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The Expanding Role of the Modern Engineer

At first glance, it would seem like skills and knowledge required of engineers hasn’t changed that much over the years. Yet, it’s easy to see that product development has evolved. Many non-engineering stakeholders need to get involved. Design decisions are far more democratic when taking company-wide considerations into account. The contrast between the two prompts a serious question:

Do today’s engineers need to evolve in terms of skills and knowledge?

To answer that question, we need a little context. A good place to start is to look at the traditional culture of engineering.

The Traditional Engineering Culture of Individual Accountability

An engineer’s prime responsibility has traditionally been to design products for the three Fs: form, fit and function. But that wasn’t a responsibility without consequences. It carried personal accountability. Engineers placed their signature on drawings to signify their personal approval of a design. If products failed, drawing signatures identified responsible engineers so they could justify their decisions. In summary, more so than any other group, engineering has had a strong culture of accountability.

Mechatronics Complexity and the Fade of the One True Expert

One thing that has undermined engineering’s accountability culture has been the increase of electrical hardware and software in traditional mechanical products, even down to its lowest levels. Few engineers have the deep expertise in mechanical, electrical and software disciplines necessary to make design decisions autonomously. Instead, lead engineers work with specialized engineers to look at design alternatives and their associated impacts, but also head an effort to collaborate and build consensus. The result is a groupthink approach instead of placing responsibility and accountability on any one engineer.

Designing for the Enterprise

Something else undermining engineering’s accountability culture is the consideration of company-wide factors, not just form, fit and function, during design. A product’s commercial viability must be verified. Parts must be purchased at competitive prices. A product’s manufacturability must be validated. Service procedures must be certified.

To take such company-wide factors into account, engineers must collaborate with many non-engineering stakeholders to collectively make decisions. Engineers must communicate their design intent and provide access to product information so others can get involved. Non-engineering stakeholders must be able to assess and validate their options, choices and procedures independently. Then, the engineer must assimilate the feedback and drive consensus amongst the team.

The Profile of the Modern Engineer

In this trend, there has been a shift from individual accountability in engineering to more of a collaborative effort amongst specialized engineers. Furthermore, the consideration of company-wide factors requires engineers to enable and lead teams of non-engineering stakeholders.

Today’s engineers have new responsibilities. They must act with implicit authority, meaning that the engineer isn’t given explicit command over other non-engineering stakeholders, to solve product issues and make the best decisions. As a result, their role requires substantial soft skills, including social traits, graces, skills and habits that effectively influence others.

The Challenge of Collaborative Design

  • Engineers need to be able to facilitate collaboration and drive consensus amongst teams of specialized engineers and non-engineering stakeholders. Engineering leaders must modernize the soft skills of their engineers to facilitate collaborative design.
  • The old form, fit and function responsibilities of the engineer hasn’t gone away. The new responsibilities are in addition to them. Engineering leaders must maintain their engineers’ existing technical skills while improving their soft skills.