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The Future manufacturing engineer: health, energy, transport, food and circular economy

David Wright, Director of Strategic Relationships at Coventry University

The Future Manufacturing Engineer
The Future Manufacturing Engineer

We are all conscious of the important role that Engineers play in improving our society and the world in general. Engineers solve problems, create solutions and deliver change.

Introduction

To quote one of the UK’s best known manufacturing Professors, Sir Mike Gregory, ‘Science is just lying around waiting to be discovered; engineering turns it into something useful’. This may be a little ‘tongue-in-cheek’, but the sentiment is clear – engineers don’t just make things; we make things happen. Whether we are Mechanical Engineers, Electrical Engineers, Civil Engineers, Chemical Engineers, Aeronautical Engineers or Automotive Engineers, that is one of the things that we have in common, which binds our profession – we make things happen.

But ‘what of the Manufacturing Engineer?’ I hear you say; after all, this piece is meant to be about the manufacturing engineer of the future. Let’s come back to that; I hope the answer will be obvious by the end.

Five Challenges

The world is changing, perhaps at a greater rate than we have ever seen before. Global population stood at 7.6 billion in 2018, and is projected to exceed 10 billion soon after 2050. That is an increase of around 25% in just over 30 years. More people, and more people living longer. It is also projected that some 60% of the world’s population will live in cities by 2030, and that in the same timescale there will be 39 megacities, each with a population in excess of 10 million; Jakarta alone, incidentally, is forecast to have almost 40 million inhabitants – more than the current population of Belgium, Holland and Sweden combined. These facts alone tell us that we are going to face a number of significant challenges – Grand Challenges, if you like – that need to be solved, and here we will identify just 5 of those Challenges:

  • Transport – how do we move people and goods?
  • Energy – how do we generate and distribute enough energy to sustain cities and their communities?
  • Food – how do we feed 10 billion people?
  • Health – how do we meet the health and well-being needs?
  • Circular Economy – how do we ensure that we make best use of resources? 

Transport

I’d like to start with Transport. If populations are becoming more concentrated and denser, I would suggest that moving people and things around within the boundaries of our cities will become more difficult and time-consuming, leading to both fewer and shorter (distance) journeys. Transport and Mobility systems will be dominated by shared solutions, provided by both the public and private sectors. Levels of private vehicle ownership will not just stagnate, they will diminish significantly. Nothing new or revelatory there; we’ve recognised this for some time, and many of the world’s major vehicle producers are setting their strategies to become mobility providers.

It is also leading to some interesting developments in vehicle types. We’re all aware of the accelerating shift towards electric cars and buses, and self-driving (autonomous) vehicles, too. We’ll also see more novel vehicle solutions like single person pedal-electric four-wheelers (what used to be known as ‘L-category’ but are now referred to as ‘Powered Light Vehicles’ or PLVs).

At the other end of the scale, we are seeing dozens and dozens of concepts for electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft for Urban Air Mobility, and more than one manufacturer has demonstrated flying prototypes already. I am in no doubt whatsoever that we will see small goods being delivered within the cityscape by unmanned aerial vehicles, or ‘drones’.

So, if the growth in cities, especially megacities, means fewer journeys, that means a rise in ‘localism’ surely? I believe it does, and that means that we have to provide solutions to the other Grand Challenges locally, too.

Energy

Let’s take a look at energy. I’m happy to admit that I’m not an energy expert, but what I do know is that the further we move the sources of energy around, the more inefficient that becomes, whether that’s pumping losses for liquids and gases, or transmission losses for electricity; and that’s before we consider the impact of delivering fossil fuels by road transport. So, generating it where you need it would seem to be quite a good idea – but how?

I don’t believe that renewable sources such as solar and wind will get close to meeting the needs of a city of more than 10 million souls. Those technologies will compete for space which, in my view, could be better employed for other things. My personal view is that this is where Small Modular (nuclear) Reactors (SMRs) could find their place. I know nuclear power is an emotive subject, which is why I offer this as an entirely personal view, but I sincerely believe that both the engineering and proliferation questions are solvable – by engineers, naturally!

