Will Engineering Survive the 4th Industrial Revolution? Collins Onuegbu

On Saturday the 30th of November 2019, Collins Onueghu was keynote speaker at the Chairman’s Investiture of the Nigerian Institution of Mechanical Engineers ,a division of Nigerian Society of Engineers. In this paper below, he explored the place of Engineering, especially Nigerian Engineering as we move into the 4th Industrial Revolution.

The creation of the earth will rank as the most important engineering activity of all time. When God used divine powers to create the Oceans and the seas and the sky and the waters and Man. Ever since creation however, different ages of men have tried to use engineering to make the earth livable and solve problems that has helped mankind remain the number one creature of the Universe. The engineering profession has lived from age to age, helping build societies and revolutions that has defined each era.

By Definition(Google), “Engineering is a scientific field and job that involves taking our scientific understanding of the natural world and using it to invent, design, and build things to solve problems and achieve practical goals. This can include the development of roads, bridges, cars, planes, machines, tools, processes, and computers. Engineers apply the principles of science and mathematics to develop economical solutions to technical problems. Their work is the link between scientific discoveries and the commercial applications that meet societal and consumer needs”

But has engineering had its best days with the onset of the 4th Industrial revolution? While Engineering helped bring about the industrial revolutions, from the 1st to the onset of the current 4th industrial revolution, will it survive intact by the time we are done with this revolution that threatens to change the world as we know it? According to the World Economic Forum “The First Industrial Revolution is widely taken to be the shift from our reliance on animals, human effort and biomass as primary sources of energy to the use of fossil fuels and the mechanical power this enabled.
The Second Industrial Revolution occurred between the end of the 19th century and the first two decades of the 20th century and brought major breakthroughs in the form of electricity distribution, both wireless and wired communication, the synthesis of ammonia and new forms of power generation. The Third Industrial Revolution began in the 1950s with the development of digital systems, communication and rapid advances in computing power, which have enabled new ways of generating, processing and sharing information.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution can be described as the advent of “cyber-physical systems” involving entirely new capabilities for people and machines. While these capabilities are reliant on the technologies and infrastructure of the Third Industrial Revolution, the Fourth Industrial Revolution represents entirely new ways in which technology becomes embedded within societies and even our human bodies. Examples include genome editing, new forms of machine intelligence, breakthrough materials and approaches to governance that rely on cryptographic methods such as the blockchain.’

Nigerian Engineers and the revolutions How has Engineering in Nigeria fared as the revolutions moved from the 1st to the 4th. How have we localized the science and technology either available locally or globally to solve problems only engineers can solve.

And has our experience in the past revolutions prepared us for the leap into the 4th revolution when the interface between man and machine will create intelligence that will disrupt the current world engineering order?

Our scorecard
All around us, we can see the evidence of Engineering in our society. Our engineers have designed and built engineering infrastructure that have allowed Nigeria to aspire to be one of the top 20 countries by GDP. While we cannot be said to be part of perhaps the 1st and 2nd industrial revolutions, the fight for independence and the indigenization of the Nigerian economy was a catalyst that helped build the engineering profession in Nigeria Before independence, Britain built engineering infrastructure that helped transport goods from Nigeria to Britain. They built railways connecting the hinterland to the ports that allowed them to ship produce from Nigeria to the UK The amalgamation of the North and South of Nigeria in 1914 with administrative structures saw the building of roads and bridges to open the country primarily for the benefit of Britain

Through the Industrial Revolutions, Engineering has always reshaped itself. Evolving and creating new fields as Science and technology made new knowledge available for engineers to build new things for the world of the era.

With independence in 1960 and the leap to open local universities, engineering and engineers were sought to build the newly independent Nigeria. They needed to build roads, airports, rail lines, factories and buildings to match the ambition of Nigeria. The engineering feat of this era immediately after independence can be seen and felt in our economy up to this period.

