Monday, August 30, 2010

The Lost Generation of Engineers

Computers are a wonderful invention.  They have streamlined everything from mathematical calculations to entertainment.  Some people wouldn't even know how to function in today's world without them.  But, I'd like to shed some light on something, a phenomenon that I am calling the Lost Generation of Engineers.  For the most part, I am referring to civil and mechanical engineers, though this is not exclusive to those disciplines.

First, some back ground, because believe it or not there are some people out there that do not even know what a civil or mechanical engineer does.  How about a list?  Civil engineers are responsible for: bridges, roadways, building, skyscrapers, waterways, railways and the foundations, drainage and earth work associated with any of those products.  Civil engineers were the first engineers (think irrigation canals for farming in Mesopotamia and the Great Pyramid of Giza) and the world would not be able to survive without them.  Mechanical engineers are responsible for: engines, machinery, vehicles, piping, HVAC, aviation, and the control systems that go along with those.  So now that we know what they do, what is the Lost Generation of Engineers?

Well, to design all of those wonderful, everyday systems and structures, there is a lot of math involved.  Lots of calculations, formulas, code books, and experiments got us to the point where engineers could design fantastic structures and machines that are safe and efficient.  Engineers have recently added a new tool to their arsenal of formulas and code books, computers.  The use of computers has drastically reduced the time it takes to make all of those design calculations.  Some programs even do the designs for the engineers; all that really needs to be done is input the geometry of what needs to be designed.  Wait, what?  Computer programs are designing the bridges that I cross every day on my way to work?  Well, yes and no.  

The engineer is still required to check the program's output.  But as time goes on, I believe more and more confidence will be put in the program for one simple reason; saved time.  This happens for a few reasons; the biggest one is cost cutting.  Especially now, in this economy, companies are hesitant to hire more employees.  Therefore, engineers must do what they can with the resources they have.  Now, I am in no way, shape, or form saying that inefficient designs are being produced.  In my opinion that is furthest from the truth.  What I am trying to illustrate is the beginning of a trend, a trend where the computer programs do the engineering, not the engineer.

This situation will eventually lead to my Lost Generation of Engineers theory.  One day, if this glimmer of a trend actually develops into a full blown trend, there will be a generation of engineers that doesn't actually know the theory and mechanics behind what they are designing.  They will just "plug and chug" so to speak.  Entering in the input and receiving the output.  All that is left is putting together a set of plans all the while not fully understanding what they are doing. 

How about another trend that will contribute to this theory?  The number of students entering Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) programs or careers is dropping, well, at least in the USA.  China is actually doing the opposite.  The lack of interested people and the ease of computer programs will, in my opinion, be devastating to one of the most important professions in the history of mankind.

How do we solve the problem?  That is for another time.  

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