The contributions of engineers touch countless people’s lives every day. Engineering is behind many of the innovations and improvements that have helped shape modern society, from transportation and infrastructure to robotics and the latest smart technology. By identifying and understanding the engineering trends influencing the industry today, engineering leaders can help drive future innovations. Automaton-enhancing advances in technology, the demand for more intuitive products and systems, and the use of digital twins and 3D printing, along with shifting work dynamics that increase collaboration, are among the trends shaping the field. Engineering also has the power to positively impact society on a global scale. The work of engineers is pivotal to addressing major issues related to climate change and sustainability, such as through the development of environmentally friendly materials and methods, and infrastructure improvements that mitigate the impact of severe weather events.
Engineers also play a vital role in advancing health care technology in a variety of ways. Engineering efforts have revolutionized certain aspects of health care through treatment innovations such as 3D-printed organs, as well as remote wearable devices that can monitor a patient’s blood pressure and pulse.
These trends suggest a bright future for the industry, including many career opportunities for engineering professionals in the years to come.
Engineering Industry Trends
New technology and market forces, along with changing workplace practices, have had a significant impact on the direction of engineering. This has led to technical, industrial, and operational innovations. While many variables are at play, a handful of particularly noteworthy engineering industry trends are influencing the field’s current trajectory and are poised to shape its future as well. To have success, engineers — and particularly engineering managers — need to understand them.
Industry 4.0, also known as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, refers to the increasing digitization in manufacturing. This trend encompasses a collection of technologies, including robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), additive manufacturing (or 3D printing), and the Internet of Things (IoT) — sensors embedded in physical objects that collect and share data. These technologies are fueling the push toward greater automation in manufacturing. By leveraging Industry 4.0 technology, engineers can optimize manufacturing processes. They can analyze and interpret data gathered by IoT sensors to improve efficiencies, and they can use AI and robotics to supplement the work of humans. As such, Industry 4.0 technology allows for innovations such as “smart” factories, where robots and drones are used to route parts. Industry 4.0 plays a role in engineering design as well. With advanced data-collection capabilities, engineers can design higher-quality products more efficiently and respond to shifting consumer demands more quickly. It also allows engineers to craft more personalized products, which has been shown to increase brand loyalty.
While traditional manufacturing methods favor mass production over customization, the influence of Industry 4.0 technology makes tailoring products to individual consumers far easier.
Intuitive Products and Systems
Consumers want more out of their products these days, with an emphasis on intuitiveness. Cars that drive and park themselves and voice-operated devices that can control lighting or music are becoming increasingly common. This engineering trend is likely to spread to other products and processes, such as robotics and manufacturing equipment. While these innovations may seem simple to consumers, they present challenges to the engineers tasked with creating systems that can translate human intent into action. Engineers need to find ways to test these complex products and ensure their designs are safe for all use cases.
Engineers have traditionally held personal responsibility for the projects they work on. But as the products and systems they design have grown increasingly complex, engineers have had to pivot to a more collaborative approach. More and more, engineers are working on multidisciplinary teams. Mechanical engineers, for example, will collaborate with electrical and electronics engineers to add embedded capabilities, as well as with manufacturing engineers to optimize product designs. Meanwhile, they will also be working with purchasing and marketing professionals to ensure a product checks all the necessary boxes before it’s released. With teams increasingly working remotely — an existing engineering trend that was accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic — engineers will need to be familiar with collaborative software and other tools that allow them to review the design and production processes in a virtual environment. To help their teams adapt, engineering leaders can offer remote working tips and tricks, as well as schedule more frequent reviews.
How the Newest Engineering Technology Is Changing the Industry
From the invention of the lightbulb to the wireless internet, technology has always been instrumental to innovations in engineering. Engineering professionals rely on the newest engineering technology to fuel their designs, aid in the production and streamline workflows and other processes. In many cases, engineers develop new technology and use those innovations to create even more advanced products and processes. These modifications are continuously built upon to further technological progress. Today’s engineers have access to a host of technological advancements — including artificial intelligence, 3D printing, and digital twins — that make their jobs easier and have the potential to lead to even further innovation.
AI is one of the most impactful modern engineering tools, with numerous applications that can aid in both design and production.
Engineering software employs AI for generative design, an iterative design process in which an engineer enters certain parameters for a part or product — such as size, wind resistance, or strength — and the computer provides options based on those constraints.
AI is also a critical component of many autonomous systems. This includes vehicles and drones that route parts in factories and warehouses (potentially one day replacing conveyor belts), as well as robots that deliver drugs and supplies in health care settings. A variety of clerical tasks, such as auditing change orders and managing bills, can also be accomplished using AI-powered software. In addition, software vendors are developing AI systems that can provide engineers with guidance on materials selection and code compliance. Engineers can employ AI in a wide range of products and systems that respond autonomously to their environment or to verbal commands, allowing these professionals to use their time more efficiently and achieve greater productivity.
Another notable trend in engineering is the use of 3D printing, or additive manufacturing. This technology has multiple functions. 3D printing provides engineers with a new, cost-effective way to manufacture parts for projects, including everything from components for cars and airplanes to the basic structure of “printed” homes. In addition, it’s an efficient way for engineers to test designs and produce models.
3D printing has the potential to revolutionize health care as well. Researchers are studying how to use the technology to create 3D-printed organs. 3D-printing technology could also be paired with what are known as hybrid living materials (HLMs) — which combine biological organisms and materials to form a composite with the properties of both — to create various objects, such as antimicrobial drugs or antibodies.
