Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Future of Engineering

Opportunities and Challenges

To think of something new to be created is engineering. To think of new ways to create something is engineering.

To bring into creation what was thought of is engineering. To put into operation what has been created is engineering.

The theme has obviously been prompted by recession, or by the thought of recession. If we open up our minds then we could discover areas where there is no recession. Let us think in this direction.

There is no recession in communication. We are talking only more and more. We know this from the fact that millions of cellphone subscribers are getting added each year. Politicians are talking more; the young generation is talking more! To talk more you need more cellphones. For more cellphones to work, you need more systems. To provide for the same what you need is engineering.

Plastic was once described as the material of the future. Now it is no more a thought but is a reality. Even if I may not personally like plastic, my pen is made out of plastic, my cellphone is made of plastic, many of the parts of my car are made from plastic. Many things in my household are made out of plastic. The use of plastic is not going down. It is only going up. If you see how many exhibitors participated in Plastindia Fair, the number has only gone up. If you ask me how many visitors came to our stand in that fair, the number has only gone up. Wherever there is plastic, there is metal. Whatever is produced in plastic comes out of a mould and the mould is produced in metal. Both require engineering. To design the moulds requires engineering; to produce machines that make the moulds requires engineering; to produce moulding-machines that use the moulds requires engineering; and to pack the moulded products requires engineering. Engineering is everywhere.

Overall, the population of the world is increasing. Only in Europe it is decreasing. The number of young couples eating out is increasing, as the total earning levels in the family are rising. This means greater need for agriculture and for agricultural implements; Tractors; Harvesting Machines; Food-Processing Machines; and Packaging equipment for the food processed. All this requires engineering. Again, this leads to more work for the refrigeration industry for storing the food and for the sheet-metal industry for display-counters and serving systems. It generates more work for the electrical and the electronic-controls industry. This is engineering.

With each passing year more are the people whose health has to be cared for. Just as companies which produce pharmaceuticals never face recession, similarly comfortable are those producing diagnostic equipment, X-ray machines; scanners; etc. Again, for producing more medicines, more processing plants and packaging machines are needed. Packaging is a full-scale industry, developing the packing for each new product and then the machines to produce the same, whether it is bottling, cartoning, or bulk-packing. There is a very large amount of automation here. This requires continuous development. That again means engineering.

The time has come not only to look for but to harness alternate sources of energy. This means devices for the collection and the storage of various forms of energy available in nature: solar energy; wind energy; bio-energy; and others.
There are factories in Italy now generating their own energy from sunlight for running the machines. The excess energy produced, if any, is being sold back by them to the Electricity board. Thousands of megawatts of solar energy available is being abandoned by us daily. Solar energy has become a major subject of engineering.
Sulzon India, famous for wind-energy turbines, has tied up with TERI University to offer an M. Tech program in Renewable Energy Engineering and Management. It should be possible for those who have done graduation from any one branch of engineering to enter new technologies for specializing and for doing Masters.

The human memory is short-lived, and very soon will pass into oblivion the memory of a great achievement by India, the landing of our mooncraft – Chndrayaan – an example of total coordination and perfection. To imagine that you fire a bullet at a target 4 lakh kilometres away, and that it hits a bull’s eye, is beyond imagination. The precision in the thrust, the timing, the speed, and the direction all combined together! I participated in the function held at Delhi for felicitating the Chandrayaan team, and for me it was a thrilling moment to shake hands with them and to take the autographs of Mr. Madhavan – ISRO Chairman, and others.
In about 6 years from now India plans to launch its manned spacecraft. The budget for this project is to the tune of rupees 12000 crores. This should lead to the development of the space-science in India on a greater scale. Even at a lower level, within our own country, the number of aircraft companies operating has gone up, and so has the number of aircrafts flying! It is said that about 800 flights take-off or land at Delhi every day. To operate the system at such levels, you need not only more pilots but also more of the qualified people for the maintenance. This is engineering.

NANOTECHNOLOGY: This is a new direction taken by technology where you handle atoms and molecules, using them sometimes as robots to carry out functions that would have been impossible to do with human hands or traditional robots, like entering the artery and reaching the heart to repair a defective heart-valve. Another aspect of nanotechnology is the development of new materials by rearranging the atoms and the molecules; including materials with memory. For example, dents on a car body could go away simply by heating the surface to a certain temperature. The body-material would revert to its original shape as existing in its memory. New products could emerge, being lighter than plastic though stronger than steel. Carbon nano-tubes are being produced in laboratories for a wide range of applications.

BIOTECHNOLOGY: If nanotechnology could be considered as manipulation of inorganic molecules, biotechnology would mean dealing with the organic ones. This new branch of technology would bring new strains of disease-resistant seeds through genetic manipulation; create the means for conversion of bio-garbage into energy; and develop oil-spill eating bacteria for cleaning the oceans.

Greater would be the need in future for transportation, not only for goods but also for people. More and more people would be travelling than ever before. This requires a continuous endeavour for better and more efficient means. Now we can talk of the automotive sector.
Let us not go back to the already much reviewed topics of cars, jeeps, scooters, and motor-cycles. These subjects are generally known to everybody and could be boring. Let us talk about the future.
The stocks of petroleum-products worldwide are depleting. Using petroleum is like drawing the genie out of Alladin’s Lamp. The only problem is that while it drives the car and obeys us to that extent, it refuses to go back into the ground after it has driven the car. All the more, as pollution, it goes over our head and stays there.
The future will bring to you cars and two-wheelers driven by hydrogen gas. Work is going on around the world on the development of hybrid vehicles. In Italy, in the automobile town of Torino, which is also called Turin, scooters have already been developed using hydrogen gas as a fuel. What gets exhausted is water. Similarly, four-wheelers too have been produced and are presently under trial. It is only a matter of time for all the above to be produced economically and in larger volumes.

Let me inform you that our own India-made battery-operated car, which we Indians are reluctant to use, has won the hearts of the British. It is being promoted by the municipality of London they have exempted it from tax, and from restrictions on zones where other private cars cannot enter. They have also provided all over the city charging stations where the battery of this car can be recharged for free. Development of new batteries is going on to make them more environment-friendly. The Mayor of London himself drives this Indian green car proudly.
The latest is that genetically tweaked viruses will become a part of future batteries, generating positive and negative charge. This means to say that there will be much developmental work carried out in this direction in the future, both for the battery-operated cars and for the batteries; and that means engineering.
The next that we hear is of plastic films replacing the painting of the cars. These films are applied at the stage of moulding of the plastic parts. So, body outer parts would all be plastic, meaning a light-weight, more fuel-efficient car.

With the climate changes that are causing the melting of glaciers, the next decades will see many cities around the world flooded with water. While Venice itself might get submerged, we fear, many other cities around the world would become Venice. This means that there will be shops on the boats, post offices on the boats, police on the boats, and nevertheless thieves also on the boats. In any case it means greater need of powered boats for transportation. This would be another area which will require to be looked into, as one of the important means of transportation. You could call it a water-borne automotive sector.
Those in white-collar jobs pressing the keys of their laptops or of desktops are like the Pandits of olden times. They are full of ideas and they create work or products out of them for the blue-collar colleagues. This means engineering.
Those with the blue-collars are those making use of this information, working in factories or at the production sites. They create projects for their white-collar colleagues either to develop new products, or to solve the problems faced with the existing equipment. What is this if not engineering?

Let us convert difficulties into opportunities and discover new paths and directions.

(Cavalier) Surendra Kumar
B.E. (Mech.) – IIT-Roorkee