FEATURE: 5 ways the Covid-19 pandemic has changed engineering forever

Joseph Flaig

The Covid-19 pandemic and ongoing lockdowns have forced radical changes in engineering education. Some of those changes could lead to permanent improvements (Credit for all illustrations: Gary Neill)
The Covid-19 pandemic and ongoing lockdowns have forced radical changes in engineering education. Some of those changes could lead to permanent improvements (Credit for all illustrations: Gary Neill)

A new decade is cause for reflection and celebration, and eager predictions of great things to come. Promising technologies such as nuclear fusion, driverless cars and zero-carbon flight were top of the list at the start of 2020.

The Covid-19 pandemic quickly shifted the conversation. Here was a new and unknown entity, racing out of control and leaving thousands dead in its wake. 

The effect on major engineering sectors was immediate and dramatic. Flights were cancelled and new orders stalled for aerospace manufacturers, forcing thousands of redundancies. Similar stories were repeated in automotive and countless other sectors, as the UK and countries around the world locked down. 

Engineers love a challenge, however, and they showed the world what they could do with great tenacity. Organisations and individuals came together like never before, whether building ventilators and hospitals, simulating viral spread or developing social-distancing technology to help colleagues stay safe at work. 

One year after the start of the pandemic, we are not out of its shadow. Thanks to some great innovation and problem solving, however, we have a good idea of the direction we are travelling in. Here are five ways Covid-19 changed engineering – and how engineering will change the post-pandemic world.

Education transformed 

The lockdowns and ongoing restrictions upended life for millions of students. Campuses closed and lectures went online as students returned home.

The pandemic “accelerated the transformation of engineering education – removing barriers to innovation as well as introducing new challenges. With almost no lead time, education delivery and assessment was pivoted at pace to online delivery,” writes Mike Sutcliffe, vice-president of the Engineering Professors’ Council (EPC), in Emerging Stronger: Lasting Impact for Crisis Innovation

Laboratory and practical classes had to be reimagined and replaced while assessment plans were torn up, says the report. Placements and internships all but disappeared.

“It was a whole other world of education. The environment and surroundings I was used to were shattered and rebuilt in the blink of an eye,” writes one student in the report. 

While others felt that courses became more efficient and flexible, many struggled with difficulties including low motivation, a perceived lack of in-depth learning and online connection issues. Perhaps the biggest concern was the loss of practical work and contact hours, with students suddenly unable to visit and use labs, equipment and manufacturing facilities. Universities were forced to innovate. 

“The sector has been amazing in responding to that variety of challenges through things like digital artefacts, virtual labs, remote control by proxy,” says Professor Beverley Gibbs, one of the EPC report authors and chief academic officer at the New Model Institute for Technology and Engineering (NMITE) in Hereford (“How NMITE is taking engineering education back to the drawing board”).

One solution was the use of group representatives, with single students visiting facilities to control equipment while in communication with others at home. Another approach was bolstering outsourcing skills, encouraging students to write specifications for others to build – a vital skill, especially as the pandemic forced a reappraisal of business travel and in-person meetings. 

Planning to open this year, NMITE will have “hands-on pedagogy,” says Gibbs. Further lockdowns would present a major challenge. “Students come and do engineering degrees because they want to be doing practical things, they want to be working with other students in a real way,” she says. 

The lockdowns have been an opportunity to reconsider how things are done, however, and Gibbs believes that introspection could lead to improvements. 

“When you put students in a lab space, what is it that you’re trying to get them to learn?” she asks. 

“Is it about acting safely within a particular environment? Is it about being able to read a gauge on a piece of equipment? By thinking about what it is that you want to achieve, you can find different ways of achieving that.” 

A new workplace 

A new workplace

While some companies pivot towards med tech, others have received renewed attention for technology that could prevent infection. Ventilation systems have an important part to play in preventing airborne viral spread in the workplace, for example. Specialist engineers can determine whether a system is working or if it needs upgrading, according to the IMechE’s Covid-19 Manual for Engineers, which highlights work being done and provides examples of best practice. Engineers might decide that limitations are needed, such as reduced occupancy numbers. 

