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Friday 12 September 2008

Why is Engineering not taught by Professional Engineers ?

I was asked to give a keynote speech earlier this week at the International Manufacturing Conference 2008, DIT.

I was perhaps (deliberately :-)) a little controversial and I had to wear my flame suit when responding to the Q&A afterwards, not least because sone of the audience were academics in Irish engineering schools, but not professional engineers!

If you have any views on this topic, please do post a comment.



I speak to you today as the current Senior Vice President of Engineers Ireland, the professional body for engineers in this country. I will have the honour next year of serving my year as President.

I am an electronics engineer, graduating from a four year undergraduate programme in 1978. My first three years were spent in general engineering topics, and I chose to specialize in electronics only in my final year. So, I put my credentials in front of you ladies and gentlemen, and admit that I only have a hazy recollection of my lectures and tutorials in thermodynamics, fluid mechanics, applied mathematics, instrumentation and control, and so on....

So, in coming to you today I thought I ought to prepare myself by browsing the internet and trying to understand what are the current issues, opportunities and challenges facing you in the Manufacturing and Mechanical Engineering professions today. Googling, I found myself reading current and back issues of magazines not only of our own Engineers Journal, but also of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers, and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

Forgive me, but I was initially a little taken aback! I read a number of viewpoints which suggested that the West is losing manufacturing competencies and capacity to the emerging economies of the East, and in particular of China. If I were a potential student of manufacturing engineering, I might think that the future held little hope for me unless I emigrated to Guangdong, Zhejiang, Hebei or somewhere else in China!! Now personally, I really enjoy visiting that country and have done so regularly for some years – indeed I was the founding Chairman of the Ireland China Association back in 2001 – and frankly, if I were a younger professional starting my career I would seriously think of emigrating there. But I’m not convinced that many Leaving Certificate students would necessarily agree with me, and still less their parents. But some of your colleagues in your discipline seem to be strongly suggesting that there is no career future in manufacturing engineering unless one moves East.

It got worse. I came across another article, suggesting perhaps that we are seeing the imminent demise of mechanical engineering. In the good old days, a manufacturing plant was driven off a central power shaft spanning the longitudinal axis of the factory, with various gears and belts driving machinery at each station. In the good old days, cars, trucks and locomotives had central powertrains, gearboxes and hydraulic fluids controlling the power and torque from the power plant to the wheels. But nowadays, the electrical and electronic engineers are apparently winning and, using high power semiconductor gates, large amounts of electrical power can be delivered and minutely controlled, with extreme precision, in ways that can only make mechanical engineers drool! Most modern aircraft, including in particular the entire Airbus family, use fly by wire rather than fly by mechanical linkage. All new cars soon may not have drive shafts and gears boxes: the power will be delivered using cables via all electric drive chains, with microprocessors making sense of it all:: Your garage mechanic will need to become a garage electrician!

But then, I was relieved to find counter-points of view, observing how both manufacturing and mechanical engineering are evolving. Composite materials are driving new applications, not least in the biomedical domain for prosthetics. Manufacturing engineering has evolved into systems integration and product integration, harnessing a diverse set of emerging, disruptive technologies to yield innovative and exciting products. Scales are continuing to shrink, and minimization of both mass and energy are a common objective. Smart, intelligent materials with their own embedded controllers are not uncommon. Kinematicians lead efforts in unraveling protein folding, essential to genomics, proteomics and DNA scaffolding. Thermal engineering is becoming more and more critical: I am aware of the truly excellent work being done by Jeff Punch and his team in the University of Limerick in this regard, in particular in the domain of thermal stabilization of photonic lasers for telecommunications applications, in the context of my chairmanship of the CTVR national project in telecommunications.

In fact, as reputedly one wag stated: it’s no longer about “M”anufacturing engineering. It’s no longer about “M”echanical engineering. The “M” denotes something else: today it is about Multi-disciplinary engineering.

I fervently support this view. In my own career with computers and software, my industry not only changes its technologies, but also rapidly changes its perspective as new applications appear. A professional engineer today, regardless of his or her background, must have a multi-disciplinary philosophy. That has two complementary aspects: the intra-engineering and external. Multi-discipline, in the intra-engineering sense, implies an understanding and training across multiple engineering specializations, understanding the application of mathematical and scientific results to civil, mechanical, electrical, electronic, software, manufacturing engineering, and so on. By the external multi-disciplinary aspect, I mean the ability to discuss articulately with line of business managers, product marketing, corporate marketing, corporate lawyers, human resource professionals, and of course financial analysts.

But today, forgive me, in this country, I wonder have our colleagues in our engineering academies – both universities and institutes of technology – lost the plot ? One of their concerns I guess – and I speak as a past university lecturer – is the usually desperate quest to achieve recognition by their peer academics in other departments across the rest of the organisation. As an engineering department struggles to achieve recognition, and of course financial resources, amongst perhaps stronger groups in the pure sciences, the medics, the department of law, the business studies department, all of the various departments of humanities and so on, there is a natural tendency to play the game: “publish or perish”. And in publishing, and researching, more and more esoteric niched topics are addressed, in which one may have a reasonable chance of obtaining international recognition as an accomplished researcher but in what may be a very narrow field indeed.

