Will engineers be creators or facilitators in the mass customization era?

Futurist Brian Seitz wonders; will the democratization of design fundamentally change the role of engineering?

By Brian Seitz

The engineering profession—like medicine—is in a state of flux. As engineering software becomes more “intelligent,” design democratization become more possible and probable. Does this spell the end of engineering as a profession, a transition to a new model of work, or potentially a redefinition of engineering?

The first deliberately customizable phone was the Nokia 5110. (Image courtesy Nokia)

In years past engineering was considered a highly qualified and respected profession. The profession and the disciplines under that profession (civil, mechanical, electrical, chemical, hydraulic, etc.) came with a calling into a community of practice and a shared code of honor. A new engineering candidate was not simply tutored in academics, the protégé was apprenticed and grown through experience into a master craftsman.

I use the word “craftsman” deliberately in that too many engineering projects today are no longer works of a craftsman engineer. Instead they are spreadsheet optimizations, a corporate expression more than the product of a creative and innovative mind. Perhaps this is the result of outsourcing, global competition, or maybe our culture’s obsession with the bottom line. The values that the engineering community once cherished seem to be wearing away with time; with it customer loyalty has been replaced with consumer preferences and choice. In response many design firms have created their own nightmares of massive product lines, only to have to scale back under the weight of too few customers for each variation.

A recent trend and potential threat to the engineering community is that of “democratization of design” made popular by Eric Von Hippel of MIT. The premise is to develop systems that enable potential customers to design their own products. If we extend this metaphor further in the future, could this mean engineers are to become a thing of the past?

Perhaps the role of the engineer becomes more about facilitation (as architects now) on all but the most independent and high-profile projects. Perhaps mass customization and the new experience economy, where momentary novelty replaces individual style for all but the very few, is our future.

If this is the case, should engineers now prepare to become technical facilitators and develop those soft people skills we are suppose to lack? Or should we look at what we are doing with the current engineering software and realize there is more to good design that just balancing the stress and functional formulas? Creativity and style can just as easily differentiate a mass production design headed for WalMart as it can a premium product. Given the need to solve serious environmental and resource constraints it is my belief we need a return to the craftsman calling (once called systems engineering), but, with the modern tools of today that enable collaboration and management of the vast quantities of information and interconnections that characterize the problems products need to address today.

Brian K Seitz is a management consultant at Satory Global and a senior analyst at Cyon Research, specializing in PLM and business process management. He was an early employee of Microsoft, as Computer Integrated Manufacturing SME, and Enterprise Architect for IBM Consulting Group.