Air filtration could be combined with ultraviolet light for germicidal irradiation to be most effective, says the report. The technology was not widely used before the pandemic, but portable units offer a simple and effective opportunity for deactivating viral particles. 

Antimicrobial surfaces have also received a lot of attention. Birmingham’s NitroPep, for example, combines a bespoke surface engineering process to activate metal surfaces with a dip-coat of antimicrobial agent. Treated surfaces kill more than 90% of pathogenic microbes in seconds. 

Wearable devices, such as the RF-enabled Bump social-distancing system developed by Tharsus, can reduce the risk of colleagues passing on the virus, while design software has been used to reorganise spaces with one-way systems and optimal distances between workers. Other software, such as remote access technology, let workers carry out their usual tasks from home. Some companies might choose to keep such systems as they plan for a future with less face-to-face interaction.

Biomedical in the spotlight

The NHS faces a “huge influx” of new technology and a rise in patient numbers in the coming years, according to an IMechE report, and the pandemic drove home the importance of well-trained engineers to ensure that tools are used correctly. 

“These types of jobs that weren’t really well known before, like clinical engineering within the NHS, have really come to the fore,” says Dr Helen Meese, vice-chair of the IMechE’s biomedical engineering division and lead author of Healthcare Solutions: Elevating the Engineering Workforce

Looking ahead, the institution called for the creation of two new healthcare engineering roles to ensure that technology is selected and used to the benefit of all patients. 

The pandemic has already opened engineers’ eyes to opportunities outside their sector, says Meese, such as furloughed aircraft engineers retraining as clinical engineers after working on Nightingale hospitals. 

Projects like the Ventilator Challenge saw similar realisations at a larger scale, as manufacturers offered their skills to the national effort. 

“I think we will see more companies moving into the med-tech space,” says Meese. “I think we’ll see some of these companies starting little sidelines in med tech, so when something like this happens they have got the ability to move processes over.”

Challenges and opportunities for renewables 

Challenges and opportunities

As the world ground to a halt, emissions quickly fell. Global carbon dioxide emissions decreased by 8.8% in the first half of 2020 compared to the same period in 2019, a study in Nature Communications found – a bigger drop than during previous economic downturns or the Second World War, mainly owing to falls in aviation and ground transport. Although emissions returned, the drop showed that dramatic gains are possible in the fight against the climate emergency, even if the long-term economic benefits are not immediately obvious. Calls quickly grew for governments to seize the opportunity and ensure lasting progress on the environment and renewable energy. 

Last November, prime minister Boris Johnson set out a plan for a ‘green industrial revolution’. The petrol and diesel ban grabbed the headlines, but the strategy included other key aims. Johnson said the government would work with industry to generate 5GW of low-carbon hydrogen production capacity by 2030, a hugely promising area for storage of variable renewable energy. The PM also set a target of capturing 10m tonnes of carbon dioxide by 2030, aiming to make the UK a global leader in carbon capture and storage. 

Other news was less welcome, however. A report by Climate Transparency, part-funded by the German parliament, found that more than half (53.5%) of support for the energy sector in 2020 in G20 countries went to fossil fuels. The UN’s climate-change conference in Glasgow next November will show how serious governments are about tackling emissions.

A spirit of collaboration

A spirit of collaboration

Perhaps the most important engineering legacy of the pandemic will be the spirit of collaboration found in the darkest moments. Projects such as the Ventilator Challenge UK showed what engineers could do without the usual business constraints, and with the pooled talents of experts from fields such as aerospace, Formula One and logistics. 

There were many other stories of altruistic collaboration, such as people at Rolls-Royce, Aston Martin, the Manufacturing Technology Centre, Arup, the Royal London Hospital and Innovate UK working together on a transparent shield to protect NHS workers from patients’ viral loads, while giving access for ventilation. Such projects, and many others around the world, could set a template for responses to future disasters. Human expansion and environmental damage mean that more pandemics are possible, while the climate emergency poses the biggest threat of all. Engineers are leading the fight against that – hopefully they can maintain the spirit of collaboration.

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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.


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