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Embracing the fourth industrial revolution

Andrew Munday | 02 Sep 2016 | Comments

Andrew Munday suggests the fourth industrial revolution cannot succeed without mechanical engineers.

The internet of things. The fourth industrial revolution. Big data. Big deal. I’m an engineer, so what has it got to do with me?

Well, the answer is everything. My 12 year old daughter was open mouthed recently when I showed her a cassette tape and described my excitement at getting my first Walkman. My attempts to explain that it meant I could listen to music on the move, and that it had a rewind button unlike my friend’s primitive model, were met with scorn. It was a stark indicator to me of how fast we have progressed in so short a time. I remember when only geeks had mobile phones and the only electric vehicles were milk floats. Yet now we have computing power in our pockets which exceeds that used to go to the Moon.

But I’m an engineer. And a mechanical one. So what about me?

I’ve always been an engineer. I spent my first seven years living in a remote South American village in North Argentina. We had no electricity, no running water and lived in a mud brick house with a tin roof. A day out was swimming in the river. The forest surrounding the village was full of wildlife including armadillos, panthers, geckos and anaconda snakes. But I was obsessed by machinery. I loved tractors and pick-up trucks, and when I got my first bike I immediately turned it upside down and pretended to fix it. I loved the smell of grease and oil, the sound of an engine. But most of all I was fascinated by what machines do, and how they can make a difficult task easy.

But the fourth industrial revolution isn’t about machinery, is it?

Well, yes and no. It’s about using the power of computing to enhance machinery. It isn’t just the internet – it is the internet of things. It isn’t big data collected from nothing, it is data collected from what machines are doing to make better decisions.

So, there are two reasons why engineers are the foundation on which this revolution is built. 

Firstly, engineering is about solving problems. Engineers are often the best people at looking at what the outcome we want is, and then finding the best way to achieve it. As ‘traditional’ engineers we need to embrace and understand the digital revolution, not be frightened of it, and see how we can use it to do what we have always done. And when we step back, we’ve been doing it for a long time; using Fortran code, spreadsheets, finite element analysis, computational fluid dynamics, 3D CAD and digital mock ups.   

The second reason, and this is specific to Atkins, is that engineers built our brand. And as engineers, our key USP is our understanding of the ‘thing’ in the internet of things. Everything we do is about making the ‘thing’ better. Safer. More profitable. More sustainable. And sure, someone can come in and sell an IT product – but if we get to grips with the IT and marry that to our understanding of the ‘thing’, we can help our clients make much better decisions. 

So, what do we do? Do we abandon our traditional heartland of engineering? Do we consign it to the scrap heap and run to the internet city where the streets are paved with silicon? Should engineers hide from the concept of the fourth industrial revolution, spanners jangling? No. 

We need to think about the opportunities it offers us. Where does additive manufacturing fit? What are the opportunities to use advanced materials that our clients haven’t dared explore before? How can we use the data our clients collect to make their products better? How can we use technology to help our clients manage the design and procurement of the products we help them engineer?

And to do all of this, guess what we need?

Yes, that’s right: engineers who understand the physical world – and who embrace the digital world, too.