The Engineering Community is facing an unprecedented talent crisis. Unemployment rates for the industry are less than three percent. The retirement of baby boomers continues. The number of new graduates is increasing at low rates. Meanwhile, the demand for new talent continues to increase dramatically, driven by a growing economy and increasing investments in infrastructure. These stresses on our workforce come at a time when the Engineering Community is challenged by the need to contribute at higher levels in addressing the challenges of the 21st Century. Engineering Change Lab – USA (ECL-USA) Summit 14, Augmenting the Engineering Workforce Through Technological Innovation, held on March 15, 2022, and sponsored by Autodesk, explored how technology may be viewed as a significant strategy for closing this unfolding supply and demand gap – augmenting the engineering workforce using emerging technologies to increase productivity, enhance creativity, and work more efficiently and safely.
The Summit 14 provocateurs framed this discussion by highlighting emerging technologies that offer opportunities for innovation.
- Michael Gustafson, Senior Industry Strategy Manager – Structures, Autodesk, provided insight on how access to cloud services and the use of assisted AI are accelerating, allowing the automation of routine tasks and increased focus on high value tasks.
- Paul Surin, Global Lead Engineering, Construction Operations & BIM at IBM, outlined his work in Europe in digital transformation strategies that are redefining possibilities in construction, manufacturing, and operations through standardization that enables creation of digital twins from BIM, AI that enables learning from past projects, and IOT that enables predictive maintenance and energy conservation.
- Chris Harman, Director of Digital Delivery and Innovation at WSP, described how digital augmentation through both automation (parametric design, algorithmic design, and content libraries) and innovation (generative design, AI and machine learning, and multi-criteria-based design analysis) frees engineers from mundane tasks and enables more complex, meaningful, and thoughtful designs.
In two group exercises, the summit participants engaged in discussions intended to produce meaningful strategies applicable to engineering organizations. The first exercise, “Imagining the Possibilities” utilized a four-part framework for brain-storming potential strategies.
- Automate – technological innovations and new tools that can replace work currently done by staff.
- Eliminate – technological innovations and new tools that can eliminate work currently done by staff.
- Elevate – technological innovations and new tools that can increase the performance and productivity of staff and teams.
- Create – technological innovations and new tools that catalyze a transformation in how engineering staff and teams work and how they create value.
Some of the key takeaways from the discussions are captured below.
- Data collection technologies and 3D visualizations combining data on existing conditions and design data enhances decision-making in design, in construction, and in communication with the public. Data collection technologies enable everything else.
- Generative design algorithms allow much more extensive analysis of design alternatives and, by freeing up time and through automated analysis, provide an enhanced ability to look at the environmental and social impacts of engineering work.
- Digital twins, combined with smart sensors, can provide value in operations such as predictive maintenance and reduced energy consumption.
- Data mining of previous projects, characterized as an app store for digital design, can increase efficiency and improve quality.
- Potential transformation of regulatory and approval processes.
The second group exercise, “Exploring Transformational Impacts,” explored the business impacts of technological innovation, including organizational shifts (financial, operational, etc.), risk management and contractual issues, impacts on people inside engineering organizations, and macro-ethical issues related to augmenting the engineering workforce through technological innovation. Some of the common themes and key takeaways are summarized below.
- Potential impacts on engineering education – how do we add technology requirements to current curriculum?
- Young workers proficient in technology will look for organizations that value those skills.
- How do we attract technology workers into engineering organizations?
- Partnering or out-sourcing may be an alternative to hiring.
- There will be resistance to change from those who want to do things the way we have always done them.
- Significant contractual issues may arise around data ownership.
- How will private sector engineering firms ensure that they are compensated for investments in technology that create efficiencies? How do we address the age-old issue of selling hours vs. value-based compensation?
- How do we get clients and regulators to keep up with technological shifts?
- Cyber-security risks will increase with increased reliance on technology.
- Larger firms may have an advantage over smaller firms with respect to access to resources and funding.
- There is a need to address licensure issues. Where does responsibility lie with the integration of new technologies developed outside of traditional engineering organizations into traditional engineering work?
The most important takeaway from the summit discussions regarding technology’s ability to augment the workforce in engineering organizations was the need to take a long view. Organizations will need to commit to crafting long-term strategies that best fit their culture and environment. Then, they will need to commit to the significant new investments and to accepting the change management that will accompany these shifts.
The full report for the summit is available at the link below. Also included below is a link to a Map of the Future, which graphically documents the summit discussions.
Provocateur presentations are available at the link below.
A full recording of the summit is available at this link.