Digital disruption to bring core engineering skills to fore

30th November 2018 By: Schalk Burger - Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor

Digital disruption to bring core engineering skills to fore

Far from posing a threat to engineering as a profession, local engineering experts believe that the digital transformation of industries and of society is amplifying the importance of the core competences of engineering disciplines and bringing them to the fore.

Defining and solving complex problems, critical thinking, creativity, judgement, people management and the coordination of people and project elements are key skills that engineers will need by 2020 as structured, repeatable processes are automated, says multinational engineering consultancy Aurecon COO Dr Gustav Rohde.

“Accurately defining a problem and its relevant context, and applying critical reasoning and solving problems using mathematics and science will remain the core competences of engineers, but will be supplemented by digital tools and systems that they must be familiar with and confident in using.”

Digital competence and technical acumen mean that engineers are well placed to seize the opportunities presented by rapid digital transformation worldwide, he says, emphasising that they must embrace the digital age as a “fantastic opportunity to reposition the role of engineering”.

Engineering challenges are no longer only technical challenges, says University of Pretoria Faculty of Engineering, Built Environment and Information Technology Professor Schalk Els, but also collaborative, social, climate and long-term sustainability challenges.

Multidisciplinary solutions are required to meet the additional demands and complexity of projects, and engineers need to be able to recognise the holistic context of a project to identify what its precise needs and suitable solutions are.

Consequently, the divisions between engineering disciplines are fading, but key skills required of engineers – and which machines cannot easily mimic – remain crucial, he adds.

Els highlights how quickly technologies have changed over the past two decades – from desktop computers and compact discs to powerful hand-held devices and streaming services – and emphasises the importance of not training engineers on current technology, but rather equipping them to adapt to new technologies and to adopt those that are relevant and effective.

He adds that critically assessing the rele- vance and applicability of technologies based on broad technical understanding will be fundamental. This includes assessing the life span and appropriateness of solutions over the duration of the project or infrastructure lifetime, as well as determining the risks and integrity of systems.

Further, the complexity of projects is set to increase, owing to the integration of data flows and systems, but this highlights the importance of collaboration and cooperation in teams and across various engineering disciplines. Consequently, having the correct combination of skills and disciplines in a team will be important to solve complex problems, says Els.

“Resource scarcity and complex problems drive innovation and overcoming or solving these problems will remain key functions of engineers.”

Rohde highlights that the combined changes wrought by technology development and use will have a drastic impact on engineering, which fundamentally changes the expectations placed on engineers.

“There must be human judgement and accountability for using any technologies, whether digital or otherwise, in projects, which returns the focus to the key functions and capabilities of engineers. Critical thinking, reasoning and determining the holistic context and impacts of projects are neces- sary to ensure that engineered solutions meet safety and quality standards across complex and interrelated project demands.”

However, engineers will be unable to fulfil their crucial role in development – and ensure that new technologies improve projects, systems, processes and infrastructure – if they are not digitally competent and savvy, avers Rohde.

He cites digital twins, or virtual repre- sentations of physical systems, which provide monitoring and modelling functionality based on real-time data. The fine detail in which engineers can design and test systems and processes in these virtual models cannot be done without digital platforms.

“These capabilities extend beyond design and modelling to include an assessment of changes and the impacts of projects. The throughput of a port container terminal will be modelled before and measured afterwards against a historical baseline, and engineers have to become used to their work being subjected to greater scrutiny and transparency.”

Engineering Data

Technology must be engaged as a delivery mechanism. The changes that pervasive technology is bringing to society will have an equally profound impact on engineering, University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) dean of engineering and the built environment Professor Ian Jandrell highlights.

Whether mining or civil engineering, the current topics are about digitalisation, automation and robotics. In this context, the integration of these systems and processes becomes profoundly important, he explains.

“It is clear that the fundamental skills and competences of engineers have not changed, but what has changed is the context in which they are applied.”

University of Stellenbosch dean of engineering Professor Wikus van Niekerk highlights that data science is an emerg- ing field of study that is affecting all engineering fields and includes the digital tools that engineers will be expected to use, including artificial intelligence, machine learning, Big Data, data analytics and Internet of Things networks.

