Engineer your career!

Engineering doesn’t need to be building bridges or fixing boilers, says Michael Tougher. It can mean being inventive, creative and entrepreneurial.

He won a Royal Academy of Engineering enterprise competition in 2016 and has gone on to build a digital toy that allows young children to compose music.

Changes in technology are affecting engineering and making it an exciting market for entrepreneurs, he says. “Access to new technologies have brought about the greatest changes in the last decade or so.” In developing his new product, he made a quick prototype using a small computer and online code. “When we tested it, we didn’t need an electronic engineer.”

From 3D printing to virtual reality design technology, how engineers today work is rapidly changing and larger engineering companies are also pushing the boundaries of the possible.

Here’s a look at new technologies transforming how engineers work.

3D design software

Forget the drawing board – sophisticated software has transformed engineering design. “A total game changer,” says Ben Bennett, managing director at digital technology and virtual reality specialists, Luminous Group. “It’s now essential that a young engineer has strong three-dimensional design skills, as nearly all work is now carried out using this kind of software.” When part of a model is adjusted for instance, specialised software can automatically tweak all other mechanical elements to reflect the change.

Virtual reality

Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) software will also change how engineers work. Using these tools, engineers can interact with virtual products and get a clearer idea what it will look like. Companies such as BAE Systems use a “virtual cave” to train future engineers.

Holograms

NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) use AR and Microsoft Hololens to allow design teams worldwide to work together in a virtual space.  “These 3D holograms can be projected into real-world spaces to allow an unprecedented level of visualisation and interaction,” says Mr Bennett. “And, what could be cooler than seeing and testing something you've designed before it’s even been built?” 

3D printing

Additive manufacturing – as 3D printing is known – has given engineers enormous freedom to try out new ideas more cheaply. “The ease and affordability of 3D printing, combined with the development of exciting new ‘smart’ materials, is now allowing engineers to design far more complex structures,” says Mr Bennett.

Drones

“Drone technology is one of the most exciting and disruptive areas of modern technology development,” says a spokesman at electrical engineering company Plextek. “Our engineers are working on how drones can transform the way we can deliver emergency supplies both in military and civilian situations. New drones are being developed right now that can deliver food, water, medical equipment, fuel and even mechanical parts for vehicle repair to hard-to-reach areas.” This spares people risking their lives to deliver humanitarian aid in person. “As drones are proving their worth, more effort is being put into developing the technology by engineering companies.”

Cobotics

For years robots have worked in factories – but safely enclosed, away from staff. Now engineering companies are developing “cobots” – robots which can work literally hand in hand with humans, and deploy smart sensors, artificial intelligence and the internet of things. “In the next ten to 15 years I believe there will definitely be a mixture of people, robots and machines,” says Tech entrepreneur Tej Kohli. Future cobots might eventually take the form of exoskeletons – a complex external skeleton that can give a person enhanced abilities – to reach, carry and move. “Not quite Tony Stark Iron Man level but a significant leap forwards,” says Mr Kohli.

Material science and bioengineering

Developments in areas such as nanotechnology, making things with graphene and breakthroughs at manipulating things at a molecular level will create whole new industries, says the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET).

And as the spotlight shines on mountains of plastic waste, engineers and material scientists are investigating greener alternatives such as biodegradeable plastics and plastics made from sustainable biological sources such as plants or waste products.

Wearable technology

Wearable technology isn’t just found in fitness gadgets. Technicians and engineers will benefit hugely, according to GE Digital’s field service management company ServiceMax. “Today if a field technician needs information about equipment, he or she must literally put down tools and look it up on their device or phone someone who can advise them.” But sturdy wearable devices – smart watches, smart helmets and glasses and sensors embedded in clothing - can help detect dangers such as radiation and chemicals, even monitor a workers’ stress levels or tell them how to fix something, leaving them hands free to get on with the job.

Read our Careers in Engineering special report sponsored by Awarding Organisation NOCN

Careers, TechnologyWeb editor