The engineering discipline’s evolution and impact on improving how things work makes it an exciting career profession.
The past year has been filled with talk about artificial intelligence (AI) like ChatGPT, automation technology and robotics — all things made possible in part by the work of progressive-thinking, capable engineers.
The need for companies to hire engineers is stronger than ever. Engineering is about solving tough problems and has always contributed to transforming the way the world operates. From the oil and gas industry to manufacturing, transportation, water, aviation, telecommunications, aerospace, power and beyond, the shift from Industry 1.0 to 5.0 — widely driven by engineering — has taken over 300 years. (See figure 1).
From a business persepective, engineering advancements have improved efficiency and productivity and the future indicates this will continue to an even more substantial degree. Look for engineers to take advantage of opportunities to transform the engineering landscape and the way they work as AI and other technology develops — opening the door to more efficient project delivery and an increased level of client satisfaction.
Living in an era of robotic armor, ﬂying machines and artiﬁcial intelligence, it is hard to believe that not long ago, engineering was a ﬁeld in its infancy. In fact, many of the technologies that we take for granted today are relatively new. How did we get from early engineering to the high-tech ﬁeld it is today? Let us look at the history of engineering and how it has evolved.
The ﬁrst cars were built in the late 1800s, and the Wright brothers' first powered airplane did not take its famous flight until 1903. It was not until after World War II that computers began to enter mainstream use. Even cellphones were not widely available until the 1990s.
Engineers now have access to powerful computers that can simulate complex designs and help identify and solve problems. As a result, engineers can create safer, more efﬁcient structures and systems than ever before.
Early engineers date back to the pyramids and the building of Egypt. However, the ﬁeld of engineering began to take shape and draw attention during the Industrial Revolution in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. That was a time when new technologies and ideas were being developed rapidly. One of the most important inventions of this era was the steam engine, which led to the development of railways and factories. Another signiﬁcant invention was electricity, which paved the way for modern conveniences like lightbulbs and refrigerators.
During the 20th century, engineering became increasingly specialized. With technological advancements, engineers could develop new ﬁelds, such as aerospace engineering and civil engineering. In addition, computer science emerged as its ﬁeld in the mid-1900s, although it has since become closely intertwined with engineering. In the past, slide rules, drafting instruments and sketching and mechanical drawing capabilities were instrumental to engineers’ work. Mechanical drawings are nearly outdated today, however, thanks to computers and CAD software. Technological advances have also transformed how engineers and the rest of society communicates. Before the 1960s, engineers had to get by with landlines, telegrams and the postal service. But today, they can communicate instantly with anyone worldwide using email, instant messaging, video conferencing and communication elements embedded in software programs.
Travel has changed as well. Earlier, engineers would travel by ship or train if they had to go far. Now they can ﬂy anywhere in the world in a matter of hours. And it does not stop there. In many cases, engineers do not have to travel at all. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, advances in software have allowed engineers to bring client projects to life virtually in any part of the world, by enabling site tours, meetings and the sharing of plans and designs online.
Advances in technology affect not only the tools engineers use but also what they study. For example, in the mid-1800s, engineers fell into two groups: military and civil engineers. The former focused on designing weapons and fortiﬁcations, while the latter focused on building bridges, roads and canals. The distinction between the two groups began to blur with the advent of innovative technologies such as the telegraph, telephone, electricity and automobiles.Today, many ﬁelds of engineering exist, including mechanical, electrical, aerospace, chemical, biomedical, nuclear and environmental. Modern technologies have also given rise to new areas of specialization within each ﬁeld. For example, nanotechnology is a relatively new ﬁeld that deals with the design and construction of exceedingly small devices.
Engineering is one of many disciplines where technological advancements are having an impact. Engineers are enhancing their design abilities and skills by utilizing technologies like AI, which enables them to produce high-quality results more rapidly. Engineers can take on complex problems, make better decisions and enhance performance by incorporating AI and more advanced technology into the engineering design process. Overall, those in the engineering field are utilizing technology to transform the project delivery landscape and increase client success. Following are examples of how engineering has made an impact in some industries:
There was a time when the oil and gas industry was not the booming industry that it is today. However, that changed with the increase in oil gushers in Texas 1901. The impact of that can be seen in every aspect of the industry, from how the industry is ﬁnanced to how it operates. The most drastic change has been in how oil and gas companies extract resources from the ground. Thanks to advances made by engineers regarding drilling and hydraulic fracturing technologies, it is now possible to access previously unreachable oil and gas reserves.
