Careers after Corona: Will a degree in mechanical engineering be obsolete in 2030?

We asked this question to A M Ayyappadas and Dr V Jayakumar, two faculty members of Amrita School of Engineering. Here's what they said
Will a degree in mechanical engineering make sense? (Pic: Edexlive)
Will a degree in mechanical engineering make sense? (Pic: Edexlive)

How different will a post-pandemic world look like? The courses and jobs that define the world will probably be different. But to answer that question, especially about mechanical engineering, we caught up with A M Ayyappadas and Dr V Jayakumar, Associate Professors from Amrita School of Engineering, Chennai. Excerpts:

How big will be the role of a mechanical engineer be in rebuilding a world post-COVID?
AMA: In order to rebuild the world, we need to deal with moving systems. It's an area in which mechanical engineers are the best-trained lot. Now, if one were to step a little back and observe for a moment what has been happening even during this crisis, we would find that major industrial groups like Mahindra & Mahindra had announced even in March that they are going to venture into the production of ventilators along with public sector companies. This is unprecedented. So when you talk about the post-pandemic scenario, an ideal case would be that we continue at least some level of such initiatives and a broader spectrum of economic activities.

VJ: This pandemic will only be a temporary setback. We have to bounce back eventually. Now, take a look at any industry around you, it is difficult for all of them to function without mechanical engineers. So, their role will be huge in rebuilding a post-COVID world.

Industries these days are slowly moving to work from home. Now, this isn't something that we were otherwise used to. But is it possible for mechanical engineers too to do this?
AMA: The answer would be yes and no. There are aspects of engineering which can be done from home. As a surprise to many people, we do quite a bit of coding and programming. We do quite a bit of work with regular stuff like dealing with data in Excel and creating documents. Such aspects of work which are part and parcel of all technical work nowadays can be done from home. But production units are where the actual action happens.

VJ: We must admit that mechanical engineers have never worked from home before because that was not even considered that possibility. But due to COVID, the entire paradigm has been shifting. The new normal has forced everyone, including mechanical engineers, to figure out how to be effective and outdo impactful engineering work from home. See, we mechanical engineers also work using computers, you know, there are domains like design where they do product design using the software. Prototyping and 3D printing are being attempted remotely from home wherever portability is a possibility. We can access in-office CAD workstations remotely via desktop applications.

A lot of mechanical engineering firms around the world are arranging for production stops and staff reductions. So how exactly is it going to affect the scenario in India?
AMA: In the wake of the pandemic, the production units have stopped functioning. It is quite obvious that whenever something affects the world economy, it affects all of its major units. Mechanical engineers cannot be an exception to this rule. Now having said that that does not mean the this for revival will be too difficult for us. For instance, right now, you can get masala dosa, by signing in to a website. But who is going to make it for you? We are yet to invent robots who can do that. That analogy works equally well for engineering. You need products to revive a functional economy and these do not appear out of the blue. This lockdown is not the permanent feature of the economy.

VJ: We have to really maintain a watch to estimate the industry shrinkage. It is difficult to predict right now the scale of Industries shrinkage. Certainly, the world order has changed due to COVID-19. The pandemic has brought about a clear reliability crisis for the Chinese government already. There is a very strong negative sentiment against China. Reports suggest that a lot of companies are increasingly looking forward to moving their manufacturing base out of China and in this context many experts believe that India is well-positioned to take over that position. So this is expected to happen. As someone rightly said, never let a crisis go to waste. Perhaps this could be the much-awaited turning point for the Indian economy in general and the manufacturing sector in particular. If this happens, it should result in too many thousands of core engineering jobs.

So in that scenario in the future, what skills should a student of mechanical engineering equip themselves with to easily bag a job?
AMA: I'm not really in favor of giving such easy shortcut advisors first and foremost. I would say that competency in engineering skills cannot be overemphasized. Nothing can replace it. Every other skill one acquires is a bonus. They'd also need knowledge in terms of various mechanisms and thermodynamic aspects of analytical thinking ability. There is a need to do approximation, we have to often make back-of-the-envelope calculations and formulate a solution. These are more engineering skills. We need to provide hands-on training for students. In the future, jobs will become more data-driven. Mechanical engineers also need to know the data generated by the processes. So that would be one additional skin that will go a long way in giving a certain kind of job security for the students. Industries are looking for smart people who are very flexible.

VJ: We are in the era of knowledge explosion. It is predicted that engineering knowledge doubling is happening every one to two years in some field. It is still low in medical engineering, however. Let me also share a quick snapshot of current stats on skill demands.  Almost 65 percent of students today will work in a job that has not been invented yet. Almost 50 per cent of the current jobs will be replaced. If not completely, definitely partially. At least one-third of their activities will be done by automated machines. Almost 80 per cent of skills trained for in the last 50 years can now be outperformed by machines. So with this background what skill set one can advocate? The most important skills any student should have in order to survive and to thrive in any challenging scenario are self-learning and lifelong learning. Right now, I suggest that all mechanical engineering students pick up software or languages. They should have basic coding skills, so it is advisable to study something like C++ or Python. Also, they can pick up on design software like AutoCAD or SolidWorks.

Do you think that in the near future we will see robots replacing mechanical engineers in our factories and industries?
AMA: As soon as quantum teleportation becomes commercialised, you can expect that. There won't be any more mechanical engineers. We will only see robots. That would be quite an interesting sci-fi scenario. Although, yesterday's sci-fi is today's reality. So I wouldn't completely rule out that as a possibility, but that's such a dystopian possibility. On a more serious note, no and robot is as likely to replace the range of duties that a qualified and competent mechanical engineer is supposed to perform.

VJ: It is true that disruptive Technologies such as robots, automation, Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning will have a huge impact on our lives. But it is a myth that robotics and automation will take away our jobs. In fact, jobs that will be automated or pertaining to all engineering and non-engineering sectors. That's what mechanical engineers do. In fact, these challenges will create a rise in demand for new and varied roles.

Will a degree in mechanical engineering make sense in 2030?
AMA: If we were to live in a matrix by 2030, wherein AI has surpassed the best of human intelligence, the degree will be obsolete. There is no guarantee to that exchange, but the contrary is more likely to be true. There is a reason why I say so. Today if you look at the real scenario, a Mechanical Engineer also needs to open up their laptops and work on a program and enter data into an Excel sheet or a project planner or do the analysis of a CAD model. This has become an essential part of our bread and butter. So these jobs are not all automatable with the current technology. I'm not saying it's absolutely impossible to automate but not with the current technology. So the routine part of our job will involve inspection and basic troubleshooting. Some jobs are easily automatable and it's very likely they these jobs will be taken over by robots and we will be very happy about it. I mean if anything that makes our job as a job a lot less tiresome in the future, we will be happy.

VJ: Mechanical engineering defines engineering, It is a classic stream and there will always be a demand for classics. In the backdrop of India's potential to be a replacement to China will make our country a major manufacturing hub of the world. With emerging technology, there will be a lot of jobs. Mechanical engineering will be there to stay for a long time.

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