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An Engineer's View: 'Starting Point for a New Paradigm in CPD'

Monday, 28 May 2018   (0 Comments)
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The world is changing fast for us mechanical engineers. I was at varsity round about the same time the guys from Google got their P.hDs for their new ranking algorithm. Back then mechanical engineers had a fair amount of electronics and programming included in their syllabus. Admittedly, although I love technology, I am struggling to keep up. My knowledge of Matlab, Excel and VBA is not going very far these days. 

Arguably, the most dramatic changes in society have followed technological breakthroughs or a revolution in either communication or transport. Examples from ‘recent’ centuries are: the Gutenberg Press, the wireless telegraph, steam locomotives, internal combustion engines, the telephone, powered flight, radio, television and the digital computer. 

Suddenly, from the latter, something new hit the mainstream – the worldwide web. I’ve described it as ‘new’ but it had been developing for decades. The internet has and continues to be a game changer. As we were pontificating on the merits of e-mail, cellphones appeared out of nowhere and became a rampant disruptive technology. Eventually – and not too long ago – these two technologies merged and “social media” became a thing. (Have you ever considered how you would explain Facebook to a 20 year younger version of yourself?)

Before you sit back and think you have time to rest and recover before the next paradigm shift, please consider. Little 4 or 6 propeller flying drones have become ubiquitous and they have upset the aviation applecart. Don’t relax yet because, while you stare in awe at a 3-D printer, the tsunami of electric mobility will catch you off guard! 

Back to mechanical engineering. All engineers have two jobs, (1) build a better world with the tools at hand, and (2) incorporate it with the current, real-and-existing-now world. Let’s split our engineering community into three: young, middle-aged and mature engineers.

In the above paragraphs, I’ve talked about the tools at hand; our young engineers are growing into these and need to be helped along in the present. Mature engineers have the experience to keep the machine running and guide industry with wisdom and stubbornness. 

The middle-aged engineers of whom I am one need to step up to the plate to replace the mature engineers and guide industry. However, considering the above context, I think it is more than mere stage fright that makes me doubt my ability. How does one usher in the “new era” without having a solid grip on it. I think we – the middle-aged engineers – are going to handle it in three ways: 

  1. Some will just let it happen and let themselves be phased out and grow into niches. Perhaps, by repairing old machinery. Their fate may be the same as the typists and draughtsmen who have been replaced by software.
  2. Some will do enough (barely) to keep up and may stay locked into old paradigms – some out of fear of losing control, but probably mostly due to a lack of available time. (Consider the case of the construction industry’s slow move to 3-D CAD.) The current system for continued professional development caters to these engineers and will probably help them do enough to keep the “new machines oiled”.
  3. Lastly there will be a group of positive outliers*. They will get into new paradigms and innovate with the moving front of technology. It is undoubtedly a very desirable thing for society to have these engineers. The more the better.

We as SAIMechE need to consider this group and develop a strategy to engage and support them. Mere CPD does not always enable practical know-how. And who will sponsor time and equipment to allow us to tinker and perhaps learn Python, progamme a robot or finally sit down and do a proper FEA or CFD simulation of that thing at work?

Perhaps you are one of the outliers? Maybe you will be the support structure that brings one of them about. By being involved in your local SAIMechE community, we can keep as many engineers as possible in the second and third groups. See, even engineers are social creatures!

*The book “Outlines - The story of success” by Malcolm Gladwell was published in 2008. Gladwell defines outliers as people who do not fit into our normal understanding of achievement!

Gideon van den Berg
SAIMechE National Treasurer


From the popular commentary "An Engineer's View" which is a regular feature of SA Mechanical Engineer. The commentary reflects the personal views of SAIMechE members, typically those who have accepted leadership positions in the Institution. Also posted under the Blog with the same name.

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