, and design today.
A few years ago, it was fashionable for governments in Europe and the United States, and particularly in the United Kingdom, to urge manufacturers to “go up the value chain,” to avoid competition from low-wage economies. The point followed logically enough from the fact that volume manufacturing, of the “pile ’em high, sell ’em cheap” variety, is essentially about price, and the lower the wages paid, the cheaper the price of the end-product.
It followed that manufacturers based in China or India, where wages were a lot lower than in advanced economies, would drive their counterparts based in high-wage economies out of business.
To counter this, the argument went, Western manufacturers should use their engineering and design know-how to focus on high-value, complex products. The problem with this argument, many people noticed, is that it presupposes that low-wage economies are trapped forever doing “grunt,” low-wage jobs, and will not be able to do high-quality engineering and design work to innovate and compete on these complex, value-added projects.
This argument began to fall away when people took account of just how many engineers and scientists low-wage economy countries such as India and China were producing. It vanished entirely when Western companies started outsourcing design and innovation to offshore centers, as Indian and Chinese engineers are also “lower wage” than their colleagues in developed economies, at least at present.
A team at the Pratt School of Engineering, Duke University, United States, has specialized in studying the quality and quantity of engineering graduates being produced by Indian and Chinese institutions, and the impact of globalization on the engineering profession. Their aim was to explore the factors driving the US trend to engineering outsourcing, and to look at what could be done to enable the United States to retain any edge it still has in this field.
The comparative annual numbers most frequently cited for engineering graduates in the United States, India, and China, they point out, are 70,000 undergraduate engineers in the United States, 350,000 for India, and 700,000 for China. However, when the Duke University team checked the numbers, they found huge difficulties around semantics.
Chinese terminology does not distinguish particularly, as far as terms go, between a motor mechanic and a nuclear engineer, both are “engineers.” The team checked 200 universities in China and 100 in India. Their analysis showed, however, that, while a realistic figure for China for 2004 was probably more like 360,000 conventionally trained engineering graduates, versus 139,000 in India, and almost 138,000 for the United States, there was a very real and obvious ramping-up in the number of engineers China is now producing.
This increase stems from initiatives taken by the Chinese government in 1999, and those initiatives are now bearing fruit. What has really worked for the Chinese, the Duke team found, as far as numbers are concerned at least, is to transform science and engineering education from “elite education” to “mass education,” by increasing enrolment in engineering programs. The downside of this is that an improvement of 140% in numbers of students has taken place at the expense of dramatic increases in class sizes, creating some serious quality problems for qualification standards.
In other words, the quality of engineering dropped off dramatically outside some 10 to 15 Chinese engineering institutions, even as the numbers went up. The Duke team, therefore, argue that China is likely to find it at least as difficult as the United States does to generate a large number of extremely well-skilled engineers over time.
India, by way of contrast, has benefited from engineering education places being offered by a number of private colleges and training institutions. Most of these face quality issues, the Duke team says, but a few are recognized as producing high-quality graduates. Indian companies told the team that they felt comfortable hiring the top graduates from a wide range of Indian institutions (a reverse of the situation in China).
A key fact that emerged from a survey of US companies carried out by the Duke University team was that the vast majority of these companies said they would move at least part of their R&D to emerging markets, in order to respond to the big opportunities in these growing markets. They also said that their units there would increasingly be catering for worldwide needs.
On the positive side, by staying open to the brightest and the best, the United States—and, by implication, Europe—continues to benefit from the ability to attract very-high-caliber students from both China and India, many of whom stay in Europe after completing their studies, often making very substantial contributions in their own right to innovation and progress, and ultimately to the GDP of the host country.
The question of who will “out-innovate” whom may quite possibly prove to be irrelevant in the longer term, itself becoming a victim of the increasingly global and multinational nature of engineering operations.
Engineering is a prime example of a discipline bounded on all sides by political and social “rules.” The European Union’s Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive, known as WEEE, on the disposal of end-of-life electronic and electrical equipment is one obvious example. One of the goals of WEEE is to force manufacturers to think much more carefully about the way they engineer products.
By getting manufacturers to think of the waste that results at the end of a product’s lifecycle, and by making them pay for the ultimate disposal of those products at expensive, special-purpose hazardous waste sites, the idea is that manufacturers will improve the recyclable content of their products (less going to landfill or hazardous waste disposal sites equals less cost per product).
In other words, the goal being set for engineers is no longer, “does this product do the job well?” The dimension, “can this product be cost-effectively disposed of at the end of its life?” has been added. From an engineer’s standpoint, that is just another design challenge, and one that gives their company yet another opportunity to craft something better than their competitors have yet managed.
Equally relevant are the various moral limits on what may and may not be “engineered.” The debates over genetic manipulation of crops are now familiar ground. Engineers and scientists face similar emotive debates over the topic of cloning, a subject that emerges very readily out of breakthrough research into DNA, the “blueprint” of life.
Today, and for the foreseeable future, plant cloning is “in,” human cloning is “out,” and the “in” and the “out” here have nothing to do with natural limits on engineering, and everything to do with the moral limits that society places on engineers.
The NAE points out that the biotechnology “revolution,” for example, holds great potential but it is a field in which political and societal implications intervene to set limits on what is acceptable. In other words, there are very clear issues that have an impact on technological change that are beyond the scope of engineering.
Finally, there is much to be hoped for from the fact that engineering has a tremendous role to play in facilitating international cooperation. As the NAE notes, engineering itself “speaks through an international language of mathematics, science, and technology,” and, as such, bodies of professionals across the globe very quickly find themselves on common ground when dealing with engineering concepts. It looks at least possible that the real future of engineering lies on a global, rather than on any particular merely national, stage—particularly as the challenges facing engineering are themselves increasingly global in nature.