Food

Taking food as the next subject, 10 million people take a lot of feeding! By definition, the mega-city is not a rural landscape, so we have to ship into the cities food that has been produced and processed elsewhere; there is simply no choice. Or is there?

I have long been an advocate of hydroponics, and aquaponics too, but the limitations have been well articulated – energy costs to provide the intensity and quality of light required have been prohibitive for anything other than high-value crops. We still hear of regular ‘busts’ of facilities growing ‘recreational’ or ‘pseudo-medical’ crops; the technology has been the preserve of a particular type of farmer, man… But now, LED light sources are becoming less-costly to purchase as well as less costly to operate due to their low energy consumption; couple that to sources of renewable and local energy, and city-based vertical farms start to become a plausible part of the mix.

I read recently, in the Sunday Times, that the world’s largest urban farm is due to open in Paris in May this year. At 15,000 sq ft, it will produce up to a ton of up to 30 varieties of fruit and vegetables. Imagine the impact that this could have in just two areas: first, the reduction in food miles, and therefore CO2 reduction, by not flying foods like strawberries all around the world, simply because we want them in December; second, think of the potential positive health impacts of providing fresh, nutritious produce locally. Urban/vertical farming won’t meet all of our food needs, but it has the potential to make a significant positive difference.

Health

This brings us nicely on to Health and Wellbeing. There are many people better qualified than me to write about this, but I think that there are four essential elements that we need to think about: monitoring, diagnosis, maintenance and treatment.

In our ever-more connected world, we are already seeing growth in the number and variety of health-based apps, giving us the opportunity to monitor and manage our own health and fitness; I can only see this growing more and taking on more relevance in the mega-city environment. Providing healthcare infrastructure and physical assets in densely populated environments will be challenging, as will being able to easily access those assets via the mega-city transport system; access to people for the emergency services and first-responders will be more difficult.

First and foremost, therefore, is prevention. Living in a city which is less polluted by carbon emissions from transport and other sources, and having fresh nutritious food more readily available will clearly have positive impacts. Keeping people out of hospital becomes an even higher priority, so more regular, less intrusive health monitoring and remote diagnosis become more attractive. The provision, and therefore the production, of personalised healthcare, whether that be devices for assisted living or even medicines, will not just be desirable but, I believe, essential. Once again, this agenda will be supported by the means of production being distributed to be more local.

Circular Economy

Finally I will turn to the circular economy; finally got round to it, if you’ll excuse the atrocious pun! The 10 million-plus mega city consumers have the potential to produce biblical quantities of waste. 

To begin with, we have to consume less, or at very least, consume the right amount and procure the right amount. The quantities of food waste we produce are unbelievable, and in many cases are a direct result of taking more than we need. Food thrown away because it is out of date, because we were attracted by the latest ‘buy one get one free’ offer and bought more than we would ever need or use. And spare a moment to think of the packaging associated with that.

All products need to be designed with re-use, re-purposing, recycling (or up-cycling) and disposal in mind. The processes by which those products are made, and which ultimately are disposed, simply have to be as resource efficient as possible. Once again, I believe there is a very strong argument for those processes and associated assets to be distributed and localised.

Future Manufacturing Engineer

I hope by now that the penny has dropped in respect of what this means to the future Manufacturing Engineer, particularly when taken in the context of the mega city. Manufacturing will be different. There will be different products manufactured in different ways utilising different processes and technologies to provide those products in greater variety at lower volumes, with shorter lead times for more local consumption. Sure, there will still be a need for large, centralised manufacturing facilities for certain products in certain areas, with all of the challenges (and fun) that those provide, but I’m almost certain that we will also see more local manufacturing, whether that’s 3D printing of personalised medicines or the production of Small Modular Reactors to provide reliable, safe and cost-effective energy; the rise of the mega city will have a profound impact on the means of production, and therefore the skills needed by the manufacturing engineer of the future.

