Human Resources

How has tech impacted the traditional role of the engineer?

Tunnelled through 260 miles of underground rock and 30 miles of above ground bridges and crossways, in its heyday, the Roman aqueduct system supplied around 1000 cubic metres of fresh, clean water to the ancient city of Rome each day. People talk a lot about Roman engineering but it was this, and other such feats of municipal excellence, upon which an entire civilisation was built.

Wikipedia defines an engineer as someone “concerned with applying scientific knowledge, mathematics, and ingenuity to develop solutions for technical, societal and commercial problems”. And fundamentally, until relatively recently, the principles of engineering hadn’t really changed since Roman times.

Now change is beginning to snowball at a ferocious rate. As Dave Excell, CTO and Co-Founder of Featurespace tells IDG Connect: “Half a century ago engineers were typically focused on the construction and creation of physical entities, bridges, dams and buildings. Over the last 20 years, engineering has evolved to encompass a much wider variety of digital, intangible objects on a daily basis.”

This encompasses the Internet of Things and an ever increasing new network of connected devices, which in turn changes the face of ‘old fashioned’ engineering. This point was driven home to me at a recent Kaspersky event which looked at the rise in cyberattacks to critical infrastructure. It highlighted how the traditional role of engineer now encompasses so much more than it used to.

Robert Faulkner, Manager at the engineering and manufacturing division of Michael Page recruitment tells us: “The role of the engineer has changed dramatically at all levels over the last few years. More than ever businesses are now feeling the pinch in a number of areas and are therefore looking to achieve more with far less.

Engineers are now expected to be able to provide not only an engineering solution but also a more rounded knowledge of business including other internal functions. The growing capability of technology allows individuals and businesses to operate quicker and more efficiently however, at times, this means that a few ‘old school’ engineering characteristics are lost.” 

Damian Hennessey, commercial director at digital manufacturer, Proto Labs adds: “Engineering as a whole is undergoing a digital revolution, with new business models built around customer demand, production speed and enhanced software programming – all of which requires a new breed of talent, previously unseen in the industry.”

While Ulf Timmermann, CEO of electronics distributor of Reichelt clarifies: “Demand on their skills is no longer just electric - or mechanics-based, but cross-disciplined. Mechanical knowledge and electro-technical knowledge increasingly go hand-in-hand.

“Coding is a prime example. These days many engineers have to code, where once this would have been a role assigned solely to developers. A single engineer might now be expected to build a rudiment, to construct the electronics, programme it via LOGO or SPS and activate it. “

Bruce Calder, Vice President and Chief Technology Officer, Honeywell Process Solutions describes how for plant engineers specifically, all this change means, “a significant shift in capability and responsibility”.

“Unburdened by the need to simply ‘keep the lights on,’ engineers are shifting their focus from reactively monitoring operations to proactively making decisions that will improve performance, efficiency and safety – all in real-time. Ultimately, sweeping technological changes, smart plants, data analysis and cyber threats mean that engineers are now concerned not just with the running of a plant, but with the business of it,” he says.

Marina Stedman, field service expert at ClickSoftware adds that for field engineers, developments mean individuals still need the same level of technical skills they’ve always had but “their remit has broadened to include the use of mobile technologies, relationship management and sales”.

“In many cases, a customer's only engagement with the supplier of their goods or services is when they need something fixing. Providers need to think of the field engineer as their ‘brand ambassador’, the key person representing their company to their customers,” she says.


So what next for engineers?

The changes that we’re seeing now are only set to increase with the rise of digitisation and the Internet of Things.

James Johnston, Director Manufacturing, Utilities and Services, UK and Ireland, Fujitsu says: “The proliferation of IoT within the engineering industry has presented a wealth of opportunities and changes for the role of the engineer.”

This will come down to the better efficiency and productivity that IoT enables, he suggests. “Engineers will be able to redirect their efforts into providing better services for customers.”

Hennessey of Proto Labs adds: “The IoT offers the next generation of engineering talent the opportunity to ‘digitally connect the dots’ of a modern factory floor, gaining smarter ‘real-time’ insight over their competition.”

Of course, Internet of Things also presents challenges. Technical data is proliferating and becoming harder to manage, and the demand for cross-disciplinary knowledge is growing,” says Ella Balagula, Senior Vice President and general manager of Elsevier’s engineering and technology markets team.

Anything associated with IoT inevitably also throws up serious security concerns. And Calder of Honeywell Process Solutions says: “Today’s engineers are finding that they have to absorb new skills and knowledge relating to cyber security in order to be prepared to safeguard against and react to any incoming threat that could potentially cripple a site.”

Tim Kimball, CTO of Aire, a credit scoring start-up adds: “No longer is security the remit of the infrastructure and information security teams. Tools like Terraform, Vault, and the discipline of DevOps means that more and more engineers are able to take end-to-end responsibility.

“The biggest challenge to engineers in the early stage is helping the business make effective trade-offs. The key is understanding what we understand, and where we need additional resource and expertise.” 

Michael Fimin, CEO of IT auditing software supplier, Netwrix describes an “ongoing arms race between new cyberattack methods and the security solutions designed to counter them”.

“Much of the focus is on automating what an IT engineer [specifically] once had to do manually to try and eliminate the possibility of human error,” he says.  However, there is little danger of automation ever replacing IT engineers completely, he adds, because automation still requires some form of human supervision.

So, what about training and the next generation of engineers?

Faulkner of recruitment firm Michael Page says: “With the baby boom now coming through to retirement age, there is a huge amount of engineering knowledge and experience set to leave the market place. In simple terms, more people are retiring and there are not enough engineering professionals coming through to replace them. What this means is that the competition is constantly increasing. 

“Five years ago a business would have a number of strong candidates that they could pick from at a final stage interview. Now, in some instances they would be lucky to have any relevant CVs at all.”

Johnson of Fujitsu also suggests as more digitally savvy engineers enter the field with high expectations “companies will need to ensure that they are able to supply them with the technology that will allow them to work the way they want to”.

Like many industries, the challenge lies in attracting the right talent but Faulkner believes, a lot of opportunities lie ahead, at both ends of the spectrum. “New engineers can join a business and are encouraged to develop quicker than ever to meet demand, and the long standing engineers are encouraged to stay past retirement age as the skill set cannot be replaced,” he says.

Based on the direction of the current market if I had children, I would certainly be encouraging them into an engineering based degree. With demand getting higher, the next generation of engineers will be hot property within the UK and across Europe.”



Further reading:

The IoT “time bomb” report: 49 security experts share their views


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