Dear Colleagues

Thanks for all your feedback – I respond to every note within a few days.

The First Industrial Revolution
As wet-nosed kids at school, we all clearly remember hearing about the first industrial revolution in Britain during the 1800’s. Tasks done in a cottage industry basis such as weaving were brought together in large cotton mills in a ghastly factory setting. Similarly, with smelting iron ore – all converted into industrial factories with rigid rules of operation and filthy conditions. And we recall the coal mines with thousands labouring in dangerous conditions working long hours (with horrible stories of child labor).

And the Second Industrial Revolution
Occurred when Henry Ford implemented the assembly line and the concept of mass production to certain quality levels. He created the mass produced car (‘car-buyers can have any color they want, as long as it is black’).

And now for the Third and Final one
As you would guess – this is the digital industrial revolution. It will change everything from business to our personal lives. And create unprecedented opportunities for engineering professionals – especially those with a slight entrepreneurial and adventurous streak.

I know some of you will be puzzled by my mention of the “Final Industrial Revolution” but I think the “industrial” connotation is becoming less and less relevant with software / leisure / entertainment driving a paradigm shift based on clever software; automation; robotics; the internet & web and industrial communications; new materials (e.g. carbon fiber replacing steel) and new processes (such as 3-d printing and nano technology).

It will be the age of customisation – in some respects, we will be moving from the factory to the weavers’ cottages approach with considerably more customisation for small groups of consumers of our products. One-to-one marketing will be the way of promoting our products.

Thanks to the collaborative Internet, products can be developed on a computer network between engineering types located all over the world, with parts similarly created at far flung locations (including parts printed out on a 3-d printer) and delivered in a customised format to customers located anywhere.

There will be a need for a huge array of highly skilled professionals to conceptualise and bring the products to fruition. Grimy machines operated by men in oily overalls paid low wages in some third world country will be replaced by quiet offices manned by knowledgeable professionals with high rates of productivity. Direct labor costs (as in someone making and assembling the item) will form an increasingly smaller part of the overall cost of this customised product.

The boundaries between manufacturing and services will become increasingly blurred (e.g. Rolls Royce sells operational hours of its gas turbines rather than a chunk of equipment).

Finally, you won’t require millions of dollars of capital to create a new product but can do this extraordinarily cheaply and probably in a collaborative venture with partners all participating in the design and commercial risk.

Great Opportunities for you - NOW
This third industrial revolution is happening today. And the opportunities for you as an engineering professional are increasing dramatically if you can seize the opportunities here. You probably already know of a product / service which you can sell to the world. What is it?

Thanks to the Economist for an interesting set of articles on this topic over the past year.

Some feedback from previous commentary of mine:

Some nice commentary correcting me (thanks v.much, Stephen Anderson):

However, I must point out an error (I am probably not the first) in your most recent musing: “Why aren’t engineering professionals more Ambitious?”
Velcro was in fact invented by a Swiss electrical engineer, George de Mestral, in the late 40’s rather than a NASA spinoff (refer for example Wikipedia). The inspiration for his “invention” came from his curiosity and investigation of why seeds stuck to his clothing and his dog’s fur during a hunting trip. It took him 10 years to mimic nature and perfect his invention.

I think engineers, more than other mortals, have an insatiable desire to understand and mimic nature – maybe another topic for your column!

As far as looking to the future; great advice is from Hyman Rickover: Good ideas are not adopted automatically. They must be driven into practice with courageous patience.

Yours in engineering learning