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Could engineers be replaced by robots?

Mike McNicholas | 07 Jan 2016 | Comments

During my career, I’ve learned the value of the art in engineering and the importance of human interaction. To put it as simply as I can, I’ve found that people don’t tend to buy an engineering company, they tend to buy people.

I often wonder how we can make sure that the importance of human relationships is pervasive in engineering given the rise of digital engineering and technology. There are some obvious benefits to a fully digital environment, and I think we have a lot to learn from the new generation of engineers and their experience of technology. However, there is a danger of things becoming so robotic and scientific that we lose the human perspective.

I want us to see digital engineering not just as technology, but as a tool to unlock greater levels of creativity, greater time for human interaction and greater time for collaboration. After all, it’s our relationships and our human perspective of the end-user in our work that lead to truly great engineering.

At the moment, virtually every engineering project is a voyage of discovery; it’s not a system. However, the world is moving towards taking a manufacturing approach to construction. This would mean no project is truly a one off – instead it would be built from a kit of parts, similar to car manufacturing. The role of design therefore might change, as less time will be spent designing from scratch.

This ‘kit of parts’ approach would give us more for less in terms of time and effort, and it would reduce waste. Designs could also be built in places where there’s a need for jobs or where it’s low cost to build.

Another advantage of technology is being able to appeal to a broader section of our society. How can we better communicate our projects and designs to the world? How could we remove the disciplinary barriers between electrical, mechanical, science, architecture and create more opportunities? And how can we increase our talent pool by creating opportunities for people who didn’t train as engineers but want to be involved in engineering or work on a major project? Because there are a lot of very clever people out there that aren’t qualified as engineers but have great ideas we can use to improve our infrastructure.

We don’t have all the answers yet but what I do know, is that we’re making great strides. Projects like Lime Tree Academy, a ‘forest school’ where students now receive a good part of their curriculum outdoors, along with our recent work on Gatwick Airport’s north terminal, which will speed up check-in times and give passengers a better experience as they begin their journeys, and of course Birmingham New Street station, are beacons for what’s possible.

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I would like to think that in the future, technology will ultimately give us more freedom. So let’s make sure we use technology to make us more creative. If it takes us eight hours to do something but with technology we can do it in four, could we make those four hours a time for innovation? Or a time for creativity? Or a time to develop?

Let’s use technology to create space, rather than just cram more into the working day. The advantages are there for the taking – so long as the people we’re delivering for remain at the forefront of our minds.