This is an exciting time to be an engineer. The pace at which these technologies must be developed and the broad range of digital tools that will be drawn upon to deliver the products and services of the future mean that the engineering discipline and skill set must rapidly and flexibly evolve to meet these needs.
The role of the manufacturing engineer is changing as silos are broken down, and a range of skills fusing traditional engineering, digital skills and soft skills will become increasingly important.
The suite of skills will change over time so the ability to learn and apply new skills will be paramount, both for the next generation of engineers and for the current workforce.
The IMechE and Institution of Engineering and Technology recently commissioned a survey on the future manufacturing engineer profile, questioning their members across different career stages. The topics in the survey questionnaire included how manufacturing engineering roles may change in the future, which competencies will be most important, and where manufacturing engineers can make the most significant contribution to finding answers to some of humanity’s greatest global challenges.
The headline results revealed that skills in automation, robotics and mechatronics are thought to be the most important for manufacturing engineers (84%) in the next 10 years. These skills were followed by artificial intelligence (69%) and sustainable, lean, resource-efficient manufacturing (66%).
Communication skills, creativity and design thinking ranked as the top three non-engineering competencies of ‘highest importance’ for future manufacturing engineers, according to the members surveyed.
Energy, transport and the circular economy were perceived as the top three challenge areas where manufacturing engineers can make the most significant contribution. These are sectors facing rapid change and providing an opportunity for the engineering community.
The findings on automation may also help to allay some fears that mass automation of manufacturing processes will reduce the number of jobs in the sector. Given the rapid pace of change in technology, engineers will have to upskill/retrain multiple times throughout their careers. Creating a diverse education market to deliver such upskilling and retraining will be required, at scale.
The findings related to AI are in contrast to the relatively low yet rising incidence of applied AI in UK manufacturing, at the present time.
Clearly, future manufacturing engineers will want to harness the massive increase in data availability and analytics being enabled through increased investment in digital technology. As AI could be pivotal in the future of design and manufacturing engineering, alongside robotics and automation, more can be done to encourage the UK manufacturing and engineering community to develop AI applications and to implement the technology in their factories.
On sustainability and climate change, future manufacturing engineers will be at the forefront of securing improved non-labour, resource productivity, and, with that, increased productivity too, making more with less.
One thing that is clear is that the pace of change of technology is increasing and engineers embarking on their careers will need to refresh their skill sets a number of times across their working lives. The research and innovation community can work with industry and training and skills providers to forecast skills needs and future roles, and ensure that education and continuous professional development provision is refreshed to keep pace with the changing needs of the workforce.
A thriving manufacturing sector, one that can add new overseas markets, and build the confidence needed to unlock sustainable jobs and prosperity, is possible. For businesses to be a part of this, there is a need to invest in new digital technologies, net-zero measures and, above all, invest in people.
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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.