May 18, 2024

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Why programming is key to engineering communication

4 min read

Programming is not just useful for computer scientists and electrical engineers (Stock image credit: © This is Engineering)
Programming is not just useful for computer scientists and electrical engineers (Stock image credit: © This is Engineering)

The global challenges of tomorrow will be solved by engineers – but what skills will they need to tackle them?

We’re answering that question with Future Skills week. Running until Friday, the online series of daily articles will explore the techniques, approaches and mindsets that engineers should adopt to stay ahead in the field. Look out for four expert case studies from people who are already putting these vital skills into practice, such as Murat Islam at John Crane (below). 

Here’s why programming is important for mechanical engineering students – even if they won’t be doing it after graduating. 

In the past decade, the need for computer programming skills has been emphasised across all STEM sectors, and engineering is no exception. The axiom “coding is the new literacy” has made its way into news headlines and professional development guides in many industries. Although the phrase might be something of an exaggeration, universities are beginning to integrate coding into their engineering curricula. The goal, explains Dr Hongwei Zhang, deputy head of the Department of Engineering and Mathematics at Sheffield Hallam University, is not to create a workforce of computer scientists, but to allow engineers to communicate more effectively with tech-focused colleagues. 

“We are planning to introduce more automated systems in the second and third year of our mechanical engineering course,” he says. “So students will be doing programming that is necessary for the application of Industry 4.0. They may not need to do the programming themselves when they have entered into the workforce after graduation, but they need to understand how programming is done so they can talk to computer scientists and electrical engineers to get something automated.” 

Strategy lacking

Despite considerable hype surrounding the so-called fourth Industrial Revolution, some studies have shown that industry has taken an ad-hoc approach to the adoption of related technologies. A Deloitte survey of 2,000 executives published last January found that two-thirds of respondents had no formal Industry 4.0 strategy. Sectors such as manufacturing, which have been hit hard by economic downturns, are reluctant to pay high costs to digitalise their operations. However, avoidance of capital expenditure is only likely to be one part of the explanation for late adoption. 

In 2018, Zhang co-authored a white paper on Brexit and UK manufacturing alongside the consultancy SSG Insight, which found that most manufacturers expected to increase their use of artificial intelligence (AI) and automation following the country’s departure from the EU. While they were eager to embrace new technologies, Zhang observed that some firms were perhaps less enthusiastic about investing in people. “Companies are keen to invest in digital technology – in hardware and equipment,” he observes. “But they’re selective in their intent to upskill their employees.”

Digital skills the key

The independent Made Smarter review of industrial digitalisation, published in 2017, predicted that within 20 years 90% of all jobs will require digital skills. The industry-led report concluded that a lack of skills was the greatest barrier to the adoption of industrial digital technology. Embedding programming and other technical skills into the education sector will undoubtedly be important, but ultimately it’s only part of the solution. “Companies can recruit university graduates with digital and IT skills, but they should also be reskilling existing employees,” Zhang emphasises. 

Case study: Murat Islam, John Crane

Murat Islam

With the fourth Industrial Revolution demanding ever-smarter technologies, mechanical engineer Murat Islam believes that programming and simulation skills are now essential for professionals entering the sector. In his role in the power transmission couplings department at John Crane’s Trafford Park facility, Islam performs 3D modelling, advanced simulations and hands-on testing and validation. 

“I believe Industry 4.0 is a mindset and it must be included in university curricula,” he says. “Basic programming skills are a must-have at this day and age. Engineers will need programming skills for advanced document automation, design optimisation, automated modelling and product simulation. In 3D printing they will have to work with various software codes to be able to generate and optimise print files.”

According to Islam, the most commonly-used programming languages in his field are Python and Microsoft’s Visual Basic for Applications, as well as the Java software. “Most industrial software will be based on these programming languages, and students must learn the basics for at least one or two of them. Advanced technologies will always require someone with good programming skills behind them,” he says.

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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

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