Talking of skills, we will, without doubt, need to look at the way in which we educate and train our manufacturing engineers of the future. Maintaining the right balance between academic disciplines, technology skills and professional competencies will be of paramount importance as the world in which we live and the technologies deployed therein change. Some things won’t change, however, and you might be surprised to learn that I believe the ‘constants’ in what we need to embed into our future engineers lie more in the professional competencies than in the technical subjects. If our engineers are to be recognised, rightly, as a key element within our society, then the ability to be innovative and entrepreneurial will take on greater import. The ability to bring people together as high-performing teams and to communicate effectively will be essential; and our engineers will need more than ever to understand the economic as well as the financial impact of their actions.

It is essential that engineers are at the centre of understanding how to access and deploy funds to generate the maximum societal benefit in the most effective and efficient ways. Many engineers I know are happy to embrace ‘resource efficiency’, but shy away from ‘the finances’. The finances are just another resource to be sought and used effectively. We have a duty to be engaged; we’ve seen what happens when you leave it to the accountants and the bankers… So, perhaps we will see the rise of the omnipresent, multi-talented, friendly, neighbourhood manufacturing engineer super-hero. Pass me my cape and mask; I’m gonna go make something happen!

Concluding Remarks

When I originally started writing this piece, the COVID-19 global pandemic hadn’t really happened. That it has, gave me cause to re-visit some of the views that I’d committed to this piece, and see how they might have changed. To my surprise, and relief, I’m happy to stand by what I’ve said, particularly in the areas of Food and Health, but I do think there is an opportunity to add emphasis in a number of areas.

Before I do, it is worth recognising that there will be some short to medium term challenges for us to address. Clearly, we have a responsibility to ensure that as people return to work, their environment is safe. This could be particularly challenging in some manufacturing environments where layouts have been designed to use space most effectively, not to facilitate social distancing. And public transport will, I believe, be significantly changed for some time, if it is to provide the public with the levels of confidence we must have to use public transport extensively; an increased use of private cars for work travel is a not a trend that is desirable.

So what are the areas of emphasis I spoke about? Firstly, it has become clear how important it is to have resilient supply chains, if we want to be able to respond to crises quickly and effectively. Global sourcing still has many attractions for some commodities, but the pandemic has shown just how fragile global supply chains can be when faced with global problems. Reshoring, or probably more correctly ‘right-shoring’, must become one of the priorities across all manufacturing sectors as we emerge from the current situation. Establishing sovereign capability in certain key areas is, in my view, a necessity. Many of us have banged this drum for some years; perhaps people will listen this time.

Secondly, sustainability and the circular economy has probably become more real to many of us, rather than just a phrase we like to use. With certainty of supplies disrupted, many businesses have been finding ways to re-use or re-purpose products and materials that they previously might have discarded, simply because it was ‘easier’. We need to ensure that these practices can become an economically viable norm.

Finally, the drive to Net Zero. It will be no surprise to anyone that, with the massive reductions in travelling, there have been appreciable reductions in carbon emissions and improvements in air quality, particularly in cities. What has perhaps been more surprising is just how quickly those impacts are felt, and the scale of the improvement; just 2 weeks after lockdown was announced in the UK, NO2 levels in some cities fell by up to 60%. This, more than almost anything, should add an impetus to our efforts to achieve net zero not just in transport, but across all areas of energy consumption.

I see the latter two, sustainability and net-zero, not as challenges, but as outcomes or rewards; the ‘prize’ if you like. If we keep our eyes focused on the prize, it lends a perspective, a reason and purpose to the challenges; greater focus, if you like.

We should, we can, and we will; because, my friends, WE are manufacturing engineers.

Join The Discussion

We want to hear your thoughts on how the manufacturing engineer of the future will impact on the five challenges, and others we may not have identified herein. Take part in this short survey to join the discussion: Survey Link

David Wright

David Wright is the Director of Strategic Relationships at Coventry University, and Deputy Chair of the IET Design and Manufacturing Exec.

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