Taking Engineering’s Pulse

October 1, 2008

If you assemble a group of engineers—including men and women who have led professional societies or large engineering enterprises—and ask them about the future of mechanical engineering, they may talk about continuing globalization or the need to address social and economic issues, or the implications of technology on ever smaller and larger scales. None of them expects the world to grow any simpler.

Many of the ideas that emerge can be described by the term “integrated systems,” whether that means teams of people bringing a wide range of skills to bear on a single project or collaborating with colleagues in distant time zones.

The American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) has been asking engineers, in focus groups and polls, about the future. It also put the question to a meeting in April 2008, the Global Summit on the Future of Mechanical Engineering, which brought together about 120 people from 18 countries to the National Academies building in Washington.

The Society’s goal in sounding out its members and others in the profession is to get a bearing on where the organization should set its course for the future. Much of the future for mechanical engineers, as is expected now, will involve integrating systems of all kinds.

As Charles Vest, president of the National Academy of Engineering, sees it, the twentieth century was the age of physics and electronics, typified by high-speed communications, for example, and transportation. The twenty-first will be the century of bioengineering and information technology—of energy, water, sustainability, food, and other global concerns.

“Engineering is about systems,” Vest told the participants in the Global Summit. As he explained it, the frontiers of engineering today are in tiny systems on the one hand and in macro systems on the other.

At the very small scale, in bioengineering, information technology, and nanotechnology, there no longer will be a significant difference between scientist and engineer, Vest said. As they work closely together, their roles will not always be sharply distinguished.

Meanwhile, macro systems involving solutions to issues of energy, environment, health care, manufacturing, communications, or logistics will need contributions from areas far outside the traditional sphere of engineering. Solutions may need the additional perspective of social sciences, business management, and the humanities.

The activities at both extremes call for teams of people who will bring knowledge from different disciplines, and their contributions must be integrated into the final result. Throughout the discussions at the meeting, numerous comments concerned the increasingly interdisciplinary nature of engineering practice.

Meanwhile, world population is currently more than 6 billion and growing. As Deborah Grubbe, vice president for group safety and industrial hygiene at BP International in London, pointed out, “Every year, India creates another Australia.”

In 20 years, there could be more than 8 billion people sharing the planet.

Rohit Talwar, chief executive of Fast Future, a consulting firm in London, said that taking people out of poverty is one place where engineering faces a challenge. “Life expectancy is growing,” he said. “Where will people live?” What’s more, how will they live?

Perhaps the world will see new technology, like some of the ideas that Talwar shared with the audience. Vertical farms, for instance, could use hydroponics and other means to take farming indoors, where it could be carried out in multi-tiered structures. If technology like this could be made practical, it could multiply the area available for agriculture.

A multibillion-dollar experiment in sustainable living has been proposed for the United Arab Emirates. The initiative aims to create a high-tech city that will have zero emissions and be entirely self-sustaining.

Engineers have been working to solve environmental and other challenges for some time. After all, enhancing the quality—or as some said, the joy—of life is what engineers do for a living.

In an attempt to get a sense of where the profession may be heading, ASME enlisted the services of the Institute for Alternative Futures (IAF), a not-for-profit research and educational organization that describes itself as working “with clients to create forecasts, scenarios, goals, and strategies that are the essential tools for transforming organizations to succeed in times of rapid change.”

IAF prepared a report, The Future of Mechanical Engineering 2028, based on published reports and focus group discussions and surveys of ASME members. The report gives a sense of the issues today that are expected to shape the profession in the future. Based on its research, the organization identified a list of nine influences that it calls “drivers of change.” They are:

  • Developing sustainability as emerging economies compete for the world’s resources
  • Engineering at the extremes of large- and small-scale systems
  • The competitive edge of knowledge, which will include demands for greater technical knowledge and more depth in management, creativity, and problem solving
  • The collaborative advantage, in which the dominant players will be organizations that are successful at working together
  • Nanotechnology and biotechnology, which are expected to dominate technological development in the next 20 years
  • Regulating global innovation to allow for both the increased sharing of knowledge and the protection of intellectual property
  • The diverse face of engineering, partly as a result of globalization and increased mobility
  • Designing at home, made possible by advances in computer-aided design, materials, and tools
  • Engineering for the billions of people who live in poverty

The first and last items on the list resonated most strongly with engineers at the Global Summit.