A digital twin is a digital representation/recreation of a product, process, or system, along with the engineering data that mimics its performance. Digital twins allow engineers and other stakeholders to see what a project will look like and how it will function before it’s built. Employing this technology, engineers can detect potential issues and test solutions prior to production. Digital twins are particularly useful in infrastructure projects, where they can simulate things, such as vehicle traffic, pedestrian patterns, and water flow. Once a project is underway, engineers can also use reality capture technology through drones to create digital renderings to monitor progress and safety without having to inspect everything personally.
What Does the Future of Engineering Look Like?
The field of engineering is primed for growth in a number of areas. Increased automation, consumer demand for more complex and intuitive products and systems, health care innovations, and advancements in robotics and other technology will drive the field forward, creating numerous job opportunities for engineers of all stripes. Engineering expansion will likely occur in the areas of climate change and sustainability, where engineers will be increasingly responsible for coming up with eco-friendly products and practices.
Efforts to curb climate change and improve sustainability figure heavily into the future of engineering. The industry is responding to the climate crisis in several ways, with a focus on reducing its carbon footprint by developing new environmentally friendly materials and processes, as the examples below illustrate:
- Green rooftops and green alleys, paved with permeable concrete made from recycled materials, allow stormwater to soak into the ground.
- Self-healing bio-concrete — concrete with bacteria mixed into it — is activated by water and produces calcite, a component of limestone. This material can fill cracks caused by general wear and tear and weathering and help roads, bridges, and other infrastructures last longer.
- Engineers have developed sidewalks that generate power based on pressure from foot traffic.
Engineers are also instrumental to the development and scaling up of alternative fuel sources, such as solar and wind energy.
Another trend in engineering is the design of more resilient systems that can withstand the impacts of climate change. Severe weather events stemming from climate change increase the risk of flooding and wind damage, which can disrupt utilities and cause breakdowns in the supply chain, an increasingly worrisome phenomenon. Engineers can help develop more durable systems that will still function when major weather events occur or redundant systems that can mitigate the effects of a power failure.
Engineering Employment Outlook
The employment outlook for engineers over the next decade is promising. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects the number of jobs for engineers, in general, to grow by 6% between 2020 and 2030, about as fast as average, and employment for certain engineering professions will likely grow even faster during that time:
- Chemical engineers: 9%
- Civil engineers: 8%
- Electrical and electronics engineers: 7%
- Industrial engineers: 14%
The demand for engineering services in several areas — such as infrastructure improvements, renewable energy, and robotics — will drive much of this job growth. Though the average salary for engineers varies by occupation, the overall salary for all architecture and engineering roles ($83,160) is more than double the average salary for all occupations ($41,950), according to the BLS.
Engineering Jobs of the Future
The industry’s expansion into new fields and the emergence of new technology will also influence the future of the engineering job market. These engineering trends and advancements will potentially give rise to even more jobs, potentially in the following roles:
Robotics engineering is a growing field in the engineering industry. The increasing automation of various tasks, such as clerical duties and manufacturing processes, will necessitate the creation of robots to perform them. Engineers will be tasked with designing robots that can work alongside humans or replace human labor in certain industries.
Water scarcity is an existing global issue that has been exacerbated by the effects of climate change. As the crisis deepens, engineers may have to find more efficient ways to source, treat, recycle, and desalinate water. Additionally, they may be tasked with finding water in places where there isn’t any using a method known as atmospheric water harvesting, which involves extracting water from fog and dew.
The commercial spaceflight industry is just getting off the ground. Space tourism is also growing, increasing the possibility of civilian space travel in the near future. This growing sector will need engineers to help design various systems and equipment, such as rocket boosters and launchers.
Drones already serve a variety of purposes, from taking photos to delivering products. Some companies are also developing drones that will transport people over short distances. Over the next few decades, engineers may help advance the technology even further, leading to greater commercialization and expanding their use.
Living Tissue Builder
As the medical field grows and technology advances, the creation and use of HLMs will become more common. Engineers will be needed to research, design, and print various forms of living-tissue hybrids in 3D for transplants and other medical uses. They may also help generate other 3D objects — such as personalized and antimicrobial drugs — with HLMs.
The Engineering Workplace
As in many other industries, COVID-19 dramatically altered the engineering work environment. According to a survey by Andela, a recruiting agency that helps organizations find remote engineering talent, 74% of engineering teams were fully remote during the pandemic, compared with only 13% prior to COVID-19. This engineering trend will likely continue post-pandemic. Andela’s survey revealed that 66% of engineering teams plan to allow remote work after the pandemic has subsided, and only 22% of engineering leaders indicated a desire to bring their teams back to the office. While technical expertise is fundamental to the field, shifting workplace dynamics have placed an increased emphasis on soft skills, such as emotional intelligence, creativity, collaboration, and innovation. Engineering managers leading remote teams will need to practice cultural sensitivity and find ways to foster collaboration and team building in a virtual environment. Additionally, the flexibility afforded by remote work may result in improved talent attraction and retention.
The Importance of Engineering Leadership
The work of engineers is essential to the functioning of modern society. They contribute to innovations that positively impact people’s day-to-day lives in myriad ways, from smart cars with intuitive braking systems to infrastructure improvements that make travel safer and easier. Engineers also play an important role in addressing vital issues such as climate change and sustainability by designing environmentally friendly products and processes. The demand for more complex and intuitive products, for both individual consumers and businesses, and technological innovations, such as artificial intelligence and 3D printing, along with shifting workplace dynamics, are among the trends shaping the present and future of the industry. Understanding these trends is essential for engineering leaders who want to lead their teams in advancing the field. Earning a graduate degree, such as Ohio University’s online Master of Engineering Management, can help individuals develop the skills they need to become industry leaders and identify the engineering trends that will lead to future innovations. Learn more about how the program can help you pursue your professional goals.