By Mbae Mutegi, Practising Engineer and County Business Manager (Nairobi West) at Kenya Power
Of late, engineers, designers, researchers, architects and other professionals are transforming lives in ways never imagined a few years ago. This progress is the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) effect sweeping exponentially into and disrupting every industry and profession, engineering included.
The article appeared in ESI Africa Issue 1-2021.
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Water and steam-powered the first industrial revolution. The second revolution relied heavily on the invention of electric power to grow production by leaps and bounds. Computers and other digital technologies invented during the third industrial revolution led to the automation of production and disruption of many economic sectors such as banking, energy, and manufacturing.
The 4IR or industry 4.0 that is now taking shape is driven by the convergence of technologies with no clear distinction between the physical, digital, and biological worlds (illustrated in Figure 1).
A myriad of industry 4.0 advances and their applications
The 4IR is sweeping at an exponential progression disrupting every known industry and profession, engineering included. Engineers, designers, researchers, architects and other professionals transform lives in ways never imagined a few years ago. Powered by a convergence of emerging technological breakthroughs, rapid transformation is underway in diverse fields such as cobotics (where people and robots collaborate) and augmented reality. Refer to the information box for a list of areas to explore.
The advent of artificial intelligence and quantum computing is promising superfast processing speeds, understanding of complex patterns and deriving suggestions and conclusions. Processing vast amounts of data from engineering systems are getting faster and better. Computers and systems inspired by human intelligence are the inspiration behind cobotics, for example. Artificial intelligence has given rise to other improvements such as machine and deep learning.
The internet of things (IoT) produces a system that can monitor, collect, exchange, analyse, and deliver valuable insights for smarter, faster and more accurate business, technical, operational and managerial decisions. By employing billions of sensors, relevant communication networks and big data analytics, IoT enables measurement and optimisation for improved and transformative system and operational efficiency, productivity and better performance. Technical industries and sectors such as healthcare, energy, oil, gas, manufacturing, aviation and construction and operationalisation of smart cities stand to benefit significantly.
The fast deployment of 5G technologies will play a significant role in the more rapid realisation of the IoT capabilities. Cloud, Fog, and Edge computing will also be a substantial enabler for many broader uses, including IoT. These will enable practitioners and businesses to take full advantage of various computing and data storage resources. Edge computing will be critical in allowing data processing to be done locally at multiple decision points to reduce network traffic. Fog and Edge will play a big role in helping organisations, institutions, and businesses free themselves from the need to keep a huge infrastructure. Migration towards the Fog and Edge infrastructure will ultimately enable businesses to increase their utilisation of IoT capability.
Edge computing is set to play an important role in smart transportation. Continuous traffic patterns will happen locally, in autonomous vehicles, and with fixed sensors at intersections and traffic management protocols. This integration should provide a much-needed solution to mobility urban planners and engineers – sustainable urbanisation as envisioned in the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 11.
Smarter factories are a good application of Edge and Fog computing for industrial purposes. Combining Edge nodes with Fog computing can automate many systems within factories. This automation includes production equipment, environmental controls, compressed air systems, coolant circulation and energy systems.
Virtual and augmented realities affect human tastes, preferences and products by ushering in the era of immersive digital experiences and merging of the digital and physical spaces by using an array of sensors, algorithms, cameras and devices such as googles. Similarly, the training of engineers will get better and more interactive using a 3D experience.
The simulation of as many senses as possible – namely vision, hearing, touch and smell – will be the critical aspect.
Engineering data visualisation and practice in diverse areas such as architecture and system design stands to benefit in a big way from the world of virtual reality. Engineers can conduct training sessions with virtual tools and equipment for better skills transfer and output.
The combination of both virtual and augmented realities (mixed reality) makes it possible, for example, to see virtual objects in the real world and build an experience in which the physical and the digital are the same. The possibilities are endless.
Additive manufacturing is promising improved performance, better and more complex system designs and a simplified fabrication process. This is being driven by computer-aided design and 3D printing, fast system prototyping, and less tooling, thus lowering production costs. This is gaining traction very fast, and as such, there is a need to align engineering training in this direction.
The use of strength, precision and repeatability of cobotics to create a hybrid workforce is taking centre stage across the globe. This new way of work proves very good for difficult, extremely accurate and risky industrial and production tasks and activities. The result is better productivity, better quality work and flexible workspace, with human beings free to focus on high value, rewarding and more fulfilling tasks. Again, vast amounts of data collected by cobots can be converted to meaningful insights for improved decision making, better system optimisation and productivity.