Another important change has been how oil and gas companies ﬁnance their operations. In the past, these companies largely depended on government subsidies or loans from state-owned banks. But today, companies can tap into global capital markets for funding, giving them a level of independence that was impossible before the 20th century.
Here are more advancements in the oil and gas industry:
Early architects and engineers worked independently. The architect would design the building, and the engineer would see to it that it was structurally sound. However, as engineering has progressed, the two ﬁelds have become more intertwined. Nowadays, architects must consider how a building will be constructed when they are designing it. This is because construction methods have become so advanced that they can impact the overall design of a structure.
With technologies like robotics and 3D printing, construction companies can now build houses and buildings that were once impossible. Robot-assisted construction is beneﬁcial for repetitive tasks, such as laying bricks or putting up drywall. It can also be used for delicate tasks like welding or installing glass. While with 3D printing, construction companies can print entire buildings from a single printer. This means that construction can happen much faster and with much less waste.
A method of building called digital construction makes use of computer-aided design (CAD) software and other advanced technology. Digital construction seeks to streamline the construction process by doing away with some of the manual labor-intensive steps seen in conventional construction.
For instance, photogrammetry — an element commonly relied on in digital construction — involves using drones to photograph construction sites and automatically generate 3D models that can be viewed and shared by all parties involved. The technology can create in minutes a progress report on how much work has been done at a given site and what is left to do. Digital construction has its advantages such as lower costs, increased safety and quicker completion times.
Engineering has had a profound impact on the automotive industry. The most signiﬁcant changes have been in the areas of design, testing and manufacturing. CAD and computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) have made it possible to create cars that are lightweight and aerodynamic.
In terms of testing, virtual reality and simulation software makes it possible to evaluate cars long before they ever hit the road. And when it comes to manufacturing, robotics and 3D printing have made it possible to produce cars faster and with less human labor. Electric vehicles are becoming increasingly popular, thanks to advances in battery technology, and self-driving vehicles will have a major impact on the automotive industry in the future.
The aerospace industry has beneﬁted from multiple engineering breakthroughs over the years. The most important of these is probably the jet engine, invented in the 1930s. Jet engines dramatically increased the speed and range of aircraft, making long-distance travel much easier and more convenient.
The use of CAD and simulations have resulted in the development of lighter and stronger materials that can withstand the increasing rigors of ﬂight. The aerospace industry has also beneﬁted from applying lean manufacturing principles, which have helped reduce waste and improve efﬁciency. Efforts are underway to improve sustainability in the industry by using sustainable aviation fuels and other environmentally friendly processes that will aid in decarbonization.
Employment in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields is growing faster than non-STEM employment and the pay differential is substantial. The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report for 2021 indicates that globally, 20% of workers in engineering are women. Similar to women, minorities are equally underrepresented in the discipline. Historically, female and minority engineers make up a small percentage of the engineering workforce when compared to other sectors. But as the population continues to change, so too should the workforce’s diversity. As the call for increased diversity grows, women and minorities are accessing more opportunities. They are participating in all engineering aspects, from design to manufacturing to management.
Renowned civil engineer Sir Mokshagundam Visvesvaraya is considered the father of engineering in the country and is known for his contribution to the building of modern India. But most minorities in the field, including women, struggle to make a mark in the discipline, even amid advances of the past several decades. In the field’s early days, women were mostly relegated to support roles such as secretarial work or serving as nurses on rigs. However, a few pioneering women did manage to break into engineering roles. One of these was Esther Rabkin, who became the ﬁrst woman to be registered as a professional engineer in Alberta in 1935. And the first woman engineer at Burns & McDonnell was Ethel Sklar Wonderly, who began her career with the firm in 1941 as an architectural draftsperson.
Today, women and minority engineers are growing increasingly important in all industries, and while there is room for improvement, workforce changes are positively moving forward.
As the call for decarbonization grows stronger, technology advances and the needs of industries evolve, the demand for engineers will continue to grow. In India, for example, projections indicate there will be millions of engineering vacancies over the next several years, which is great news for the 1.5 million individuals who graduate with engineering degrees in India every year.The role of engineers is changing. Embracing cutting-edge engineering tools empowers engineers to optimize processes, boost productivity, drive sustainable practices and contribute to the overall success of client projects, across industries. The engineers of today are embracing opportunities to mentor the next generation of engineers who will help shape communities around the globe. While engineering may have started in silos centuries ago, now multidisciplinary teams are converging across industries to work together to solve problems that will result in a more sustainable, environmentally conscious, inclusive and thriving world.
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