It is important that engineers should attempt to articulate a future vision of technological trends – particularly in the energy, transport and communications sectors, which are so critical to society, writes Paul MacDonald

The prediction of future trends in engineering and technology is a challenging task. However, engineers should nonetheless attempt to articulate a future vision of technological trends – particularly in the energy, transport and communications sectors which are so critical to society.

The key trends that will influence engineering to 2070 are global urbanisation and the fourth industrial revolution. Urbanisation trends will result in a doubling in size of the urban population from 3.5 billion persons today to seven billion persons by 2070, according to the UN World Urbanisation Prospects Report 2011. The demand for higher living standards, particularly in the emerging states, will result in a doubling of energy use in the coming decades, a 50 per cent increase in transportation needs and tight water supply, with 75 per cent of the global population experiencing water shortages.

The environmental impact of increased carbon-dioxide emissions and pollution in urban areas will also create climate-change pressures. Engineers will have to play a key leadership role in terms of formulating technical solutions for cities that are sustainable in social and environmental terms.

The second key trend is the fourth industrial revolution, which encompasses a range of intelligent and integrated technologies in the energy and transportation sectors, where energy use can be optimised across different sectors. In the industrial sector, the concept of ‘virtual production’ will be key for modelling production in advance for ‘zero defect’ outcomes.

Past industrial revolutions

In considering future trends that will influence engineering, it is important to remember that these revolutionary changes have all happened before. The first industrial revolution emerged with the invention of the steam engine in the late-18th century, which led to the economic development of the North Atlantic region.

Fourth industrial revolution

CLICK TO ENLARGE: The Industrial Revolutions -copyright DFKI 2011

The second industrial revolution encompassed developments in the electrical, chemical and motor-vehicle engineering sectors at the end of the 19th century. These new technologies facilitated the exponential growth of cities such as New York, with steel production enabling long-span bridge and skyscraper construction to facilitate urban connectivity.

Mass transportation and the reciprocal growth of outer suburban areas was facilitated by mass production of motor vehicles and petro-chemical developments, while electrical power systems revolutionised energy supply to domestic and industrial settings. The leadership provided by Henry T. Ford in mass production, and the Carnegie family, the owners of the steel plants in Pittsburgh was key to implementing the new technologies which revolutionised urban development, production and transportation.

The 1950s saw the emergence of the third industrial revolution, with developments in the electronic and aerospace sectors. These were accompanied by a new shift from mass labour production to specialised labour, when over 50 per cent of American workers became ‘white collar’ semi-professional workers. Again, the political leadership of civic councils in the ‘sunbelt states’ of the US was key to implementing these new technologies of the third industrial revolution.

Since the 1960s, the technological advantages enjoyed by the North Atlantic region have eroded with the rise of the Asian economies, which have penetrated into the electronics, transportation and heavy-industry sectors. However, the decline in the economic status of the western states may also be explained by a decline in the status of the engineering and technology sectors relative to new service areas such as the media and financial-services sectors.

The future enhancement of science and technology in western societies will be key to reversing this economic power shift, particularly given the opportunities that will arise from mass urbanisation and the new fourth industrial revolution in the coming decades.

Masdar City urban model

The challenge associated with the design and construction of urban areas for the extra 3.5 billion residents in cities will create an onus on engineers to deliver innovative technical solutions in the energy supply, transport and communications sector in order to ensure a high quality of life in the congested cities of tomorrow.

fourth industrial revolution

Automatic solar powered cars in Masdar City

One of the pioneering urban solutions being developed by engineers and planners is Masdar city in Abu Dhabi, United Arad Emirates. Masdar City is a solar powered, high-density urban area with solar-powered automatic cars for transportation needs within the urban zone. Water is recycled in the Masdar City, thus reducing water-supply needs by two thirds. The city also incorporates courtyard wind-towers, which provide an external cooled environment to enhance the quality of life.

Masdar City will cost $22 billion and will be home to 30,000 residents when finally completed in 2025. The high costs associated with this prototype project will be reduced through economies of scale and new technological developments in the area of sustainable energy and transport technology.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and US presidential candidate Hilary Clinton have both visited Masdar City, which is indicative of the opportunities political leaders see in terms of utilising Masdar’s technology and creating business development in the sustainable technology sector. Alongside political leaders, engineers must play a more visible leadership role regarding the urbanisation challenge, in terms of researching these new technologies and communicating their benefits to the general public.

