Rapidly emerging technologies are leading engineers to re-imagine the way they work. Here are five key trends to follow in the new financial year – and their implications for the engineering industry.
1. ADDITIVE MANUFACTURING (3D PRINTING)
3D printing and modelling is becoming more widespread across a range of industries, including construction, aerospace, defence, medical devices, and the automotive sector.
Chinese firm Winsun made news in 2014 for printing a batch of ten complete houses. Since then, the company has completed several other revolutionary projects, including printing an office building for the Dubai Future Foundation.
3D printing’s ability to fabricate complex shapes flexibly and cost-effectively, and to utilise materials like polymers, metals, ceramics, and mortar or concrete, is also making an impact on the construction industry and the government sector.
At the start of 2013, there were approximately 20 startups in the 3D printing construction field, according to BCG. Within five years, that number grew to around 65 businesses offering services such as prototyping solutions for architects and engineers, software and design tools, and large structural components. Similarly, the US Department of Defence is investigating the viability of printing military barracks, using local materials, for its personnel.
2. AUTOMATION AND ROBOTICS
The increased adoption and development of automation is significantly impacting end-to-end workflows and the entire business life cycle – which has huge implications for workplace productivity and efficiency.
Take wastewater treatment, for example. Energy is the biggest expense at any wastewater treatment plant, and the blowers used in aeration basins can account for as much as 60% of a plant’s energy costs. Rockwell Automation – an industrial automation company – found that automating this process at a wastewater facility in a major metropolitan area saw a 17% annual decrease in energy costs, despite an 18% increase in influent flow.
In the construction industry, automated platforms are now able to map 4D digital models (the fourth dimension being time) to create detailed plans of the required task without any manual input.
Specifically, 3D visualisations constructed from high resolution 2D aerial imagery enables urban planners, construction managers, architects, and civil engineers to plan more efficiently by providing a current, accurate geospatial base layer that greatly reduces the need for on-site measurements and inspections.
BCG estimates that by 2026, digitisation in commercial and industrial construction will result in global cost savings of AUD$949 billion to AUD$ 1.6 trillion (13% to 21%) in the engineering and construction phases and AUD$0.4 trillion to AUD$0.67 trillion (10% to 17%) in the operations phase.
3. INDUSTRIAL INTERNET OF THINGS
Worldwide, companies are expected to spend a collective AUD$387 billion on IoT applications by 2020,over and above their normal tech expenditure. The collecting and sharing of huge volumes of data over automated networks is already having a profound effect on energy and cost efficiencies.
Likewise, the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) could add $14.2 trillion to the global economy by 2030, according to Accenture. The “smart factory” concept promised by IIoT will see sophisticated data connectivity between production machines, CAD/CAM, ERP, and suppliers to minimise energy usage, maximise output, and cut costs.
Within the waste management industry, for example, data and current aerial imagery could be used to determine the ideal time to collect waste and map out trucking routes, reducing the time it takes to address potential waste build-up problems.
Experts also predict that smart cities will mature in the year ahead and continue to benefit from a host of technologies, including high-precision location accuracy and autonomous technologies such as large-scale lighting and parking systems.
Electrical engineers, environmental engineers, and energy engineers are all in increasingly high demand as sustainability becomes a major focus for many businesses – particularly in the areas of energy and resource conservation, emissions controls, renewable energy systems, and waste reduction.
One example of innovation in sustainability is plastic roads, a concept that was developed in India in the early 2000's in response to the country’s massive waste plastic problem. Civil engineering researchers in the UK and US are now working to design new technologies to support the safe implementation of waste plastic in road construction in the western world.
The rise of green roof systems in residential and commercial buildings is also seeing increased demand for civil engineers to support infrastructure. A comprehensive watering system, for example, must be engineered to consistently deliver the right amount of resources, and the roof itself must be designed with environmental sustainability in mind. This means using non-toxic, sustainably produced or recycled materials that have a lower environmental impact than traditional materials, as well as incorporating energy-efficient elements such as roof-mounted solar panels for supplemental building power and high-efficiency roof insulation to minimise the building’s heating and cooling requirements.
5. INDUSTRIAL OPTIMISATION
The emergence of Lean Six Sigma and other lean manufacturing methodologies is placing an emphasis on process improvements in areas like production, the supply chain, and product design.
As new technologies continue to enable optimised workflows and production cycles, new hybrid industries like digital medicine, agritech, and smart manufacturing will come to the forefront.
To support these industries, entirely new jobs will emerge – such as grid modernisation managers, intermodal transportation network engineers, and more – and these jobs will demand deep knowledge of specific industry domains, new technologies, and complex software and data systems.