Exciting challenges ahead for engineers

Exciting challenges ahead for engineers

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Exciting challenges ahead for engineers

Indian engineering students must learn to creatively adapt to the fast-paced technical innovations we are seeing around the world. While the challenges for engineers are many, they are also exciting, says Gopalkrishna D Kamalapur

Engineering offers some very interesting and challenging years ahead and engineers can surely take pride in the professional path they’ve taken.  The industry has been pivotal in shaping India’s industrial capabilities and making ours one of the world’s premier economies. More significantly, engineering’s accomplishments over the past century have transformed the world and improved our standard of living. It’s achievements of the twentieth century stand out: computers, Internet, electricity, communication. The list goes on to the aeroplane, water distribution, household appliances, travel in outer space, agricultural mechanisation and high-performance materials. Unfortunately, technological innovation has become so common place that it is taken for granted and engineers are not appreciated, or adequately recognised by our society for their contribution to our standard of living.

There is a lack of appreciation by most young people of the tremendous value of an engineering undergraduate education, no matter what alternative career one eventually might wish to pursue, such as Medicine, Law, or Business. Half of Fortune 500 CEOs are engineers. But all of that is in the past and the present.  Let us take a look at the future.

The future is bright

We are living in a period of time that will produce more change for humanity than any previous era in history. It is a time of extraordinary importance that will fundamentally reshape almost every aspect of life. Wholesale change is taking place in almost every segment of life and the pace will only increase in the coming years. The world around us is changing, and so is engineering, and engineering education. Engineers need to be part of the change process. Any restructure in engineering education must aim to meet the challenges of a greater knowledge base and emerging technologies, develop depth in management and creativity in problem-solving, as well as understand the risks and uncertainties of the times. It is evident that the exploding body of science and engineering knowledge cannot be accommodated within the context of the traditional four-year degree. Completing a degree course is only one step towards a career in engineering.

The future for engineering is bright. There are many exciting and demanding challenges ahead for engineers. In the energy field, there are alternative or advanced electricity generation technologies. There is also the exciting prospect of moving towards a hydrogen economy. There is expanding energy availability with access globally, while minimising the adverse environmental and social impacts. In Medicine, there will continue to be new medical testing and treatment equipment, such as prosthesis integration with the human neural system and medical application of nanotechnology in order to limit invasive treatments. In the environmental area, there is the challenge of limiting or reversing the impact of human existence in an economically viable way. And there is the challenge of advancing the standard of living in Third World countries to that of First World standards, in a sustainable and environmentally sensitive manner.

Role of Indian engineers

But the future will have major complications. The nature of engineering, or at least engineering performance, is changing dramatically with challenging new technologies to be deployed in increasingly demanding environments — from sub-microscopic to mega projects and from the interior of the human body to the remotest regions of the world and beyond to the surfaces of the Moon and Mars — and with competition and interaction on an increasingly global basis.

Further, globalisation is not limited to the engineering and construction industry. Boeing has outsourced engineering and manufacturing of its 7E7 special composite wings to Japan and a portion of the fuselage to Italy. General Electric has Jack Welch’s “70:70:70 rule.” That is: 70 per cent of business processes, including engineering, are to be outsourced. Of this, 70 per cent is to be sent offshore, and of this, 70 per cent will be sent to India. GE is also looking at India as a manufacturing hub. IBM has major research, engineering, and manufacturing facilities in Europe, Asia, and South America. Early this year, the company forecasted shifting 30,000 programming jobs to India, China, and elsewhere in the world.

Other challenges facing engineers of the future, in addition to globalisation, economically sound environmental protection, and rapid technological advancement, are national security needs and an aging infrastructure.

So what impact will these changes have on the role of Indian engineers of the future? Domestically, they must continue the technological improvements that will make us more productive and maintain our technological and economic preeminence. But more broadly, the rest of the world will need engineers to transform the global economy the way Indian engineering transformed the nation’s economy in the twentieth century.

Indian engineers can play a leadership role in this global transformation.

To do so, they must continue to be innovators, remaining in front on important new commercial technologies. They must retain the ability to pioneer first-of-a-kind products and facilities. Innovation will be the single most important factor in determining India’s success throughout the twenty first century.

Indian engineers must be leaders. They must be able to manage and integrate globally constituted, multi-cultural teams that design and procure equipment, materials, and services internationally. They must continue to have the ability to see the big picture.

That ability has been the hallmark of Indian engineers. It has enabled us to successfully manage extremely large and complicated engineering and construction projects and other complex developments any place in the world.

Learn and adapt

Young engineers must be forward thinkers who are visionaries. More than ever, they must help to shape issues and define challenges that must be addressed, not merely detailing concepts developed by others. They must be communicators and teachers. They must ensure that all segments of the public are aware that engineers are helping to shape this nation’s industrial capabilities and that they are contributing to the world’s economy, health care, and quality of life, and, in the process, will be making engineering, as a career choice, much more attractive.

Youngsters have to prepare for this new broader role along with technical competence, effective communications, especially cross-culturally. They need to know the world and the other people who work in it. They have to acquire more interdisciplinary knowledge and continue to learn and improve throughout their career. They must have the ability to acquire new knowledge quickly and apply it to emerging problems. They must be open minded, objective and stay involved and committed to the interest of the public as well as to the interest of the profession.

They must be persistent and tenacious. They must have integrity and discipline. And they must retain a sense of curiosity and wonder. Engineering builds the foundation for a better future.

In the next decade, the ability of individuals and organisations to learn, innovate, adopt and adapt faster will drive advanced economies. Engineers face a very exciting and challenging future. India’s ability to retain its technological and economic preeminence, in large measure, rests with budding engineers. Engineering education leaves students well prepared to take up these challenges, and in meeting these challenges they should benefit from a very satisfying and rewarding career.

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