The fourth industrial revolution is upon us. Artificial intelligence (AI) and automation have emerged as pivotal factors in the digital disruption that many industries are undergoing and are increasingly common in workplaces as technology improves and data becomes more easily available.
With AI tackling ever more complex tasks and automation removing more and more of the repeatable tasks people are concerned about what it means for job security. The previous three industrial revolutions have all raised concerns about job losses but they have never materialised – will the fourth one be different?
Areas such as engineering have always been considered safe from this kind of replacement due to the emphasis on human-focused areas such as design, anticipating challenges and quality control. As AI and automation begin to integrate into these areas, should engineers feel worried about the future of their industry? Read below to learn more.
Artificial intelligence, automation and engineering
Engineering has always been powered by technology, with new technological advances creating new possibilities for projects and creations. Developments in AI and automation, even now, are clearly providing benefits for the engineering industry as they support engineers and generate labour hours by unlocking projects previously out of reach.
At Mott MacDonald, we’re always looking to adapt to the changing needs of the engineering industry. We’re implementing AI, automation and machine learning into our processes - we call it Augmented Delivery. We use machines to do what they do best, to carry out repetitive tasks faster and more consistently. This liberates our engineers to do what they do best – complex challenges, innovation and human interaction. This focus on the balance between humans and machines allows our engineers to integrate earlier into more meaningful, specialist roles, adding to their overall expertise and job satisfaction.
Read on below for case studies on the role of artificial intelligence and automation from our leading engineering discipline:
Artificial intelligence and automation in civil engineering
From roads to buildings, civil engineering as a discipline creates solutions that cater to the behaviours and actions of huge quantities of people. Big data is used by civil engineers to simulate and analyse how people and environments act on a larger scale. This is when programming, machine learning and/or artificial intelligence processes billions of data points which cannot be handled by traditional data processing methods - and thus are beyond human understanding - and translate them into actionable insights.
In civil engineering there’s a range of ways that you may encounter this – through computer-aided tools that embed big data insights into individual processes, real-time data flows that present complex information in easily understandable ways or common data environments (CDE) that bring designs, assets and cross-disciplinary expertise onto a single digital platform.
Whether it’s bringing everyone onto the same page, making a deeper level of understanding accessible to decision-makers, or integrating cross-disciplinary engineering expertise directly into digital tools, these different facets of artificial intelligence and automation are digitally streamlining different engineering processes and increasing the viability and resilience of civil engineering projects.
Here are examples of how these forms of artificial intelligence and automation are making a difference for us at Mott MacDonald:
Thames Tideway Tunnel CDE
One major sewer expansion project involved 300 staff from 12 different technical disciplines across a range of locations – that meant an efficient means of sharing information would be essential.
We created an industry-leading CDE that combined product information, BIM, CAD and project controls as well as big data onto a single platform. This greater level of communication and understanding between different people resulted in 350 drawings being avoided across the project. We were able to deliver a six-month reduction in design delivery time that contributed towards the construction programme finishing two years ahead of schedule.
SwimSafe in New Zealand
We’re helping over 350,000 swimmers in New Zealand enjoy beautiful beaches without worrying about getting sick from wastewater pollution through the power of real-time data.
By bringing 1bn data points of information such as final effluent quality, weather data, tidal movements together through our smart infrastructure platform, we can understand the water quality of 84 different beaches around Auckland. This data is available to the public in real-time through the SafeSwim web platform and is helping policymakers to identify regular at-risk zones for infrastructure investment.
Moata Route Optimiser
At Mott MacDonald, we’re creating automation tools like the Moata Route Optimiser that can assess millions of pipeline route options within hours.
With data such as topographical maps, inter-disciplinary engineering rules and real construction costs embedded within the software, the route optimiser automates the simulation of different route options and their associated costs to leave engineers with only the best options to consider. Not only does this identify the most cost and waste-effective options, but once approved, the simulated route design is available within a couple of clicks for engineers to refine within the latest 3D modelling software.
Will digital disruption lead to engineers being replaced?
We are some way off the kind of artificial intelligence that could eliminate the need for engineers themselves from the processes of designing and delivering the key infrastructure of the world’s populations. Due to the complexity and diversity of engineering roles, automation and artificial intelligence will never conceivably within our lifetimes fully replace engineers, as experience and human judgment are critical to the success of the projects we undertake.
Rather than threaten jobs, we can see that AI and automation act in ways humans cannot to stimulate and safeguard labour hours. Whether it’s identifying previously undiscovered opportunities or predicting challenges that might threaten existing projects, being able to learn from these huge pools of data only benefits the stability and success of projects and the careers of the engineers who contribute to them.
At Mott MacDonald, we’re always engaged with how AI and automation can eliminate menial tasks or solving complex engineering problems in a data-driven way, which positively impact the jobs of engineers on a day to day level. This allows engineers to apply their talents to more specialist functions in ways that benefit themselves and what they create.