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Engineer's Day
By Raghunath K Shevgaonkar
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Engineering: Present and Future

Engineering is an innovative and creative application of science for improving quality of human life. Through innovative thinking, an engineer solves the problems of contemporary importance. The science explains how the nature is, while the engineer challenges the nature and creates something that does not exist in the nature. Innovation is the core of engineering. An engineer designs and develops innovative processes and products that try to maximize the benefit-to-cost ratio. The benefit could be in term of safety, pleasure, comfort, productivity etc., whereas the cost could be in terms of money, resources, physical labor etc. Further an engineer has to achieve its objectives under various constraints that could be economical, political, social, cultural, and so on. An engineer therefore has to have a holistic understanding of the contemporary scientific principles and societal needs.

Formal engineering disciplines began in 19th century during industrial revolution. Before that the engineering was mostly civil and metallurgical. With laws of mechanics, the mechanical systems were developed. The true transformation in engineering took place after the invention of electricity. It facilitated faster transfer of energy from one location to another and changed the muscle power centric systems to energy driven systems. The intuitive approach of engineering changed to more precise approach of science and mathematics. This helped in designing more precise and efficient systems and better products. Twentieth century can be marked as the century of engineering. So many life-changing inventions like, airplane, automobile, electronics, telecommunication, plastics, nuclear energy, etc., took place in that century. Due to the advancement in technology, the whole world got interconnected which facilitated exchange of ideas at global scales and the engineering knowledge grew exponentially. Due to explosion of knowledge in different domains of engineering, the engineering got more and more specialized and compartmentalized. To start with, there was electrical, mechanical, civil and chemical engineering. Later new disciplines like electronics and computer got added. With the invent of personal computers, the computer engineering grew at much faster rate compared to other branches of engineering.

In last 100 years the approach to engineering changed couple of time in all disciplines of engineering. In the earlier phase, the engineering was more hands-on which was changed to more scientific and analytical in the later phase. Since the computing power was limited in those days, the engineers were trained to develop analytical models of the systems. After the computing power became cheap, the engineering changed to more computer simulations. Very powerful simulation tools got develop to emulate real life problems. The biggest advantage of this approach was that one could study engineering systems under various testing conditions, thereby facilitating more optimal solutions to the problems. The engineering became more design and less hands-on, and the shop floor activities were shifted to technicians. With automation in every field of engineering and use of computers for controlling most of the precision machines, the engineer’s job got reduced to controlling the computers that operate machines and systems. Further, general purpose computers in mini and micro form were developed and their application specific functionality was changed by changing their software. The software industry rose steeply in later part of the last century. The demand for software engineering outgrew the other branches of engineering. In light of this, a new branch of engineering, ‘information technology’ emerged. The software industry provided lucrative opportunities, far more in number, compared to any other branch of engineering. As a result, irrespective of the core discipline of an engineer, the engineer preferred to become a software engineer. Manufacturing industry got a back seat and India became a software service providing country.

The biggest impact on engineering came from the information and communication technology (ICT). This technology changed not only engineering but the world as a whole irreversibly. It created a new paradigm of society that is well informed and well connected. The information became freely available to anyone, anywhere, anytime. The fast communication created global platforms for interactions and provided opportunities for engineers to compete at the global level and use the best ideas from across the world to solve local as well as global problems. The ICT technology provided access to the best engineering facilities in the world. The ICT also changed the expectations of the society and many new innovative ideas emerged that improved the human life remarkably. The ICT technology however, is a very rapidly changing technology and its life span is practically few years. Engineering today, therefore stands at a point that needs a fresh look.

Most of the real-life problems that can have engineering solutions, do not fall in a single discipline of engineering. Invariably, the solution cuts across many disciplines of science and engineering. The departmental boundaries of engineering disciplines will have to get diffused for future engineers. Also, typically working engineers will see few waves of new technologies in their professional life span. To keep them industry relevant, the engineers will have to constantly keep adapting to new technologies. Consequently, self-learning, life-long learning and self-branding will become a norm for the future engineers. Online mode of engineering education will facilitate this new way of training future engineers.

Since engineering solves contemporary problems of the world, the future of engineering will depend upon what the future world will be. However, in this technology dominated world, the future world will be technology dependent. This is an entangled problem and making very long-term projections of engineering is very difficult. One may at most try short and mid-term predictions about engineering and prepare for it.

