This article focuses on the engineering profession that is currently facing an unprecedented array of pressures to change. Economic and environmental problems facing industry and society are increasingly global and intractable. The skills that must be brought to bear on their solution go well beyond the historical scope of engineering practice. The profession is becoming more complex, with the boundaries established in the 19th and 20th centuries between the traditional engineering and science disciplines blurring or disappearing. The pace of technological change continues to accelerate. Technological advances are fueling more technological advances and are providing exciting opportunities as well as challenges to the engineering profession. New knowledge is created at a faster rate than anyone can learn it. A number of disruptive technologies emerging from the biology, nanotechnology, and information fields are likely to cause radical changes in the way products and systems are developed, as well as in the way engineering work are performed.


The engineering profession is currently facing an unprecedented array of pressures to change. Economic and environmental problems facing industry and society are increasingly global and intractable The skills that must be brought to bear on their solution go well beyond the historical scope of engineering practice. The profession is becoming more complex, with the boundaries established in the 19th and 20th centuries between the traditional engineering and science disciplines blurring or disappearing. Several decades ago, it was easy to identify the scope and activities of mechanical, civil, and electrical engineers. Today, that is no longer the case.

Profound scientific understanding, and powerful1 computing, communication, and engineering tools have spawned a revolution in professional practice, as well as in the complexity of engineered systems. For example, take the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner, scheduled for service in 2008. It has a number of novel features, including new lightweight composite materials for the primary structure, large fuselage sections with integrated stringers, and health management processes and technology for improved safety and flexibility. It is designed for reduced maintenance. Computational fluid dynamics helped designers reduce drag, increase fuel economy, and improve environmental performance.

Through electronically enabled connectivity, the crew can get sophisticated technical data in real time, while passengers enjoy in-flight Internet and e-mail access. Boeing is using a "market-driven" approach for the development of the aircraft, a plan that was successfully used for the predecessor aircraft, the 777. The design/build teams are diverse and multi disciplinary, encompassing the engineers and people representing suppliers and customers. The teams, which have partners in many countries, are linked together electronically.

The 787 aircraft, like the 777, is designed entirely by computer simulation. More than 300 trade studies were completed in one year, comparing the relative merits of different design options.

Collaborating engineers in the future will have tools including 3-D autostereoscopic and holographic displays, teleimmersion, sketch interpretation, and robotic wireless hand-held computers.


A researcher may one day use a wearable computer, consisting of an electronic fabric and a flexible display, to communicate wirelessly with a knowledge repository of the Mars Astrobiology Science Lab.

Disruptive Technologies

The pace of technological change continues to accelerate. Technological advances are fueling more technological advances and are providing exciting opportunities as well as challenges to the engineering profession. New knowledge is created at a faster rate than anyone can learn it. A number of disruptive technologies emerging from the biology, nanotechnology, and information fields are likely to cause radical changes in the way products and systems are developed, as well as in the way engineering work is performed.

For instance, biomechatronics is the interdisciplinary study of biology, mechanics, and electronics. It focuses on the development and optimization of mechatronic systems using biological and medical knowledge. Primitive biomechatronic devices, such as the heart pacemaker, have existed for some time.

Current activities in biomechatronics include the development of artificial biohybrid limbs that merge artificial components with human tissue—muscles, skeletal architecture, and the neurological system—and work like fully functioning human appendages. Among the future exciting biomechatronic possibilities are bionically inspired robotics, mentally controlled electronic muscle stimulators for stroke and accident survivors, cameras that can be wired into the brain allowing blind people to see, and microphones that can be wired into the brain enabling deaf people to hear.

Optoelectronics and silicon photonics are promising to advance data processing and communications. Optoelectronics is the intersection of photonics (the technology of transmission, control, and detection of light) and electronics. The major use of optoelectronics is in extremely fast, light-speed data links at all scales, ranging from chip-to-chip interconnects to telecommunications.

Silicon photonics is the use of silicon manufacturing processes to create novel transistor-like devices that can encode data onto a light beam, essentially making lasers out of silicon. The principle was demonstrated by Intel last year and could lead to optical devices of standard silicon , rather than expensive materials requiring complex manufacturing. Then the economies of scale that have been achieved for electronics could apply to the photonics industry. Among the possible applications are faster high-performance computers, a faster Internet, ultra-high-definition displays including 3-D virtual presence, and vision recognition systems.

Digital fabrication, ac tu ally a family of technologies, captures and transmits 3-D models, and builds them into 'physical products. The central technology is the digital fabricator, or fabber, a " factory in a box" that makes things automatically from digital data. It generates solid objects, including models of product designs. It is used by manufacturers for low-volume production and rapid pro to typing.

On the horizon is the next generation—microfabbers. The future may see nanofabbers. The technology may lead to novel kinds of Internet appliances able to download a model and make a product immediately and automatically.