Engineering and Nationhood
The Nigerian struggle with nationhood immediately after independence and up till today has produced flashes of genius in science and technology and the engineering profession has benefited. As an example, during the Civil war, story is told of the ingenuity of the Biafrans side that when pushed to the wall, the Engineers built airports, refitted planes, built bunkers and bombs. Such genius under adversity could have been the bedrock of an indigenous engineering enterprise. Just as the United States used the experience of the second world war to become the most powerful nation in science, technology and engineering. Another example is the local content policy in the Oil industry that has seen Nigerian engineers taking on challenges in the oil industry and managing complex engineering projects. Again, this could be the foundation of an indigenous engineering industry in the oil industry that Nigeria has depended on in the past fifty years for its livelihood.

The Disruption that will come
With the onset of the 4th Industrial revolution, the disruption of professional practices is escalating. It is estimated by some that as high as 47% of the jobs we know today may disappear as intelligent machines learn to do things we take for granted. And new professions we have not thought about emerge to compete with the ones that will survive. Let’s look at some of the possibilities
Drivers. Self-Driving cars are at an early stage today. But once perfected, the days of a driver in a vehicle is numbered as cars learn to drive themselves better than humans.

Factory workers: There are already factories in China without factory workers as robots do all the work required to produce goods. Shopping. From self-checkout counters to drone delivery, the shopping experience is already changing. Human contact in shopping may not altogether disappear. But most people who work in shops are at the danger of being replaced by machines

And if you think this is limited to low end professions that require little skills, let’s look at the high-end professions Law. Law is one of the oldest professions and lawyers call themselves learned gentlemen. But artificial intelligence is coming after most of what we know in law. The IBM Watson supercomputer is already offering legal advice better than lawyers. Only time will tell how far it will go but be sure that while lawyers will not altogether disappear, they will share their profession with intelligent(learned) machines Medicine. Robots are already performing complex surgeries. While selfdiagnosis is still dangerous, intelligent machines are allowing people to self-diagnose lots of common ailments. Smart Watches are reading your vitals and sending to the internet. And in future, machines will take those readings and correctly diagnose most ailments better than Doctors. Will Doctors disappear? No. However, the healthcare industry will be reshaped. And the pecking order which sees Doctors at the top may just not survive.

And Engineering? Will engineering disappear? Who will build the machines? Who will build the self-driving cars? And the factory without humans? And the robots that will do the house chores? Who will build the road for the self-driving cars? And the 3D printers that will print human parts?

The Reshaping of Engineering
Through the Industrial Revolutions, Engineering has always reshaped itself. Evolving and creating new fields as Science and technology made new knowledge available for engineers to build new things for the world of the era. Let’s take Computer Engineering. In the 50s, there was possibly only electrical engineering. Then electrical/ electronic engineering. Then Computer Engineering and Science. Today, this branch of engineering has fathered Artificial Intelligence, Cyber security, Robotics, Machine learning. Mechanical Engineering has had the same progression. My son who just finished Mechanical Engineering is today an expert in 3D printing. And Artificial and Cognitive Intelligence. Building systems for predicting the behavior of stocks on the Nigerian stock exchange. He is 21years old. What will this profession be when he is 50years?

In concluding, I will say that the engineering profession will build the 4th Industrial Revolution. As it helped build the other revolutions before it. In doing that, it will also disrupt itself and spurn new fields of engineering some of which we are not aware of today. But to survive in that era, engineers must retool themselves because the profession as we know it is evolving. The old Mechanical engineering is passing away. Replaced by a new Mechanical engineering that is at home with Computer Science. The old electrical engineering has evolved and is today the grandfather of so many engineering professions. Even the relatively young Computer science has become old. With several iterations that are driven by the dizzying pace of change. Ladies and gentlemen. Engineering will survive the 4th Engineering Revolution. In fact, Engineering will build the 4th Engineering Revolution. But the engineering that will emerge from the revolution will be nothing as you know it today.

With New Leadership under Dr. Obiajulu in the saddle, Lagos NIMechE sets Bold Agenda


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