Maria Jesus Prieto-Laffargue, president-elect of the World Federation of Engineering Organizations, spoke of “a new concept of society” that will be marked by complexity and interdependence.

“Engineering stands out as the best system to address the challenges of the future: population growth, disparity in wealth, and the need for sustainable development,” she said. According to IAF’s report, “In 2028, the 10 largest economies in the world will include the rapidly developing economies of China, India, and Russia—followed closely by the fast growing economies of Brazil and Mexico. This rapid economic growth will add to global environmental pressures and competition for scarce resources. The mechanical engineering profession will be challenged to develop new technologies and techniques that promote sustainability.”

A representative from China said his country is working toward a more sustainable future and is taking steps to protect and restore its environment. Lu Yong-xian, president of the China Academy of Sciences and the Chinese Mechanical Engineering Society, said, “New materials and knowledge push forward our manufacturing to green manufacturing and services.”

Among Lu’s predictions for China in the future is an eventual “transition to an environment-friendly and sustainable energy system.” Lu said that the Chinese government has recently taken steps for stronger monitoring and rehabilitation of lakes, rivers, streams, forests, grasslands, and wetland ecosystems.

According to Miguel Angel Yadarola, president of the Pan American Academy of Engineering in Cordoba, Argentina, one impact of globalization will be “to pass from a national vision of the problems to an international vision.”

Prieto-Laffargue said, “The world today is not divided by ideology, but by have and have-not technology.”

G.K. Pillai, chairman and managing director of Heavy Equipment Corp. in Ranchi, India, said the challenges for engineering in the coming years are to develop means for “enhancing the joys of life, sustaining civilizations, and continuing advancement in spite of population growth.”

In passing, Pillai disagreed with one of engineering’s 14 Grand Challenges—a list published by the National Academy of Engineering this spring. He is not sure that the goal of securing cyberspace has much practical relevance in the world because so many people have no access to computers or to cyberspace, so only a minority will benefit from it.

How to prepare the engineers who will shape the future was a concern at the meeting. As James Duderstadt, president emeritus and a professor of science and engineering at the University of Michigan, pointed out, “In the United States, the engineering profession tends to be held in relatively low public esteem.”

Duderstadt’s comments were based on Engineering for a Changing World, a report he wrote for the university’s Millennium Project, a think tank for new ideas about education. One of his proposals is to restructure engineering education to a 4-year liberal arts education in preparation for the professional degree in postgraduate study. This could put engineering education on par with the legal and medical professions, and give students an opportunity for a wider range of learning than is possible in a 4-year professional course of study.

Duderstadt also proposes establishment of Discovery Innovation Institutes, research centers supported by federal funding on university campuses. In his report, he wrote, “These new centers would be created through a partnership, very much in the same spirit as the earlier land-grant acts, involving the federal government, the states, industry, and higher education.” The centers would carry out long-term research to convert scientific discoveries into the innovative technology “needed to sustain national prosperity and security in an increasingly competitive world.”

Duderstadt’s report is available on the Millennium Project website.

Yadarola suggested that schools reduce the number of specialties in undergraduate engineering programs to concentrate on “the main orientations.” Specialty studies would be the subject of postgraduate education. “The formation of an engineer tends to be more fragile the more specialized it is,” he said.

Marc Goldsmith, an ASME Governor, addressed the assembly near the end of the meeting and seemed to sum up the group’s spirit. Engineers share a passion for their profession, he said—a passion for discovery and creation. “The world needs a lot more engineers,” Goldsmith added, “if we are to make it a better and safer place to live.”