Meanwhile, the globalization of the economy—made possible by advances in technology—has already changed engineering practice. International companies design products for the global marketplace. Enterprises are strategically distributing their design and product creation activities into different regions to remain competitive.

Skills for the Future

The National Academy of Engineering published vision reports in 2004 and 2005 looking ahead to 2020. They described a set of attributes that are expected to be necessary for engineers to perform well.

To have an important decision-making role in society, engineers will need a broad, flexible perspective. They will have to be able to see a big picture: the interrelationships of the technical, business, and social issues relevant to a problem. Engineers also will need strong analytical skills, and the ability to connect basic science to practice, in order to define and solve complex engineering problems.

Communication and teamwork skills will become important components of engineering education. Future engineers will have to work effectively with diverse multidisciplinary teams, some of whose members may come from outside the engineering and science fields.

The rapid pace of change in technology makes life-long learning skills necessary for the professional survival of future engineers.

Change management skills are important in view of the rapid changes in engineering organizations, management practices, products, methodologies, and processes, as well as in workplace environments. Professionals must learn the steps to take to manage the uncertainty of transition, as well as strategies to help the workforce move forward, and remain motivated and productive, after a change.

Future High-Tech Systems

Future space exploration, transportation, and health care systems will be complex systems-of-systems, developed through just-in-time collaborations of globally distributed teams linked seamlessly by an infrastructure of networked devices, tools, facilities, and processes. The system-of-systems approach addresses large-scale integration of multiple heterogeneous distributed systems, which are operationally and managerially independent. The emergent behavior of the system-of-systems cannot be localized to any component system.

Some of the future high-tech products will require a system-of-systems design and management approach. For example, take the intelligent vehicle concept-an initiative launched eight years ago by the U.S. Department of Transportation, and currently being explored by the automotive industry. The overall goal is to provide significant improvements in comfort, safety, energy efficiency, emission controls, and connectivity over today's car.

The vehicle will have a blend of networked embedded intelligence with drive by- wire driver interface; novel vehicle architecture; lightweight materials; multifunctional high-definition displays; speech recognition technology; smart vehicle motion control, communication, and navigation systems; and fuel cells for power.

The drive-by-wire interface is similar to a method that has been used for more than a decade in commercial aircraft. For cars, it refers to removing the mechanical linkage between the controls of a vehicle and the devices that actually do the work. Instead of operating the steering and brakes directly, the controls would send commands to a central computer, which would instruct the vehicle what to do.

The computer can make the steering, suspension, and brakes work together, resulting in better handling, particularly under bad road conditions, and in improved fuel consumption. It could also provide faster reaction to emergencies than a human driver can. The vehicle with drive-by-wire interface can be viewed as "a computer network with a car wrapped round it."

An elaborate sensory system will form the heart of the intelligent vehicle. The sensors measure vehicle movement, monitor its actuators, and collect information about the environment outside. Advanced vehicle safety and collision avoidance systems include systems to warn of hazards ahead, lane departure warning systems, special scanners to locate the positions of passengers and optimize the use of airbags, and external airbags that inflate in the split seconds before a collision with a pedestrian. Automatic distance control can be accomplished by using radar to monitor the traffic situation ahead of the vehicle, thereby ensuring not only an automatically defined safety gap, but also that the stopping distance is shortened.

Electronic systems will be used for regulating all active components, including drive, brakes, steering, and running gear in any given situation. Knowledge-based systems will be used for measuring the driver's biometric data, monitoring the level of his attention while operating the vehicle, and then exerting a positive effect on him, possibly with the help of patterns, colors, music, or fragrances. Vehicle telematics will be used for long-distance transmission of data to and from a vehicle, including on-demand navigation and remote diagnostics. The intelligence built into the vehicle can eliminate the need for certain service work.


An engineer in the not-so-distant future will be able to compare the data of an experiment with the results of a simulation in real time, and will do so on a computer small enough to fit one hand.

Future Virtual Products

The realization of future high-tech systems will require a network of information and knowledge management. Furthermore, with pressure on manufacturers to develop products that satisfy customers' needs, modular product design concepts, currently used in the electronics industry, will be adopted by other high-tech manufacturers. Modular design can permit manufacturers to build precisely what the customer orders.

For modular concepts to be practical, only a few steps should be required at the assembly plant to put together the products built at separate locations. This, in turn, might require changes in the product creation process, including product development, production, and supply.

An efficient product creation process is increasingly viewed as the key to enhancing competitiveness of companies and plants. As the trends of distributed collaboration and large- scale integration of computing resources continue, a fundamental paradigm shift will occur toward virtual product creation. Continuous digitization of product creation is a promising approach that increases the innovation potential, and accelerates the conversion of ideas into marketable products.

for further investigation

Readers interested in pursuing the subjects covered in this article will find directions to more information at

The Web site, created as a companion to Mechanical Engineering magazine's November Feature Focus, contains links to material ranging from book recommendations to an interview with Andy Grove of Intel Corp.

