Four engineering industry trends to watch

Are you ready for these technologies to change the way you work?

By Neil Churman, 7 Mile Advisors, Houston September 24, 2019

As with many industries, technology presents increasing opportunities for the engineering sector. While digital transformation is not a new phenomenon, several trends have come to the forefront recently as ones expected to continue driving change across industry firms. Drones, cloud computing, robotics and 3D printing are technologies that engineering firms are increasingly embracing to help streamline operations and run more efficient processes. 

DronesUse of unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly known as drones, has been rapidly gaining traction in the construction and engineering industries. Minimizing risk, disruption and man hours, while still providing highquality imagery and detailed information, presents an attractive opportunity for engineering firms. Outfitting drones with a variety of equipment and sensors allows for deployment in the service of a diverse set of goals — think LIDAR in the surveying process, developing topographic or hydrographic maps or aerial monitoring for project management purposes.  

As a recent report by Accenture outlines, incorporating drones should revolve around reinventing business processes rather than trying to force their integration into existing operations. Furthermore, firms must recognize drones represent a tool and the actual value to an engineering firm comes from the data produced, which can be analyzed and transformed into actionable information.  

Cloud computingCloud computing presents a transformative opportunity for engineering firms. Being able to harness advanced computing capabilities remotely means firms no longer have to rely on powerful in-house machines for computer-aided design or detailed simulations. This could present an advantage for smaller firms who no longer have to be limited on engagements by the amount of computing power readily available.  

For firms of any size, cloud storage can lessen the investment needed to store and manage large data sets, such as the output of LIDAR surveys undertaken via drones. Additionally, having plans and files in the cloud makes them readily shareable so that parties can work and collaborate in real time. With accessibility via mobile technology and the cloud, engineers can make changes in the field or on the jobsite. This eliminates the need to be the office to log changes, as well as the lag in notifying other stakeholders of updates. 

Robotics and robotic process automation: The less complex tasks of an engineering engagement represent opportunities to apply robotic process automation, a software tool that enables computers to automatically perform repetitive functions. These tasks could encompass some project-related functions, as well as back office processes. Additionally, as physical robotics gain traction in the construction industry itself, there is an argument that robot-centric construction can allow for later-stage changes by engineers and other design professionals without as much of a chance of incurring construction delays and cost overruns linked to the gap between the design and implementation phases. One could imagine an iterative improvement cycle wherein robotics applied to both the engineering and construction processes creates synergies that build upon one another throughout the design and build process. 

3D printing: The applications of 3D printing to engineering are becoming more tangible as companies source parts of the built environment via 3D printing. A 3D printed pedestrian bridge of microreinforced concrete was opened in late 2017 in Spain, and Dutch company MX3D is 3D printing a stainless steel bridge to span a canal as part of its proof-of-concept for its method of 3D printing most weldable alloys. While these may seem modest projects, large players in the engineering industry are taking notice of the promise of 3D printing. Ramboll Group, a Danish engineering and consultancy firm, noted how 3D modeling helps bridge the gap between the spatial thinking of architects and the engineers who make the design a reality. The ability to print directly from digital design files familiar to workers in the engineering industry, such as those produced using Autodesk and Bentley software, creates a streamlined process that has benefits both during a pitch process and once work is won. 

As the pace of digital transformation continues to build, the implications for the engineering industry grow in lockstep. Successfully incorporating technological change will continue to be a differentiator among firms. Whether to realize back office efficiencies, perform projects with greater precision or produce better outcomes on the jobsite, the trends outlined above can be gamechangers for the engineering firms that recognize the potential of using technology to the industry’s advantage. 

Author Bio: Neil Churman is a director at 7 Mile Advisors, where he leads the firm’s practice in advising architecture, engineering and construction industry firms on strategy, mergers and acquisitions and raising capital.