The digital transition is here. Challenges from fractured supply chains to soaring energy prices are driving change at a rapid pace. Where will engineering go next and what are the trends driving change?

Engineering has always been about problem solving, and today’s world presents no shortage of problems to solve. But the drive to tackle today’s global issues is changing engineering itself, as technology reshapes collaboration and innovation, accelerates product development and reduces development costs.

How fast will change occur? A survey of manufacturing engineers commissioned by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) and the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) found that most expect “major change” over the next five to ten years.

Sometimes the pace of change can be so fast there’s no time to stop and look ahead to what the future of engineering might be like. So we’ve done that for you, bringing together insights from experts who can help engineers navigate the changes ahead.

The first step is leadership
Engineering is a team activity, and every team needs a leader. The people who help companies manage change are united in agreeing that leadership is the key to this process. They also think that simply talking about change is not enough – leaders have to live it and embody their organisation’s values.

“You can’t delegate digital transformation for your company,” says US change management specialist Barry Ross. “You and your executives have to own it! Executives need to engage, embrace and adopt new ways of working with the latest and emerging technologies.”

It’s a view shared by Mohamed Abdelhak from engineering software company Autodesk. ”Transformation really needs to be driven from the top,” he told IMechE’s Engineering Futures event. “Executive-level buy-in isn’t enough... what is really needed is executive leadership.”

But do business leaders understand the challenges facing engineering? There is cause for optimism in the fact that 15% of FTSE 100 companies have a CEO from an engineering background.

And what skills will engineers need to lead change? The IMechE/IET report on the future of engineering says communication skills, creativity and design thinking will be the most important soft skills for those in the industry.

Understanding Industry 4.0 will be critical
One of the biggest drivers of change in engineering is the arrival of Industry 4.0, in which the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) is used to leverage data to optimise processes and develop new products.

The problem has been that many companies have applied Industry 4.0 ideas piecemeal and failed to join up the different elements, according to consultants McKinsey. A large majority of companies are stuck in “pilot purgatory” because their Industry 4.0 technologies don’t work together, McKinsey adds.

“While digital transformations are notoriously difficult to scale up across networks of factories, the pressure to succeed is intense,” the firm says. “Companies at the front of the pack are capturing benefits across the entire manufacturing value chain. Scaled across networks, these gains can fundamentally transform a company’s competitive position.”

So how is it done? McKinsey says companies should think through a plan and avoid “jumping in headfirst”.

"There is no value in launching a digital transformation unless you are clear on the benefit you want to achieve"Richard Jeffers, Managing Director for RS Industria, RS Group

Richard Jeffers, Managing Director for RS Industria, RS Group, says, the best starting point for creating a plan is to identify what real-world problem you are trying to solve.

“There is no value in launching a digital transformation unless you are clear on the benefit you want to achieve,” he adds. “It might be around data and using IIoT to support the identification and eradication of losses. It might be around productivity and using robots to automate repetitive tasks.

“It might be around learning and development and using augmented reality to give workers access to support documentation in the workplace. But there has to be a driver!”

McKinsey emphasises that communication with stakeholders is critical. The project must focus on real business needs and should build on technology solutions that have already worked in the organisation.

A successful digitally enabled factory that collates and analyses data from all its IIoT devices can reduce machine downtime by up to 50%. It can also increase throughput by almost a third, achieve higher productivity and enable forecasting that’s 85% more accurate, according to McKinsey.

To deliver these changes, engineers will need skills in automation, robotics and mechatronics, as well as artificial intelligence and resource-efficient lean manufacturing, the IMechE/IET report says.

However, many businesses just don’t have the bandwidth to develop a digital strategy, according to Ian Clarke, CEO of Velocumen, which advises companies on IIoT and Industry 4.0, “Almost every business I visit, none of the machines are connected to a site-wide digital strategy,” he says.

“I visited one such company recently. Their energy bill is £250k per month, on a £20m turnover and the bill has tripled in the last six months. There’s no end to the benefits that a digital transformation can bring to this business if managed correctly.

“They have committed to, and just embarked on, their connected operations journey, but are struggling to get started. But they do have a viable plan which is to build the digital infrastructure and then start with an easy to deploy, easy win project.”

Rapid benefits from automation
Lower costs, higher quality, reduced risk, and better productivity and customer satisfaction – these are the benefits that companies embracing automation are already seeing, according to business process consultants SQA.

McKinsey says automation can deliver annual productivity gains of 2-3%, and in fact, in the case of Coca-Cola’s Ireland operation, the consultants say it delivered a double-digit productivity increase.

The transformation not only meant the company could produce more with its existing plant, but it was also able to add new products using the capacity it had freed up. All this was achieved by analysing the data delivered by IIoT devices to spot opportunities for improved efficiency.

Simplicity leads to success
Coca-Cola Ireland transformed a whole factory, but digital transformations don’t have to involve the entire plant. Mike Wilson from the British Automation & Robot Association told an IMechE audience that companies often go about it the wrong way.

“Many businesses are looking for the most complex application they have, rather than the simplest job... that may be a great opportunity to install your first robot system,” he said. “You may then find other opportunities to look at more complex applications.”

Google Cloud’s Head of Platform, Amit Zavery, put it like this in a Twitter post: “Think of digital transformation less as a technology project to be finished than as a state of perpetual agility, always ready to evolve for whatever customers want next, and you’ll be pointed down the right path.”

Small is beautiful
Small and medium-sized businesses account for 99% of UK manufacturing firms and provide 58% of manufacturing employment, according to manufacturers’ organisation Make UK. And a quarter of them plan to expand to become a large company in the next five to ten years.

Nearly four in ten of these small engineering companies are fast-growing and have the potential to become much bigger, Make UK’s analysis shows. These are known as scale-up firms, and they contributed £1 trillion to the UK economy in 2020.

So how can smaller firms scale up? The UK’s Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC) has demonstrated use cases in the electronics lab to help show organisations the way forward by converting a regular electronic manufacturing factory into a smart factory using legacy machines. This demonstrates that digital transformation is possible without expensive new machinery.

“Our goal is to showcase products going through a state-of-the-art digital production line, collecting data from each station and machine, creating visibility and showing the value that can be obtained from the many uses of the data,” MTC Technology Specialist Naim Kapadia says of the project.

“It is essential for industry to understand that digitalisation can now be achieved using interoperable standard components, which yield immediate results and short-term returns on investment, which are best seen to be believed.”

McKinsey says automation means engineers will spend more time analysing data from IIoT-connected devices, not only to improve efficiency, but also to produce new products.

Interpreting the data gathered from both AI and machine learning is just one of the skills that will be in high demand in the future.

Many firms are already well along that road, equipping themselves and their people not only to solve the problems of today, but also those of tomorrow. And engineering is an essential part of that transformation.

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