As technology continues its rapid advance, engineers are having to evolve their skills to meet changing demands. Martin Pocock, head of Frazer-Nash Consultancy’s Digital Systems Department looks at how upskilling and recruitment can help you join the digital revolution.
Not so long ago, to paraphrase Douglas Adams, we primitive lifeforms thought digital watches were a pretty neat idea. Now ‘digital transformation’ tops organisational agendas across the UK, and technology is seen an enabler for all kinds of engineering solutions. We’re finding that our clients across all sectors are looking at how they can benefit from the digital revolution: investigating the potential of using sensors and data to inform their assets’ predictive maintenance; considering how digital twins of their systems could be used; or exploring the benefits of open architectures. So, as an engineer, should you throw away the hand calculations, grab your virtual reality headset and dive headfirst into the Cloud?
Well, a degree of digital competence will definitely come in useful as we move towards Industry 4.0. As the pace of digital progress quickens, we’re finding our customers are asking us new questions, and to provide them with the right answer we’re using new skills and new technologies.
As a result, we’ve recently set up an initiative for the accelerated recruitment of people with information systems, data science and cyber skills, to speed up our organisational evolution in the digital arena. This, in turn, is helping to support the delivery of our existing services – in asset management, for example, adding artificial intelligence, data analytics, Cloud-based collaboration, etc. to our toolset, can help us enhance not only clients’ maintenance predictions, but their assessments of risk and performance, and can inform their investment choices and priorities.
One of the fundamental aims of our digital investment, however, is that it remains integrated with the rest of our systems and engineering consultancy business. New technologies offer huge potential, but it’s essential that their use is underpinned by engineering understanding. This can mean applying traditional skills to digital problems: as, for example, in the support our systems experts are providing to a government agency around its cyber requirements. Or it could mean extending our familiar client friend roles in the defence domain to include digital capabilities such as open systems architecture. Similarly, using digital tools helps us to enhance our predictive, condition-based lifing analysis for a gas turbine manufacturer – but those assessments of lifespan and condition have to be built upon a core understanding of materials’ behaviour. So, in addition to recruiting people who have digital skills we are upskilling our existing experts, to enable them to apply their current engineering skills in the digital space.
For engineers who already have a systems thinking background, this means defining and clarifying requirements, as they would presently, but within new technologies. Developing an understanding of new technologies can be done in a variety of different ways – wider reading and online training materials are useful – but one of the best ways of upskilling is through mentoring. We’ve found that having people with engineering expertise working alongside those from a digital or information systems background really helps the transfer of knowledge.
Engineering understanding can also help those organisations who aren’t early adopters of digital systems and processes – those who just want to survive the digital revolution! Many of our clients are in more traditional industries or the public sector. They have critical or secure roles, standards and regulators, so their requirements from digital techniques aren’t the same as companies in, say, the retail sector. They want to know what digital can do for them, how it can benefit their organisation, and they want to know how it can do it safely. Through an understanding their existing engineering systems, processes and needs, we can help them understand how digital can help them reach their specific business goals.
The future might be digital, but the need for the human perspective and engineering understanding will never be obsolete
Taking our previous asset management example, ‘big data’, data analytics and artificial intelligence can capture information about organisations’ assets, and there are many companies who can help gather this using digital tools. But collecting the data is only the start of the process. An engineering approach starts with an understanding of the problems that need to be addressed, and examines the engineering and business issues around those problems, which could include elements of cyber security, human factors, and enterprise architecture. Once these problems are understood, the gathered data can used to inform solutions, and the analysis becomes more relevant and useful.
The future might be digital, but the need for the human perspective and engineering understanding will never be obsolete. Engineers – even those with analogue watches – will need to be enthusiastic, flexible and able to grasp new concepts quickly. They will need to challenge themselves to keep up with rapid advances in technology, whether those are in materials, systems, programs or devices. But for those who embrace the change, the digital revolution will offer huge opportunities.
Martin Pocock is Head of Digital Systems at Frazer-Nash Consultancy. From developing and managing complex software and analytics solutions, his career path has led to a senior management role, where he sets strategy and leads the evolution of digital services and capabilities. With a PhD in Computational Modelling, Martin has over twenty years’ experience in consultancy, working across diverse areas including software, modelling, electrical and digital. He is a Chartered Engineer, and Fellow of both the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) and the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications (IMA).