For city regions such as the north-east region of the US, which continues to grow, new transport technologies such as the Amtrak High Speed Rail project will play a key role in facilitating high quality transport into cities such as New York. The proposed reduction in rail journey time between Boston and Washington D.C from eight hours to three hours and 15 minutes is indicative of how the Amtrak High Speed Rail will facilitate a transport modal shift away from air transport to rail transport for journeys in the 400-600 kilometre range.

The quality of urban infrastructure in cities such as New York will be key to attracting today’s globally mobile professionals. The new Bank of America building in New York is a key engineering project in this regard. With its floor-to-ceiling windows, it creates a high quality working environment for workers through enhanced light and air quality. The building also incorporates grey water recycling and an efficient onsite energy plant to enhance its sustainability.

The key point is that engineers have an opportunity to provide leadership in the area of sustainable urban development in partnership with others. However, this will require engineers to take on a greater public relations role to communicate the benefits of these sustainable technologies.

Fourth industrial revolution

The second key trend of the ‘fourth industrial revolution’ is, in many ways, an evolution of the infrastructure and industrial production trends of the second industrial revolution 100 years ago and the partial automation technologies of the third industrial revolution 50 years ago.

This new technology revolution will encompass a shift away from fossil-fuel energy production to sustainable energy systems in advanced states. The energy, transport and industrial domains could be linked in terms of shared energy use, thus enabling optimisation – particularly given the fluctuations associated with sustainable energy supply from solar and wind sources.

fourth industrial revolution

Traffic congestion in New Delhi

In the transportation sector, Europe’s motorways will include green electric charge-stations along the entire European motorway system, which will mean a continuation of private vehicle use, but in a more sustainable manner through the use of electric cars. The introduction of automatic cars to increase traffic-flow efficiency and reduce accidents will create challenges in terms of the social perception of automatic technologies. Engineers will again have a key role to play in informing the public about the benefits of such automatic transport technologies.

In the industrial production sector, self intelligent or digital factories will be enabled through total integrated automation, where digital control of production will be realised. These factories can adapt production to changing product requirements based on real-time market data trends, with all production being modelled in advance for total efficiency.

The key challenges for this sector will be:
• The creation of ‘rule frameworks’ for production optimisation based on the cost, quality and environmental parameters;
• The development of ‘languages’ to facilitate machine to machine or product to machine communications; and
• Dynamic architecture systems to enable rapid reconfiguration of production for changing supply or market conditions.

Germany is a leader in the digital factory sector and derives the labour, energy and supply efficiencies associated with this revolutionary production technology.

Information communications technology revolution

The truly revolutionary aspect of the fourth industrial revolution is the information communications technology sector. The chair of Hewlett Packard, Meg Whitman, has predicted that there will be thirty billion devices connected to the internet by 2020, with large markets such as Brazil, India and China contributing to growth in the computer device sector.

fourth industrial revolution

The Digital Factory – copyright Siemens 2016

The volume of data doubles every two years, which is driving remote data-processing in data centres, also known as ‘cloud computing’. The use of virtualisation technology, where hardware computer servers in data centres are reconfigured with software to become ‘software defined servers’, enables the complex mass of changing data on computers to be processed as efficiently as possible.

The future trends in computers will see a shift towards software-based data centres, where software replaces the network and storage hardware systems. Data analytics will enable computers to determine business and other trends to advise workers of beneficial courses of action, while cyber security will become predictive.

The digital technology sector, like the steam engine or electrical-engineering technologies of previous industrial revolutions, will be deployed across all domains of society – including the energy supply, transport and industrial production sectors – to enable greater efficiencies to be gained. This is particularly relevant to sustainable energy technologies, as urban development makes the existing model of fossil-fuel energy supply and transport system unsustainable over the longer term for global society.

In conclusion, the future trends of global urbanisation and the fourth industrial revolution will influence how energy supply, transport and production engineering systems are designed and deployed with a new emphasis on resource sustainability and delivering a high quality of life in congested urban areas.

This revolution will require leadership from engineers to articulate a future vision of technology in society. In looking forward, the capacity of engineers to articulate a historical perspective of the previous urbanisation and industrialisation trends will be important in reminding the public that today’s standard of living resulted from the previous industrial revolutions, and the future trends are just the latest evolutions in a technology process that started over 200 years ago. O'RiordanCivildigital,energy,Hewlett-Packard,industry,infrastructure,technology
The prediction of future trends in engineering and technology is a challenging task. However, engineers should nonetheless attempt to articulate a future vision of technological trends – particularly in the energy, transport and communications sectors which are so critical to society. The key trends that will influence engineering to 2070...