Future Engineers Need New Technology Education

Feb. 1, 2011
Manufacturing, operations and production managers have been concerned for several years about the looming brain drain caused by retirement of the current generation of engineers. This generation has overseen the automation of processes and machines, while moving controls from the world of relays, pneumatics and manual valves to the world of sophisticated, digital electronic automation.

With the new generation of engineers entering the workforce, the new question is what skills and education will they need.

Automation World surveyed several people in the industry whose job it is to observe and evaluate technology innovations and consider their impact on the future. Many had thoughts on what these will mean for the engineer of the future.

Ours is not the first generation to wonder about the next generation. Rich Carpenter, chief technology officer (CTO) for Software at automation supplier GE Intelligent Platforms Inc., in Charlottesville, Va., says, “Kids who are now in college have a whole different mindset from the group of people about to retire in mature industries. The mindset of that group is, ‘Knowledge is power.’ Now, people say, ‘Sharing of knowledge is power.’ If you have a blog and Facebook page that is recognized, that is power to them. So this social networking movement will also have great impact on how systems are put together. They’ll be focused on bringing ‘crowd sourcing’ to work.”

How about issuing a huge challenge to the next generation? Todd Dobberstein, group manager of Industrial Embedded at test and automation supplier National Instruments Corp., in Austin, Texas, says, “Engineers will have to start stretching themselves more over the next five to 10 years to be more efficient and be able to take on more engineering tasks. I see the days of an engineer being specialized in only one thing (control, mechanics, electronics) going away.”

First things first

It’s not a given that there will be a next generation of engineers willing to work in production and manufacturing. Peter Terwiesch, CTO of Zurich, Switzerland-based automation and power supplier ABB Ltd., says, “First of all, we need to recruit those students that will be the engineers of the next five to 10 years. As we are all very aware, there is a great need to get young people interested in manufacturing as a viable career going forward.”

Ralph Carter, vice president of the information software and process business, at Milwaukee-based automation supplier Rockwell Automation Inc., adds, “Engineers and operations personnel will need more of an information technology (IT) mindset, and couple that with the goals of the operations and business. These innovations will shift their focus and behavior from a reactionary (caused by latency of actionable information) to a proactive one.”

Chet Namboodri, global director of manufacturing industry solutions and marketing, at Cisco Systems Inc., the global networking supplier based in San Jose, Calif., adds, “They’ll need to be more versed in standard protocols and the networking aspect of controls. In addition to control tasks, there’s an element of understanding networking and what’s available to optimize. I think it’s also the other way around, where the IT network engineer needs to be more helpful and tolerant of the ‘mother of all concerns’ of uptime and safety.”

So, not only will the next generation of engineers need to know everything we’ve done in the past, but they’ll have to adapt their technology and social networking skills to getting more done with less.

Gary Mintchell, [email protected], is Editor in Chief of Automation World.

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