What Does the Future Hold? What Engineers Can Learn from Tomorrowland


ryan-nabozniakBy Ryan Nabozniak, Application Consulting Engineer at Aucotec

A version of this article appeared previously on Control Engineering.

Ever see that movie? With George Clooney? If you haven’t, you can be forgiven. It wasn’t a major box office smash.

The story is based on a ride at Disneyland, and the movie involves rocket ships, augmented reality, DNA coding, robots that are incredibly lifelike and never age, and interdimensional travel.

Farfetched? Maybe. But the premise is very real. And we as engineers can learn a lot from it.

Tomorrowland is about two people — a young woman, Casey, and a middle-aged man, Frank. They are both brilliant, with different ideas about what the future will be. Casey sees hope and excitement, never-ending discovery, positive advancements. Frank…well…not so much…

Frank believes the future is determined. He built a machine that can tell the future, and the future it tells is a world-ending catastrophe. Casey believes she can make her own future. When she expresses this view, the probability that the world will end (displayed on a monitor on Frank’s machine) falls ever so slightly — from 100% to 99.9994%. The simple fact of Casey believing a different future was possible made it so.

We’ve grown up with images of a dystopian future reality. The Cold War of my youth became the Y2K bug and then 9/11 and climate change. Each generation has had a vision of a potentially world-ending scenario with little hope for survival. Given this, it’s easy to see the world through the eyes of Frank, the cynic.

I see the same type of doom-mongering in the engineering, automation/controls, and construction professions today.

From my experience, there appear to be two groups forming. Both groups see a fundamental shift in how and where engineering and construction work is done. The first group is very uncomfortable with this shift because it threatens what they know. To them, it may look a little like the end of the world. The second group is excited by the shift and sees endless opportunity in it.

Here’s what’s happening:

The tools of engineering are changing, and the profession is becoming less rigid and more creative. Large projects are being moved to lower-cost centers. Professions that were once certain and well paid are becoming less so. Engineers are more and more being required to not only design but also create working prototypes, work in makerspaces, and test and prove designs to clients virtually before construction and fabrication.

To support this shift, the tools engineers use need to be interoperable and interchangeable, to allow them to work across disciplines, departments, and industries. What’s happening now is pushing the whole field of engineering out of its comfort zone, and requiring it to grow…

Engineers are wearing different hats. They’re taking their creative ideas and building products and businesses around them. One of the more successful people in this category is Elon Musk, the founder of several businesses including Paypal, SpaceX, SolarCity, and Tesla.

Engineers are also more frequently collaborating with other professionals, like artists, ecologists, anthropologists, doctors, and pilots. They’re working to understand their needs and then turn those needs into workable products, as well as new industries, buildings, and processes.

An example of this fundamental change is represented in a conversation I had with a young Master’s Student in Civil Engineering at the Lois Hole School of Construction at the University of Alberta several years ago. He was trying to model the work processes of underground sanitation crews employed by the city of Edmonton. He wanted to determine if he could better motivate these crews and find efficiencies using statistical modeling. I suggested that he talk to an anthropologist. At first, this might sound like a crazy idea, but given some thought and what he was trying to do – influence a diverse group of individuals – it wasn’t so crazy after all.

The same can be said of engineering companies, skid package vendors, systems integrators, owner operators, manufacturers, aerospace industries, process industries, pulp and paper industries, food and beverage industries, rail and transportation industries, power industries, medical industries, and so on.

Companies within these industries are challenged to rethink their traditional models of doing things. Silos and specializations simply don’t work as well anymore. Creative works and new technologies have traditionally been driven by government or large established industries. These were benefactors with deep pockets. This is still true to a certain extent, but at the same time, industries and companies that didn’t exist 30 years ago have begun to radically change how we view the world and communicate with one another.

GE, a company with a tradition of innovation, has realized it’s failed to innovate internally. To solve this, it created an organization called the GE Centre for Innovation. The Centre comprises a number of small startups, that are responsible for exploring radical ideas, creating innovative products, and turning all that they discover and develop into viable businesses. This can also be seen in the current renaissance in Detroit which only a few years ago was written off as a bankrupt, unsalvageable city and surroundings.

Some companies I’ve seen rise and innovate are not household names…yet. I’ve had the great fortune to be exposed to some of the leading innovators in this profession. I would encourage you to consider exploring companies like –

  • CivilMaps – This company models the world using Lidar cloud point data. It processes that data and uses artificial intelligence to identify objects within the cloud point data. This data can be used in engineering models to gather as-built information.
  • True Site View – This company is re-imagining site field work in the hopes of reducing the costs, time, and pain of implementing engineering projects in real world conditions.
  • Aucotec – This company, which I work for, sells an engineering toolbox – Engineering Base – that represents what AutoCAD would look like if it were invented today. It’s a single tool that can be used by all engineering disciplines. The tool is data-centric and can tie into any other existing tool set. It can also act as a central engineering data repository.

These are just a few of the companies that look to the future with optimism and wonder. They’re helping industries, companies, and engineers realize this vision of a brighter, cooperative future as well.

It’s time we all looked at our companies, industries, and positions. It’s time that we decide which group we’re in:

  • Group 1: The Franks – Many people unfortunately see the future through Frank’s eyes. They’ve become disillusioned and are content to wait for the world to end, along with their companies, industries, jobs, and professions. When it does, they’ll tell each other, “See, we knew it would happen! We saw it happening all along.”
  • Group 2: The Caseys – Fortunately, there’s a good number who also see the future through Casey’s eyes. They believe that we have the power and the responsibility to create a better future. So, they embrace the challenge to work with others — people from different backgrounds, who have boundless optimism and creativity.

I’ve been lucky in my career to experience the world through the eyes of Casey. Like many people, I’ve lived through several recessions, a divorce, and the losing of several small fortunes. But these events didn’t make me a cynic. Each time, I picked myself up (or someone offered a hand to help me up), dusted myself off, and started anew. In my profession, I’ve been a part of companies and projects that are reimagining the future as part of collaborative teams. These teams have given me the optimism to believe in a promising tomorrow.

I know what group I’m in. What about you?

  1. October 23, 2016
    • October 25, 2016
  2. October 24, 2016

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