– Dr. D. Srikanth Rao is director of the Manipal Institute of Technology
The global Covid-19 pandemic which has taken a toll of more than 1.79 million lives worldwide and has shutdown academia for over eight months, has confronted every domain of engineering with unprecedented challenges. Academics and corporates the world over are exploring how these challenges will impact traditional jobs in the new age of digital transaction, Internet of things, artificial intelligence, augmented and virtual reality and cloud data storage.
Simultaneously, e-commerce corporations and platforms such as Amazon, Flipkart, MakeMyTrip, Uber, Swiggy have precipitated a services revolution by directly connecting producers and service providers with end-users. These new age corporations are continuously innovating processes to reduce the time gap between order and delivery, and delivering the right product to the right customer at the right time. For engineers, a plethora of new challenges and opportunities have arisen out of these new business models.
With profit margins being squeezed, manufacturers can no longer afford high inventory and storage costs. Therefore, they are relying on engineers to develop machines augmented with wireless connectivity and sensors, connected to systems that can visualise the entire production process and make decisions on their own. Automobile showrooms are going virtual. Consequently, instead of holding huge inventories, factories can initiate production as soon as a customer places an online order.
These are the manufacturing processes being increasingly demanded. Moreover in additive manufacturing and construction, 3-D printing is becoming pervasive. Recently, a Hyderabad-based startup named Skyroot Aerospace won the 2020 Startup Award, for designing launch vehicles with fully 3D printed upper stage liquid engines, which slashed manufacturing cost by 40 percent.
Although currently these breakthroughs in digital technologies are happening in developed OECD countries, and ominously in neighbouring China, India is also heading for unprecedented change in the next ten-20 years, especially in infrastructure development. With assets value diminishing in importance, the country is transforming from an assets creation to a knowledge-development economy. With assembled and 3-D printed buildings, architects innovating construction designs are challenging civil engineers. Moreover, digital programmes are radically transforming the civil engineer’s vocation. Soon he/she will be able to monitor the progress of construction projects without leaving office and multiply the number of project contracts.
In the medical sector as well, engineers are likely to outnumber doctors as technology is developed for wearable devices, artificial intelligence and machine learning, and AR & VR technologies become ubiquitous. Likewise, self-driven cars, 5G and 6G technology, fibre to home to OTT platforms are set to generate massive demand for electronics, media, animation and data science engineers.
Even the neglected agriculture sector is being rapidly modernised with machines replacing humans for soil analysis, crop monitoring, optimising water and fertilizer usage and weather forecasts, market prediction, cold storage and for connecting farmers directly with consumers through tech interventions. Young graduates with specialisation in biomedical, biotechnology, instrumentation, electronics, data science and chemical engineering are likely to find new opportunities in agriculture and allied activities.
In the defence sector as well, career opportunities for engineering graduates are multiplying. Drones are predominant in areas such as battlefields, emergency drugs supply, human and goods transport, food supply etc. Through its Udan programme, the Union government is developing several dozen new airports which will require qualified engineers to manage them. Ditto with India emerging as an outer space power and regularly launching micro and nano satellites, manned missions to the moon, Mars and other planets, the demand for engineers is certain to surge.
Huge opportunities are also opening up in the e-commerce and online shopping sector — perishable to non-perishable, medicine to electronics goods — for engineers. With customers switching to online shopping in a big way, job opportunities in printing, packaging, drones, robots, data science, eco-friendly packaging, conductive ink and connected electronics technology to inform customers about expiry dates and speedy home delivery, are multiplying.
The popular perception is that national demand for engineering and technology graduates is waning. The media routinely reports that engineering colleges are shutting down and the number of unemployed engineers is rising. Yet the on-the-ground reality is quite the opposite. For competent engineers with strong foundations in theory and practice, best days are yet to come.