The digital age and the changing role of the modern engineer

If there is one invention that typifies the digital age, it’s the smartphone. It represents total mobility, and the ability to work from anywhere in the world with vast amounts of information at your fingertips.

Today, each of us carries around a device that can access almost any piece of knowledge at the touch of a button.

This has already changed the way we work – e.g., communication software and cloud-based tools enable co-workers to collaborate from across continents more effectively than ever before.

Engineering has been affected by these changes more than almost any other profession.

Previously, engineers were glued to their desks, ploughing through hundreds of journal articles and technical documents to find the right data for a given project. Oftentimes, many decisions were made in isolation with very little collaboration between colleagues.

In the ‘smart’ digital age, this just isn’t the case anymore. Today, engineers are more collaborative and able to manage projects on-site rather than from the office, with instant access to an overwhelming amount of information.

The global productivity race

Former British Business Secretary Sajid Javid recently commented that, “In stark terms, it now takes a worker in the UK 5 days to produce what his or her counterparts in Germany can deliver in 4.”

The solution from the UK government is a 15-point productivity plan, tackling key areas such as planning and transport.

>See also: Hand in hand: cyber security and industry 4.0

Many of the issues raised, such as the increased use of digital technology and data sharing, support the emerging ‘industry 4.0’ trend – the next step in the digital revolution that is set to create the “smart factory”.

The success of this and other productivity initiatives will go a long way to defining the winners and losers of the 21st century, and will be hugely reliant on the engineering industry.

Implementing and managing industry 4.0 initiatives involves building a digital backbone for organisations – which will require a range of top-level engineering talent, with access to the right information at the right time in the right place.

In order to be as effective as possible in implementing this vision, engineers need to be on-site at the factory and the power-plant, overseeing and guiding these projects on the ground, rather than attempting to do so from their desk.

Technology for today’s engineer

In order to be as productive and innovative as possible, today’s engineers need the ability to collaborate with partners across the world.

This is because technical data is not only proliferating at an astonishing rate, but cross-disciplinary knowledge is increasingly necessary for modern projects.

In addition, engineers need to adapt to the wealth and intensity of information that is available and efficiently select the most relevant and accurate information for the problem at hand.

Finally, for the digitally native generation now entering the workforce, having the use of agile digital solutions in their workplace is the minimum expectation.

>See also:

Why cloud technology is central to Industry 4.0

Digital natives expect personalised results along with customisable apps and tools.

In the past, smart search engines that provided the right reference answer were sufficient, but no longer.

Now, digital native engineers expect that search to be surrounded by more robust decision support tools. For engineering tools, this means understanding user intent, knowing personal needs and user history, with customisation capabilities, supporting them to make confident decisions.

Specialisation is king

While generalist consumer search engines are great for everyday life, engineers need far more precise tools for their work.

To do this effectively, they need critical, trusted data that can be rapidly discovered, accessed and shared via web-based applications.

Specialised search engines containing technical engineering reference data, along with powerful, trusted analytics which can be integrated with modelling software and other key tools in the engineering workflow, will allow the role of the engineer to evolve from a desk-bound, siloed worker to an agile innovator.

>See also: The future of digital manufacturing

The decisions that engineers make every day impact our world, environment and the sustainability of our future.

Information providers can support this important work by delivering content that is highly searchable and interactive, surrounded by insightful analytics and decision support tools, and integrated with other key engineering applications, helping users overcome engineering challenges and improving outcomes.

In the competitive global market that the digital age has created, engineers are under even more pressure to be productive. But unless firms are willing to invest in the right information and technical tools that can enable engineers to accomplish this aim, their vital work will go unfulfilled and their talent wasted.

These precision tools, and their inherent flexibility, are crucial if today’s engineers are to make industry 4.0 a reality.


Sourced by Ella Balagula, SVP, engineering & technology solutions, Elsevier R&D Solutions

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Nick Ismail

Nick Ismail is a former editor for Information Age (from 2018 to 2022) before moving on to become Global Head of Brand Journalism at HCLTech. He has a particular interest in smart technologies, AI and...

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Industry 4.0