on January 28th, 2009

Dear Colleagues

Your survey

I was intrigued by the economic survey that you (almost 1000 respondents) happily undertook last week. Interestingly enough, the results indicated that for slightly more than half of us (54%), things were the same or better. And for the other 46%, things were worse. What does this mean? I have always maintained that the shortage of engineering professionals means that we should keep on truckin’ – producing high quality work and focusing on economic efficiencies and eying new technology breakthroughs and opportunities.

What’s happening tomorrow in engineering, Doc?

It is a good time to spend a moment considering where we are heading this year in terms of technology, energy, climate change, infrastructure and economics. What follows, I hope, will provide you with a few ideas to help you fashion your career for beyond 2009?

In terms of technology:

A viable electric car or at least a plug-in hybrid vehicle with a range of 60kms will arrive soon. Hydrogen fuel-cells just don’t seem to be there yet.

Photovoltaic cells are being used more frequently to coat entire roofs for power generation, but costs still need to drop significantly. And the smart grid is being rapidly implemented making two-way metering of power to and from the grid viable.

The intelligent highway system is emerging with improved car and passenger safety. This involves communication between cars close by, for braking and speed control and for optimizing capacity on the road. (The portable GPS car navigation systems are brilliant when traveling in unfamiliar cities).

Broadband and wireless has ushered in cloud computing where your application and data resides with your provider (a trade off between privacy and cost). And in a related way, telecommuting, telemedicine and virtual meetings and collaboration is fast becoming a way of life. As Eric Schmidt (CEO of Google) noted: "Oil is finite but information is infinite".

In terms of energy:

The oil price has fallen precipitously from $147 per barrel to a tad over $40 despite oilfield output declining by almost 10% pa (and indeed will do so again with the collapse in prices). The current financial shutdown means that this shortage is not going to impact, due to a slowdown in demand. But it will eventually bite.

Sadly, due to the economic downturn, financing of more renewable energy supplies has fallen off a cliff. Coal and nuclear will continue to expand and expensive sources of energy (tar sands in Canada) will slow down dramatically with the lower oil price.

In terms of climate change:

Solutions to climate change will still be a focus, but at a slower pace (the successor to the Kyoto Protocol for example) with the poorer nations demanding a big reduction in emissions from the richer guys.

Climate engineering (now called geo engineering) will continue to grow in importance. Techniques such as; reducing the amount of solar radiation hitting the earth’s surface (through the spraying of a fine mist of seawater into the air or painting roofs white to reflect sunlight), growing more plankton (to capture more carbon dioxide), using peridotite rock (which simply loves absorbing carbon dioxide). And then there is the resurgence in the diesel engine as a highly efficient and low polluting engine.

In terms of the infrastructure:

More emphasis on the crumbling infrastructure is to be expected as a result of governments wanting to create employment. Railways/railroads, roads and bridges will receive a significant boost in terms of repairs/maintenance and new construction. The US alone is intending to spend $500bn over six years just on highway related expenditure.

In terms of the economy:

And lastly, with the economic slide, what is going to happen to us as engineering professionals? Most pundits expect this sad situation to continue for another two or three years. However, with the significant shortage of good engineers and technicians (and still very few entering these industries), I believe that by mid year we will see a few tiny green shoots of recovery in industrial activity. But I wouldn’t be optimistic about retail activities, consumer related glamour products and "clever financial engineering". I believe these industries can expect up to a decade of low activity.

Although we are going through rapid change and some stress this year, we should remember Johnette Napolitano’s comment which is especially relevant to technology: "The worst thing you can try to do is cling to something that is gone"

Thanks to George McClure of the IEEE for his thought provoking article.

Yours in engineering learning


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