Engineers: Staying Relevant in the Long Term

Article By : Cabe Atwell

In the short term, there will be jobs for engineers in AI, big data, and VR. The resulting technologies are likely to eliminate millions of other jobs, however.

With 20 million manufacturing layoffs projected by 2030, continuing education has never been more important. Here are the top trends for 2020 and beyond.

It is in the moments we encounter robots in the grocery store and humanoids at the front desks of hotels that we realize we are already living in the future. We may not yet have self-driving vehicles and digital assistants that actually understand our commands (come on, Apple), but what experts refer to as the Industrial Revolution 4.0 is well underway. In actuality, the world has already changed the way humans live. From here on out, civilization will never be the same. But this is, of course, just the beginning.

Industry 4.0

Industry 4.0 refers to the fourth significant revolution to have occurred in the manufacturing sector. Manufacturing continues to be reinvented as technology advances. The earliest changes came through mechanization based on steam power, while later revolutions included manufacturing changes driven by the advent of electricity and computer-based automation. What experts call Industry 4.0 refers to how data and machine learning will be used to fuel the most advanced smart and autonomous systems the world has ever known.

It sounds cool, but it doesn’t look good for jobs.

20M jobs to be lost to automation

According to a recent report released by Oxford Economics, millions of laborers in the manufacturing sector are projected to lose their jobs to robots by 2030 — 20 million laborers to be exact.

And while most of the impact is expected to be felt by lower-skilled laborers, many economists agree that as technology advances, there simply will not be enough jobs to go around. The industries expected to be least impacted by technology are those that will always require a “human touch.” This includes the arts, social work, and any other job functions requiring creativity, compassion, and social intelligence, according to Oxford.

What about engineers?

For us engineers, there exists a dichotomy. The future will be autonomous vehicles, drones that predict nuclear meltdowns, generative algorithms…, but none of it will come into being unless we (engineers) roll up our sleeves and build the world sci-fi novels have been envisioning for decades. While we are called to create the future, the data all suggests the same outcome: the technologies we are building will eventually replace us.

Live in the now

All the talk about massive layoffs and the elimination of various industries is, at this time, only speculation. We may very well be heading towards a 1984-esque dystopian future, but we aren’t there yet. Today, we still have jobs to go to and concrete responsibilities to take care: paying our bills, supporting our families, etc.

The conundrum is that to remain relevant in our industries and to stay employable, we have to develop and maintain the skills the industry demands — i.e., we must bite the bullet and build the technologies that may outlast us.

Thus, this article will focus on the technologies expected to shape the next era of engineering and manufacturing so you can ensure you have the skills to remain relevant in your field for as long as is possible.

The technologies shaping 2020 and beyond

Data suggests the following technologies will shape Industry 4.0 and beyond.

AI and Automation — Artificial Intelligence is behind many of the technological advancements driving Industry 4.0. AI makes it possible for systems to independently learn from and respond to input and data (automation) — a critical component of applications such as self-driving cars, smart manufacturing systems, and machine learning programs.

The potential of AI and automation has yet to be realized and there is significant demand for engineers who can design the software, electronic, and mechanical systems necessary for developing these smart systems.

Big Data — AI and technologies such as machine learning wouldn’t be possible without Big Data. All IoT-connected devices and systems collect data, but not all data is created equal. As the cloud network becomes overloaded with information, the demand for architecture engineers who can build systems to sort and manage data has increased. And while some of these jobs might entail developing programs for marketers to better target users with ads, other jobs are more important, such as the development of functions that allow self-driving cars to respond to stimulus in real time.

Generative Design and Digital Twins — Generative Design and Digital Twins are already revolutionizing product development. Generative Design refers to software programs in which engineers can enter parameters specific to design requirements (materials, IP rating, etc.) and the program will generate a list of every design possible (sometimes thousands of designs) in minutes or seconds. While Generative Design may eliminate the need for things like dFMEAs, it significantly increases productivity and efficiency across product development teams.

Digital Twin technology is similar to Generative Design but differs in that it allows engineers to simulate a design and see how it behaves under real-world conditions. Development teams can observe a prototype in action, identify areas of weakness, and iterate before spending a dollar on a physical prototype.

Green Tech — Significant development is happening in the green tech space, and for good reason. Climate change is real and even if we can cap the global temperature increase at 2° C, that still doesn’t ensure the planet can sustain the growing population.

As such, scientists have been busy developing things such as sustainable artificial meat, waste-eating chemicals for landfills, systems to clean plastics from the ocean, and safe systems for clean energy. If saving the planet is your passion, there are numerous ways to get involved on the tech side and develop technologies that could save us all.

VR/AR — Though it’s been a number of years since anyone has mentioned Google Glass, virtual and augmented reality technologies continue to advance and investments in the technology have steadily increased. Augmented reality specifically is expected to significantly change how we get around and learn, with applications that include indoor maps of business campuses and 3D anatomical structures for medical students. VR and AR give us the ability to learn in a three-dimensional space, making science cool again.

Robotics and 3D Printing — Robotics and 3D printing, or additive manufacturing, have been and will continue to shape what is possible in the manufacturing space. Robotic technology continues to advance, making way for humanoid receptionists and safer manufacturing installations. 3D printing, like AR and VR, is revolutionizing the medical industry with materials that have made it possible to manufacture artificial organs like pumping hearts. The world has been and will continue to change based on these technologies.

Final word

We live in a complex era. While it’s exciting to see Trekkie technologies take shape in the real world, we simultaneously see how these technologies can create massive waves of unemployment across the globe (which some economists argue will make things such as universal income a norm). Still, every thorn is attached to a rose. With less time spent in a cubicle, we could spend our days enjoying our families, making art, and creating yet more inventions for an even more progressive future.

For now, we must keep a pulse on emerging trends to remain relevant this decade and beyond. So get out there, learn some new skills, and enjoy the ride until the last stop. Who knows. The experts might be wrong. Stranger things have happened.

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