In This Issue
The Changing Nature of Engineering
June 1, 1997 Volume 27 Issue 2
The Bridge, Volume 27, Number 2 - Summer 1997

Changing Nature of Engineering

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Author: Wm. A. Wulf

I would like to invite readers of The Bridge - especially those who are practicing engineers - to share with me their views on how engineering has changed in the last 50 years.

Let me provide some context. Many of us feel that the practice of engineering will change dramatically in the coming 2 decades. The basic purpose and broad outline of the engineering process won't change, of course. However, there seems to be a powerful confluence of technological and economic trends that, taken together, could produce dramatic shifts in engineering. I feel it is incumbent on the NAE to try to anticipate these changes and their implications for engineering education and practice.

To say that there will be a change is one thing; to say what the change will be is quite another. (Predicting the future is a notoriously risky business.) Later this year, the NAE will convene a workshop to consider how engineering has evolved in the last half-century in various industry sectors. While that won't tell us with certainty what the future will be, perhaps it will tell us something about the vector of change. Which brings me back to my opening invitation: I would like to have as many individual views as possible available to the workshop.

Is engineering really going to experience a dramatic metamorphosis? I don't know, but consider the following partial list of trends:

  • The availability of a vast array of new engineered materials and processes, including biological ones, resulting in a much larger "design space" from which the engineer must choose.
  • The pervasive use of information technology in both the products and process of engineering.
  • The increasing number and complexity of the constraints on acceptable engineering solutions; where once cost and functionality dominated, now ecological concerns, safety concerns, reliability and maintainability, and a host of other "ilities" are first-order considerations.
  • The globalization of industry and the associated shift from a nationally differentiated engineering enterprise to one that is far more cosmopolitan.
  • The accelerated rise in the technical intensity of most manufacturing and service industries, both in terms of the absolute specific technical knowledge required and the breadth of knowledge needed in a single product or service.
  • The expanded role of the engineer as part a product team, and the broad business knowledge required to fill that role.
  • The increased pace of change. There seems to be less time to assimilate and adapt, and this raises concerns about long-term employment, which in turn creates stress among individual engineers. It also elevates the importance of continual education--life-long learning--among engineers.

Although I have described them only briefly, it seems to me that any one of these trends has the potential to change the practice of engineering significantly, and hence the education required to be an engineer. Consider my own field of information technology, for example. Clearly, computers and computer networks have already had an impact: They have eliminated drafting as a manual process; they have enabled far more precise analysis of engineered structures; they permit close collaboration of engineers who are not physically co-located; and on and on.

Perhaps the design of the Boeing 777, which was accomplished completely through the use of computers, is the best example of the cumulative impact that information technology has had on engineering to date. The future impact, however, will be much greater. As the cost and size of integrated circuits continue to fall exponentially, it will make sense to include some degree of "intelligence" in all engineered products. We can imagine, for instance, concrete structures that are smart enough to sense the corrosion in their reinforcing rods and "call home" when they need to be repaired. As the power of computers also increases exponentially, more and more routine engineering functions will be codified and done by computers, simultaneously freeing the engineer from drudgery and demanding a higher level of creativity, knowledge, and skill.

It is not any single trend that convinces me the NAE has to look at the changing nature of engineering; rather, it is their co-occurrence. While trying to predict the consequences of just one of these trends is difficult even for an expert in that domain, to even begin to glean the consequences of their joint effect will tax our collective wisdom. And so, again, I would appreciate your retrospective input. How has engineering changed in your industry in your professional lifetime? We need to collect this basic information if we are to have a hope of understanding the future.

We will communicate the results of this exercise to all of you as they become available. Thanks in advance.

About the Author:Wm. A. Wulf is president of the National Academy of Engineering (1996-2007)