Published: 06 February 2018
Jon Shanks is an Associate Director at Buro Happold, a Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Bath and sits on the Institution's Structural Futures Committee. Here he talks about the skills structural engineers will need in the face of greater automation.
Automation is changing our industry. There are tools emerging which speed up the analysis and interrogation of design variations and physics engines are emerging as powerful tools for real-time complex engineering analysis. However, these tools must be grounded in the context of a clear understanding of structural behaviour and construction.
Informing design, not developing solutions
There are positive opportunities arising from automation, but they should be seen as tools which inform our engineering design processes and not 'black boxes' for developing solutions – which are best created through the synthesis of the design team's ideas rather than from the analysis and interrogation of data.
For instance, parametric geometry generation processes allow engineers to rapidly explore overall building forms but in most cases this can only go so far before engineering judgement is needed to develop the most appropriate solution.
Automating elements are already present in current design processes, e.g. using digital tools to support data and analysis workflows - automating either the engineering analytical processes and/or the geometry and model generation processes. When it works well it combines these two streams in a clearly auditable and interrogable process which allows more time for engineering design and exploration. When it functions badly it constrains the design process by the limitations of the tools.
Eroding experience in calculation, analysis, materials and construction
Automation presents a problem when it dislocates emerging engineers from day-to-day calculation and detailed analysis experience, without which it's hard to develop into a successful leader of engineering teams. The more time is spent developing skills and tools in digital environments on mega-projects, the less is spent exploring broad engineering concepts, details, materials and construction.
As automation takes hold 'back of house' analysts will likely be of less value, while technically competent engineering designers and dynamic inter-personal skills will be valued more and more. But these future engineers will still need to embody technical excellence, engineering intuition and understanding. Early engagement with clients and design teams will always be based on synthesis and not analysis, i.e. personal experience, intuition and flair, not rapid automated data processing and analysis. Our value will lie more than ever in our ability to draw on experience in engineering theory, construction, materials and form to develop clearly and appropriately communicated solutions.
Empathy will remain an important trait in the future engineer. Empathy for society-at-large drives us, but empathy with our collaborators and clients (architects, contractors etc) is the vehicle for structural engineers to convincingly and consistently deliver excellence.
From the age of 13, the UK education system tends to encourage engineers into being technical thinkers without much room or time for exploration of creativity. We need to break this mould and encourage broader interest and divergent thinking in our engineers. Genuine innovation will only come from appreciation across other sectors and by gathering people with diverse backgrounds. Also, this broad appreciation will allow us to demonstrate to clients and the design team that we appreciate and understand what motivates them by communicating with them appropriately.
I strongly believe there will always be a role (and a role of increasing value) in technically excellent, charismatic, diplomatic engineering designers interfacing early in the process with clients and design teams. But the shape of our teams and firms is changing and will continue to do so – let’s embrace the opportunities presented.