However a consequence of this may be a tendency to over-specialise undergraduate courses. In a national market in Ireland, where there are few enough Leaving Certificate students obtaining honours standards in mathematics – which of course is the usual standard for entrance into courses leading to professional engineering accreditation – does it really make sense to have proliferation of undergraduate courses ? Let me give you some idea, from the list of undergraduate courses nationwide which are accredited by Engineers Ireland as giving a foundation to become a Member of our organization: Chemical and Process Engineering; Electronic Engineering; Electrical Engineering; Microelectronic Engineering; Mechanical Engineering; Materials Engineering; Process Engineering; Process and Chemical Engineering; Structural Engineering; Civil Engineering; Environmental Engineering; Civil, Structural and Environment Engineering; Manufacturing Engineering; Production Engineering; Computer-Aided and Manufacturing Engineering; Industrial Engineering and Information Systems; Aeronautical Engineering; Digital Media Engineering; Information and Communication Engineering; Manufacturing Engineering with Business Studies; Mechatronic Engineering; Medical Mechanical Engineering; Biosystems Engineering; Computer Engineering; Building Services Engineering; Agricultural and Food Engineering. I know that all the academics involved in offering this wonderful diversity are sincere in their disciplines, but isn’t it time we stood back and asked ourselves is there a better way to help students select Engineering as a profession ? And ensure that they have a very solid, multi-disciplinary approach to Engineering as a profession ? And leave at least some of the specialization, when and as necessary, to their continued professional development during their career ?

Let me change tack, and give you another concern which I have. If one of my family ever were to pursue a career in surgery, I and they would expect to learn from practicing surgeons. If I were ever to take lessons to become an aircraft pilot, I would like lessons from a qualified professional pilot. In my business career, whenever requiring professional legal or financial advice, I have sought the necessary qualified professional individuals.

And so, if any of my family pursue an Engineering career – and one of my sons is studying Engineering – I would expect, and they expect, to be taught by professionals. Professional Engineers.

In preparing today’s talk, I browsed the web sites of the Irish universities and institutes offering those courses I alluded to above, and examined the credentials of the academics of the various engineering departments concerned – at least, as published on their web sites. It was very very interesting, and I encourage you to try the exercise yourself.

For example: one department: six full time academic staff, only one of them – the head of Department – listed C.Eng. as amongst his accomplishments. Another: four academics, no C.Eng listed. Another: twenty academics, one Fellow, four C.Engs. And so on.

Now there are many PhDs. And a few Professors. But why so few Chartered Engineers (or Fellows) ? I suspect that perhaps the various web pages aren’t always accurate, and C.Eng qualifications aren’t always listed. However, that in turn is indicative: why would an Engineering academic not be much more proud of the fact that he or she was a Chartered Engineer, or Fellow, and advertise that fact, ahead of being a Dr. or Professor ??...

In the medical profession, a simple Mr, Ms or Mrs as a title commands great respect: the individual in question is likely to be a highly qualified surgeon or consultant, rather than a simple General Practitioner Doctor, or an esoteric academic Professor. A highly qualified practitioner gains respect. Why are our own Engineering academics not as proud of practical professional experiences ? Why is it acceptable to have a non Chartered Engineer teaching professional engineering ? Should it be acceptable ? Why do engineering departments not insist on a C.Eng. recruitment policy, and why do they not demand that their younger staff achieve C.Eng. status as rapidly as possible, if necessary ahead of achieving professorial status ? Why do our engineering students not question – no, demand – that the majority of their teaching comes from professional engineers ?

Ladies and Gentlemen, let me remind you or advise you if you have not already heard, that Engineers Ireland has taken the decision that from 2013 in Ireland, it will be necessary to have achieved a Masters level of education, over five years, in order to become a Chartered Engineer, from the current position where a four year accredited undergraduate degree is sufficient. While thus bringing us into line with many of our international colleagues, the change is also an opportunity for us to consider the structure staffing, and directions of our academic engineering programmes.

Thank you for your time this morning, and my opportunity to address you. Let me leave you with a summary: if we are going to attract more people to a wonderful and exciting career in professional engineering, then we ourselves must become even more professional in our education. We need to stress a multi-disciplinary approach, re-visit our thinking about premature specialization, and ensure that as many of our instructors as possible have professional engineering qualifications.


John Evans said...

I've re-read this post several times, most recently following it's publication in the Engineers Journal. Each time it resonates more and more.

I can't help feeling that the distance that academics place between themselves and practioners reflects, at some level, the wider lack of confidence that the engineering profession has in itself.

I think your comparision with the Medical profession is a uesful one, if one that has been made many times before when people reflect on the status of engineers in society.

Another example of this I believe is the formation of the Irish Academy of Engineering. For the life of me, as a Chartered Engineer, I cannot understand what purpose this body serves that could not be at least fulfilled (if not bettered) by a society within Engineers Ireland. Why and "academy" is needed as distinct from the "institution" is absolutely beyond me. My suspision is that it reflects a view that practioner engineering somehow taints academic engineering, when in fact the direct opposite applies.


chris horn said...

Thanks John,

The Academy, as I understand it, elects its members and (somehow :-)) I was honoured to be elected to it a couple of years ago.

Personally, in my ignorance, I do not fully understand the history and context about how the Academy came to be, and the motivation for having it separated from the Institution.

Your comment has prompted me to find out though, and I agree there appears to be a disconnect from practitioners and academic analysis.

Many thanks John for your insightful comment!