The engineering industry requires 265,000 new skilled entrants annually in order to meet demand by 2024, according to the State of Engineering Survey by Engineering UK. Martyn Williams, Managing Director at COPA-DATA UK, examines Britain’s engineering skills shortage and explains how automated engineering can redefine the role of the manufacturing engineer and ultimately bridge the skills gap.
Britain’s engineering industry is experiencing a unique challenge. While the sector is thriving economically, a lack of talent entering the industry is raising concerns about its long term sustainability. But, what is causing this lack of interest from the younger generation?
Salaries for graduate engineers sit well above the national average, with post-graduate qualifications adding a further premium. What is more, there is no gender pay gap across engineering disciplines, which are bolstered by various schemes and initiatives to encourage women to embrace the subject. Clearly, there’s a strong case for pursuing a career in engineering, yet there remains a shortfall of 20,000 engineering graduates each year - and that’s a conservative estimate.
One of the criticisms of the industry is the failure to portray what a career in engineering actually consists of - perhaps due to a lack of understanding in schools. However, it is down to those working in the sector to ensure this perception changes.
Studies to benchmark young people’s awareness about engineering almost always have similar results, stereotyping engineering as an ‘oily rag’ profession plagued with repetitive and menial tasks. For those of us in the sector, we know this isn’t true.
Consider this as an example. Robotics in manufacturing facilities has reduced the need for human operators to manually complete pick-and-place, assembly and inspection tasks. In electronics components manufacturing, for example, a SCARA robot can complete the assembly process faster and more accurately than a human worker, allowing employees to take on more varied tasks.
Looking into the realm of industrial software, the scenario is similar.
COPA-DATA’s zenon, uses automated engineering to enhance employee workflow by supporting the project engineer on monotonous tasks. For example, wizards and tools can be used to automatically create elements for big projects, eliminating the need for repetitive coding and manual configuration. For machine builders, this is particularly advantageous as a way to fulfil demand for customised products.
Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) and machine builders are under pressure to produce products in small amounts. Today, customers want one-off, specialised equipment for their facilities, but manufacturing machinery to meet these unique specifications is a colossal task - at least when completed manually.
Using automated engineering, OEMs can use pre-configured modules, as opposed to using one closed system. The module could describe an individual device, a piece of equipment or an equipment group, that are simply connected using Ethernet. By breaking up and replacing the traditionally rigid structures of automation, these modular applications allow OEMs to be more flexible in production.
Unlike traditional production management, this process reduces complexity and eliminates the need for engineers to repetitively programme machines. As a result, there is a reduced likelihood for errors and faster time-to-market expectations.
Unsurprisingly, there are arguments that suggest increasing automation will reduce the need for human workers entirely. However, as Engineering UK’s study suggests, that is not the case. Instead, employers in the engineering sector anticipate an increasing need for people with higher level skills - those that hold qualities that can’t be replicated by automation.
Put simply, the misconception that engineering jobs are boring, repetitive and uncreative will not be present for much longer. But first, the industry needs to highlight the advantages of automation to the sector - it won’t replace jobs, just make them more interesting.