From an engineering point of view, this provides ways of better assessing machine and human behaviour, monitoring variables in real time and modelling changes and solutions during implementation and over the life spans of projects, he says.

“This is a fundamental change in engineering and requires that engineers be conversant with data sciences, analytics systems and modelling. Simultaneously, this requires that engineers retain a good understanding of basic and applied sciences to determine the viability and suitability of technologies to solve engineering problems,” says Van Niekerk.

Els and Jandrell emphasise that data is not information and that converting data into information while mitigating risks and inaccuracies is crucial to making informed engineering decisions, whether these are technical or administrative in nature.

Ability, skills and technical competence cannot be replaced by digital systems, but can be augmented using suitable digital technologies, avers Els.

“One of the big pitfalls facing engineers in this digitalising ecosystem is the risk that data and information are incomplete and/or inaccurate. Additional data, such as from sensor networks, may remain unusable if the system and outputs remain untested. The big challenge will be to ensure that the data on which a decision is based is correct,” states Van Niekerk.

As digital transformation unfolds, a good technical grounding becomes even more important for engineers to enable them to evaluate and master new technologies.

Automation and digital systems help engineers to do their work faster, and machines can perform certain tasks more reliably, but there are specific areas where humans perform better than machines, and risk mitigation and accountability reside with the people involved in projects, he adds.

“Interrogating the outputs of digital systems and technologies, especially to resolve specific queries and address risks, is important. Engineers have to focus on the capabilities that humans do well, including thinking laterally, critically and creatively, as well as recognising the limitations of technologies to develop projects that are effective and safe.”

Rohde gives the example of a geologist who used drone footage, geolocation and data modelling to assess the stability of cliffs in Christchurch, New Zealand, following the 2011 earthquake.

“The work done by the drone was too dangerous for a person to do and the output was a simple video. However, the engineer’s technical expertise allowed her to model the cracks and fissures against known stresses and failures of similar geological formations and, thereby, assess the safety of structures built on top of the cliffs.”

Rohde adds that such systems, often perceived as basic, will become commonplace to provide better and more real-time visibility of projects.

Deep or Broad Learning

New demands necessitate active and continuous learning by engineers to meet the demands of different projects. Engineers will have to train themselves in new systems and technologies as they emerge or if they are relevant to a project, emphasises Rohde.

This will also require that continuing professional development (CPD) models be changed to enable engineers to claim CPD credits – which is a requirement of many companies and professional bodies – for work done to educate themselves about new systems.

Wits is developing massive open online courses – media-rich, interactive online education resources – as part of the transition to new delivery modes, especially for postgraduate and professional-development studies, highlights Jandrell.

Wits has rolled out a master’s degree in aerospace engineering, which incorporates online courses delivered in partnership with Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Worldwide Campus, as one of its online postgraduate pilot projects. Students will gain a master’s degree from both universities once completed, he adds.

“Refining the model of education is necessary to meet the pent-up demand, especially in Africa, for education and professional development of many disciplines inside and outside engineering fields.”

Rohde states that CPD must become on-demand so that engineers can teach themselves new systems when necessary, but highlights that quality control of online and open courses is a challenge.

He adds that engineers will be grouped into two broad, overlapping categories, which are specialisation and integration. Professional development and self-learning contribute to this change, as engineers teach themselves new skills to solve problems or evaluate the suitability of technologies.

Deep technical competence in specific fields or technologies will be required to develop suitable systems for projects, while their integration into a coherent and robust project will necessitate broad technical knowledge, emotional intelligence and people management skills, he says.

The complexity of projects and the commensurate requirement for multi- disciplinary teams to address the range of complex problems underpin these demands on engineers, explains Rohde.

However, despite the uncertainty introduced by the changes in the fields of engineering, technology changes are creating space for innovation and invention as the barriers to entry are lowered, says Jandrell.

“This is almost creating an age of invention where creativity, adaptability and emotional intelligence become important elements of engineering disciplines. Creating simplicity from complexity is a result of deep insight and professional skill, and the hallmark of good engineering. This is the role that engineers must fulfil as digital technologies become ubiquitous in society and professional life,” he concludes.