As a concept, engineering has existed since ancient times. The Egyptians, for instance, would’ve been hard pushed to build the pyramids without it. Although it may not have been given the name yet, the knowledge of how to exploit basic mechanical principles to create useful objects and buildings has likely been around as long as civilisation itself.
Where engineering came from
The term ‘engineering’ came into common use around the 14th century. It broadly described a person who was skilled in creating military equipment like catapults. Later, civil engineering was invented, to differentiate between these early engineers and the people who designed bridges and buildings. Now, there are many variations who reflect the growing complexity of the field. You can be a civil or mechanical engineer, an aerospace engineer, a chemical engineer, petroleum engineer or an electrical/computer engineer.
The field itself has come a long way since its early days. Now, engineering is a critical part of modern society. Back in the days, it was often overlooked or viewed as ‘not gentlemanly’. Herbert Hoover, America’s 31st president, once spoke of a meeting with a woman on a ship while travelling. Over the course of a week, they got to know each other, and everything was going swimmingly until he revealed his occupation as a civil engineer. After this, the woman recoiled, saying “An engineer? I thought you were a gentleman.”
Still, engineering has been behind all Four Industrial Revolutions in society, starting with the invention of the steam engine that began the First Industrial Revolution. Now, in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the skills of modern engineers are very different to their ancestors.
The skills shift
In particular, the Fourth Industrial Revolution will bring the rise of smart systems powered by artificial intelligence (AI) and automation. We are now experiencing a radical change in how work is completed across all industries. For engineers, there will be a monumental shift from learning ‘hard’ skills and completing tasks manually to developing ‘soft’ skills and overseeing automated processes. When automation does the majority of manual work, it will be the human skills of empathy, teamwork and creative thinking that will set engineers apart.
New jobs created
Plus, new jobs will be created as a result of emerging technology like AI, the blockchain, 3D printing and quantum computing. Today’s engineers will have to be adaptable and able to switch roles rapidly. That requires transferable skills and the motivation to learn throughout their career. As Stanford engineering professor and former dean, James Plummer puts it “Instead it will be about lifelong education and just-in-time knowledge, and that will be done online. Lifelong learning is essential. The half of life of engineering knowledge is three to five years.”
Engineering has always been at the forefront of change and it is no different in the 21st Century. Yet, that change is going to be significant compared to the evolutions that came before. Indeed, in under a decade, our perception of engineering may completely alter. From a purely mechanical and scientific discipline, to one that’s much broader, creative and grounded in art as well as science.