The trio of nanotechnology, 3D printing and additive manufacturing promises smaller industrial products that are cheaper, lighter and utilising smaller quantities of materials, less wastage and low energy consumption. The production of nano-enabled materials that zero in on the control, modification and manipulation of materials at the atomic level will be the game-changer in industrial processes towards improved manufacturing efficiency and output. The semiconductor industry is a good example. The SDGs, as illustrated in Figure 2, indeed point to the need for innovative and forward-looking evolution of all professions, engineering included.
The SDG 17 on partnerships to achieve the other goals is critical during the 4IR disruption.
The international co-operation on and access to science, technology and innovation and enhanced knowledge sharing is essential to ensure that poorer economies are not left behind. If properly harnessed, the 4IR is set to hasten the development of quality, reliable, sustainable and resilient infrastructure set out in SDG 9.
The SDG 4 on quality education is vital to ensure an increase in the number of youth and adults who have relevant skills, including technical and vocational skills needed for the emerging jobs that do not currently exist.
Status of engineering training
The challenging elements for modern education include:
• A new technological fundament of learning, the so-called technology-enhanced learning (TEL).
• A new learner generation who is online at any time and expects to be more active.
• The necessity to create individual learning paths.
• An increasing area of engineering.
• A near exponential acceleration in product and service developments.
• A changing focus of engineering.
• An enormous number of highly qualified and versatile engineering graduates needed globally.
Some of the challenging elements for modern engineering education and training include:
• The impact of globalisation and digitisation on all fields of human life and in all areas of society.
• The enormous and driven growth of the scope of engineering.
• Terrific acceleration of the life cycles of engineering products.
• The changing focus of engineering shifting from more technical subjects to subjects directed to information technologies and day-to-day life.
• The increasing complexity of technical matters which are more and more connected to non-technical issues.
• The requirements of a sustainable and circular economy.
Engineering education and training should be preparing learners for jobs that don’t yet exist using technologies that are yet to be invented to provide solutions to problems that we don’t even know are problems as yet. This preparedness is the vision of SDG 8 on economic growth and decent work. The challenges below will drive the largest number of jobs in the 21st century:
• Making renewable energy economical.
• Universal access to water.
• Production of energy from the fusion process.
• Improvement of urban infrastructure.
• Development of carbon sequestration methods.
• Development of better medication.
• Better health informatics.
• Better management of the nitrogen cycle.
• Security of cyberspace.
• Better tools of scientific research.
• Reverse engineering of the brain.
• Prevention of nuclear terror.
• Advanced personalised learning.
Through disruption, we must dramatically renew the education and training ecosystem as follows and as summarised in Figure 3:
• Instead of acquiring new knowledge, we have to teach and train on new and relevant competencies and skills and grow individual identities.
• Instead of classroom-based teaching, we have to ensure context-aware personalised learning and training.
• Instead of lifelong degrees and diplomas, we should have more and more of the on-demand and in-context accreditation of qualifications.
• Fundamental education in Maths and Science.
• Inquiry-based engineering education that is project- and problem-based.
• Include entrepreneurship, critical thinking and business incubation and management in curricula.
• Pay attention to ethics and sustainability in the global context as envisaged in SDG 11.
• Teach the students how to learn.
• A new engineering learning pedagogy based on shortening learning phases, active learning, game-based learning, project-based learning and inquiry learning space.
• Doing is better than thinking.
• Provide an environment that encourages and facilitates practical and experiential learning.
• The integrative learning-deep level connection between the process of learning, reflective self-awareness and experiential learning.
From the above analysis, it is evident that training of engineers with a focus on driving the applied side of engineering and innovation, design, and the way towards commercialisation and entrepreneurship will go a long way. Creativity will be the crucial cog of the 4IR. University and college curriculum needs to factor principles of cognitive behaviour into the learning process. The SDG 4 on the provision of quality education spells out this vision. To conclude: During the second and third industrial revolutions, the current public policy system, laws, and regulations were developed. During these revolutions, decision-makers had time to study the issue and develop the necessary regulatory framework. The fast pace of change occasioned by the 4IR has made regulatory work a big challenge. Thus, embracing agile governance coupled with continuous reinvention in the face of rapid disruption and innovation will be the way out. ESI