The manner in which civil engineers work and the methods they use to find solutions are shifting towards a design-led digital arena, suggests global engineering and infrastructure advisory company Aurecon digital practice leader Richard Matchett.
“Digital technology and computers have changed the way engineers work, and have enhanced the complexity of the solutions they are able to produce,” he says, adding that, previously, engineers would produce reports and drawings describing a specific engineering solution, which was based on empirical rules and sciences, which, in turn, was based on observed laws of science and repetitive testing.
By contrast, the current medium of digital aids has changed the process in two ways. Firstly, the decision-making process is streamlined through fast data-processing, which allows for empirical knowledge to be applied to natural world scenarios quickly to find the best solution based on defined parameters. Matchett explains that, about a decade ago, the decision-making process was an arduous process that entailed engineers meeting with clients, returning to their offices to plan and design, and then meeting with clients again to discuss the solution. Engineering designs are now manufactured in real time, based on live feedback from end-users.
Moreover, engineers use design-led thinking, coupled with augmented reality and virtual reality, to create immersive experiences that clients can use to see their future structures and solutions before these have been built.
Secondly, engineers are no longer constrained by having to present highly accurate and detailed solutions in low detail, such as two-dimensional drawings.
Matchett explains that, for civil engineering projects, there are engineers who design and engineers who build. Although South African engineers are often adept at using digital tools to improve the design process and enhance their solutions, using technology and digital systems during infrastructure construction is still lagging.
In Australia and North America, for example, civil engineers are using computer-aided robotic controls for construction machines on sites, with human operators on site only for specialised tasks as a safety precaution; however, in South Africa, the construction plants are still predominantly operated by humans, he explains.
Matchett notes that South Africa’s adoption of digital methodologies is also constrained by what software providers have made available to engineering professionals.
Another limiting factor for South Africa and several African countries is Internet connectivity, which is an important component because “many world-class civil engineering projects are set up with a centralised system for engineers, designers and other project members”, highlights Matchett.
Aurecon Africa people leader Dean Naidoo says South Africa needs to ensure that “creative, unconventional” approaches to engineering are embraced in the academic space. “Technology and digitalisation is changing at breakneck speed and to stay relevant, organisations need to keep up and stay ahead by being future ready. Engineers of the future will need to be technically skilled, digitally savvy, creative, future-focused and well-rounded professionals.”
He explains: “The workplace will soon experience the phasing out of ‘baby boomers’, which will be a loss of wisdom, but will also usher in the next wave of engineers.”
Matchett notes that creativity in engineering is already being fostered in academia through design thinking in South African education. “Engineers have traditionally been trained to be analytical thinkers, but educational institutions are increasingly realising that creativity and technical ability need to be combined for innovation.”
He hypothesises that creative and digital shifts will alter the way engineers are trained in the future, owing to the process of capturing engineering decisions and representing them on digital models requiring a different skills set to that of using previous display methods. He indicates that engineering design and engineering modelling will, therefore, work together, with the former being more analytic, the latter more graphic and geometric, and both requiring creativity and artistic ability.
Aurecon is spearheading this, with its commitment to empowering engineers of the future evident in its strong investment in graduates on a global scale.