Topics are grouped under four general headings: "Engineering 2020," "Future Virtual Product Creation," "Disruptive Technologies,· and "Future High Tech Systems." There are also links to other online services and features of the Center for Advanced Engineering Environments at Old Dominion University.

Old Dominion University’s Center for Advanced Engineering Environments, funded by NASA, is working with partner universities and technology providers to develop prototypes of technologies that engineers may use in the future. The prototypes incorporate knowledge based engineering tools and intelligent software agents (software entities that perform tasks and achieve defined goals), with human-like avatars acting as virtual assistants or peers, to automate all the routine tasks. Several user interfaces are provided in the prototypes, including natural language, hand and face gestures, and mobile hand-held devices.

Prototype technologies being developed include an intelligent visual simulation facility for the conceptual design of future aerospace vehicles; an immersive virtual space exploration facility; and an integrated facility for information retrieval, visualization, customization, and summarization.

The visual simulation facility is used to permit real-time configuration selection, evaluation of different concepts and "what-if" studies—integrating and automating design, rapid analysis, and optimization processes. Product models can be modified in real time.

The virtual space exploration facility is intended for studying different scenarios for future human-robotic missions, and analyzing the architectures needed for those missions.

The information retrieval facility aims at providing customized information quickly, efficiently, and effortlessly, regardless of the physical location. It integrates different kinds of in formation from disparate sources for better understanding and analysis. It has a variety of visual representation tools, and an intelligent system for providing answers to specific questions in an intuitive manner.

The prototypes will be important elements for three key components envisioned for the future virtual product creation environment. The first key component is a virtual product hub, a virtual network linking all the participants in the product life cycle, and providing for secure access, sharing, and management of product information.

It would allow pervasive use of both product life-cycle simulation software tools and life-cycle management systems to track and control all product-related information over the con1.plete life cycle of an asset.

Modeling, simulation, visualization, and optimization tools are viewed as network services, supporting collaboration among globally distributed, diverse teams.

The life-cycle simulation tools predict, with a high degree of certainty, the performance of the product. The advanced design-of-experiments tools help to understand failures that may occur. The simulation and design-of-experiments tools also reduce reliance on tests of physical prototypes. They can improve product performance, quality, and safety while reducing warranty risk and cost.

The hub includes a knowledge repository containing integrated product databases, a lessons-learned database, and an artificial intelligence-supported context search, to enable concise and relevant searches of legacy information from disparate sources.

Several advanced interfaces are provided for supporting intuitive, flexible, efficient , and powerfully expressive interaction with the hub, far beyond using a keyboard and mouse. These include voice with digital lip reader to enhance the accuracy of recognition, hand, or head gestures (for example, head nodding and shaking), touch, sketch, mobile hand-held devices, and their possible combinations. The user can choose the modality, or channel of communication, to suit the specifics of the task.

The hub also incorporates reasoning engines with facilities for recognizing related and unrelated product data, and for dealing with a dynamic environment, where product information is rapidly changing.

An intelligent integrated networked design environment is connected with the hub. It incorporates flexible dynamic information devices; 3-D multi-user displays; sketch interpretation tools; advanced interfaces, and telepresence facilities, which enable the team members to appear as collocated and to communicate gestures with verbal exchanges, along with the information and visuals during collaboration. The environment incorporates a range of knowledge management tools and other leading-edge technologies to facilitate simultaneous collaborative design.

Through the use of knowledge-based engineering tools and intelligent software agents, all non creative tasks are automated. Informed trade studies and design decisions are enabled early in the design cycle, and experience gained from previous products is exploited, through the use of the decision support tools and the knowledge repository of the hub.

There is also a prototype set of tools for managing complexities and uncertainties. Various tools handle complex physics data, varying degrees of model fidelity needed in the various stages of product design, performance evaluation of the product, process automation, risk analysis, and optimization.


Intelligent agents will be available to help information-seekers negotiate knowledge repositories on the World Wide Web. Future devices will be smaller, faster, and smarter than today's.

The High-Tech Future

The engineering profession is in the midst of a substantial worldwide transformation. The next decades will reverse the trend followed in the 19th and 20th centuries of disintegrating the profession into specific disciplines. Instead, the years ahead will be times of integration, as the various disciplines of engineering and science converge.

High-tech enterprises and academic institutions are at the crossroads. Successful enterprises will exploit the opportunities provided by today's emerging technologies and others yet to be discovered. They will better align themselves with the realities of the agile and flexible engineering processes, and be more resourceful in the use of new product creation tools to enhance innovation and reduce development time and manufacturing costs.

Academic institutions need to better align the engineering curricula, and the nature of academic experiences, with the challenges and opportunities that engineering graduates will face in the future market-driven, competitive environment. Schools must work jointly with government, industry, technology providers, and professional societies to develop an infrastructure for facilitating rapid informal and lifelong learning, as well as innovative approaches of multi disciplinary engineering education that reflect the new business world and address the needs of society