on December 9th, 2009

Dear Colleagues

Whilst on a ship a woman enquired of Herbert Hoover (who later became US president in 1929) what he did for a living. His reply; “I am an engineer”, to which she responded; “But I thought you were a gentleman”. Attitudes to this profession and the practice of engineering itself have, however, changed considerably over the past hundred years. Although the science of engineering remains in motion (some of these trends are outlined below) there is no doubt that there are some constants, such as the need for strong skills in maths and science (and the associated necessity to be meticulous and precise). The ability to troubleshoot and transform mere ideas into real and useful objects is also essential.

With the inevitability of change in our vocations it is clear why we need to be ‘obsessively’ multi-skilled and highly receptive to and embracing of new ideas and approaches. There has been a merging of professions including mechanical, electrical, IT and others that surface every so often. This constant state of flux is exceptionally challenging and merciless - where engineering professionals have been resistant to change they quickly find their skills redundant. A colleague of mine - a technician working in the industrial data communications area - refused to move beyond RS-232 and RS-485 and into the realms of Ethernet. He reluctantly retired.

Sujeet Chand, from Rockwell, remarked that the constraints and considerations when designing have become more complex. He was referring to issues such as energy efficiency, cost, climate change, safety and ergonomics. He pointed out that the need to be adroit in dealing with these was becoming more critical.

We must collaborate widely and communicate constantly and well. This is often essential in a virtual sense too (through email, the web, web and video conferencing), with different cultures located all over the world. Furthermore, there is a merging of collaboration with people and the resources on the web, as all information is available on the web in a searchable format. As a result very complex designs can be put together quickly.

The outsourcing of non-core functions has often seriously emasculated engineering companies with the loss of great engineering talent. These companies are reduced in their abilities – often only able to repackage old technologies. Eventually this limited scope fails in our highly competitive market.

A lot of the very satisfying hands-on experience is no longer with us. James Truchard, of National Instruments, remarked that in many cases the mathematics has isolated us from grounded reality - we have lost the need to and ability for intuition due to this high level of abstraction. Fortunately, with the new approaches to simulation and the realistic representation of simulated data, we can move back to the hands-on, intuitive approach again.
So, to weather these winds of change we need to:

• Strengthen our communication skills in collaboration with other cultures and engineers from around the globe.
• Strive to retain the hands-on, intuitive approach to engineering using the new
3-d simulation approaches.
• Embrace multi-skilling and regard engineering as one vast interlocking field.
• Be wary of outsourcing and losing core resources and functionality.
• And, at the risk of sounding obsessive, keep learning and absorbing

Thanks to Terry Cousins of TLC Software and Machine Design for giving me the incentive to write this.

Here is a brilliant quotation from Christina Baldwin (as in my stolen title):

“Change is the constant, the signal for rebirth, the egg of the phoenix”.

Yours in engineering learning


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