In the last century, due to tremendous amount of industrialization, the natural resources are significantly strained. At the same time the societal needs increased by manifold and are still increasing. The population of the world is also increasing. As per the studies by international organizations, in next few decades, the world’s population will rise by 50%, the energy requirement will rise by 100%, electricity requirement will rise by 300%, and food requirement will rise by 200%. At the same time the conventional natural resources will be down by 60-80%. The population that will be stressed even for an essential life element like water, will be up by 200%. It will be the responsibility of the future engineers and technologists to find a sustainable solution to meet the needs of the growing world. Green engineering is the only way to move forward to make the world sustainable. Environmental sustainability will play an important role in the future engineering. Future engineers have to find solutions to the problems of every segment of the society. Engineering will have to focus on the so called the grand challenges defined by the NSF, USA as (i) making solar energy economical (ii) provide energy from fusion (iii) Manage nitrogen cycle (iv) provide access to clean water (v) restore and improve urban infrastructure (vi) advance healthcare informatics (vii) engineer better medicine (viii) reverse engineer the brain (ix) prevent nuclear terror (x) secure cyber space (xi) enhance virtual reality (xii) advance personalized learning (xiii) engineer the tools for scientific discovery.

Considering the current technology trends, some new engineering disciplines are imminent in near future. While most of the engineering growth will be seen in the domain of computer engineering, some sub-disciplines within computer engineering are likely to emerge in near future. NASCCOM has predicted a huge wave of transformation in digital industry in coming decade. As per the reports from Forbes and AICTE, the technologies that are going play a major role in engineering are, Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, Internet of Things (IoT), Wearables and augmented humans, Big Data and augmented analytics, Intelligent spaces and smart places, Block chain and Distributed ledgers, Cloud and Edge Computing, Virtual and Augmented Realities, Digital platforms, Digital twins, natural language processing, 5G, genomics and gene editing, voice interfaces and chatbots, computer vision, robotic automation, drones and unmanned vehicles, cyber security, quantum computing, 3D printing, nano-materials, mass personalization and many more. These new technologies will further find applications in industries like automotive, agriculture, pharmaceutical, banking and retail, manufacturing, healthcare etc.

It is becoming clear that just technical knowledge is not going to be enough for the future engineers. Future engineering will encompass sound domain knowledge, innovativeness, management skills, societal awareness, and knowledge of policy trends. The technical skill requirement will be only 30%, the remaining 70% will cover the soft skills that include leadership, effective communication, team spirit, digital literacy, critical thinking etc. Interestingly, the soft skills are not technology dependent and therefore once the right attitude and skills are inculcated, they will remain there throughout the professional career. The main challenge will be to remain up to date with the rapidly changing technology which will be unpredictable to some extent.

The future world is going to be dominated by technology. The policies therefore should be defined that are compatible with the emerging technologies. Disciplines like Law and many other may need a fresh look for the new technology dominated society. Also, the policy makers should be aware of the strengths and weaknesses of a particular technology so that they can create informed policies. Therefore future engineers will have to play an active role in shaping the national and global policies.

Engineering education has to play an important role in creating the engineers that are ready for the future challenges. Unconventional and innovative thinking will have to be encouraged and nurtured at institutional level. Curricula will be an integration of engineering, life science and information science. Industries will have to actively mentor engineering institutions by sponsoring research, providing guidance in making future-ready engineering curricula, sharing industrial knowledge with students etc. The National Education Policy, NEP-2020 has emphasized multi-disciplinary and flexible curricula, vocational education and hands-on skills, and increased liberal arts component for holistic development of professionals. It has also provided ample thrust on developing India-centric, multi-lingual, and multi-cultural professionals.

The next few decades are going to be very exciting for engineering and the society as a whole. New technologies, some on the horizon and some unknown, will emerge that will define the future of engineering. Whatever be the technology trends, engineers will play a prominent role in creating a world that is sustainable, happy, and culturally rich.

About the Author: Prof. Raghunath K. Shevgaonkar

Vice-Chancellor, Bennett University
Professor Emeritus, IIT Bombay,
Ex-Director IIT Delhi, Ex-Vice Chancellor University of Pune

Recipient of IEEE William E. Sayle II Award for his Achievements in Engineering Education, IEEE Undergraduate Teaching Award for his inspirational teaching, SN Mitra Memorial Award of Indian National Academy of Engineering for his contribution to electromagnetics, antenna and radio astronomy, Ram Lal Wadhwa Award of IETE for his outstanding contribution to Optical communication, VASVIK Award in ICT, and the ‘Excellence in Teaching’ award of IIT Bombay. He has received the Education Leadership Award from Headlines Today, and Dewang Mehta Educational Excellence Award.

Author of the textbook on Electromagnetic Waves.

15 September 2020