How research can help tackle engineering challenges

Article by Amanda Jasi

A NEW report lays out the key challenges facing engineers in the next 10–15 years, and makes recommendations as to how the community can address them.

Tomorrow’s Engineering Research Challenges (TERC) follows extensive engagement between the UK’s engineering community and UK funding body Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (ESPRC). The report details a spectrum of challenges at different levels: high-level community priorities, cross-cutting themes, and technological challenges. It makes nine recommendations to address these challenges.

Emma McLeod, Chair of IChemE’s Research and Innovation Community of Practice (CoP), said: “Part of the IChemE Research & Innovation CoP strategy is to influence decision makers and become a trusted advisor. As Chair of this group, it was a great opportunity to be invited to take part in the EPSRC consultation. The report […] gives nine recommendations which align well with IChemE strategy and our priority topics of digitalisation and responsible production. This report will be a great help to the CoP in outlining future activities.

“As the boundaries between engineering disciplines become less clear, chemical engineers will need to think how to take advantage of the funding and collaboration opportunities that EPSRC will hopefully plan following this report. Our diversity in the manufacturing sectors we cover and our link to support science is a strength we can leverage. We need to focus on where we can make a big impact and how this aligns with the cross-cutting themes listed in the report to ensure chemical engineering is included in EPSRC’s plans going forward.”

Technological challenges

TERC highlights the eight most ambitious technological challenges for the next 10–15 years: materials; responsible engineering; global engineering solutions; nature-based engineering; robotics and artificial intelligence; health and wellbeing; transport systems; and space.

For each technological challenge the report presents three questions that the engineering community said need to be addressed to achieve success. The report further explores these questions, looking at how they can be addressed, what is needed to enable research, and potential barriers.

The report recommends development and progression of outcomes against each of the technological challenges. It recognises that some work is in progress and in line with UK Government strategies but adds that thinking needs to be advanced and deepened.

One of the eight technological challenges is materials. The report says materials defined the early stages of human history and continue to play a vital role in developing the modern world. That achieving environmental sustainability requires being socially conscious of the economics and ethics of material choice, and ensuring consideration of low-impact sourcing, embedding end-of-life approaches from the outset, and favouring sustainable alternatives.

One question identified under this challenge is: How should we enable an economically viable transition to responsible, sustainable, renewable, circular materials and technologies?

A number of actions are suggested to address this, including gaining knowledge of existing chemicals and materials within industrial markets to anticipate alternatives in future markets; exploring new material ecosystem models; and understanding existing reuse/remanufacture/recover examples and their economics/engineering.

To enable research, amongst other items, the report states the need to connect to the arts and social sciences to understand and incorporate societal drivers into our thinking from the earliest stage. One of the barriers identified is the disconnect in research methodology, outputs, and timescales across transdisciplinary research.

High-level priorities

The high-level priorities identified represent the overarching requirements to allow the community to address challenges. The report makes six recommendations to target them.

One of the priorities is to re-engineer the engineering discipline. The report says that there is a benefit in combining aspects of science with engineering and expanding boundaries to make it easier for engineers to address challenges ethically, and to continue to reinforce standing as a research superpower. Towards this goal, the report encourages collaboration between professional institutions and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), universities, and education providers to allow engineers to adapt to future needs, seize opportunities to expand their skillsets, and be open to broadening traditional boundaries to future-proof the discipline.

Another priority is to encourage diverse, agile, and impactful skills. To address this, the report recommends collaboration between bodies to ensure a pipeline of people with diverse, agile, and impactful skills at all career stages by continuing professional development; creating more opportunities for early-career researchers to come together to share best practice and influence future research agenda in technological challenge areas; and embracing and prioritising key areas of skills-needs such as sustainability, digital skills, systems thinking, data science, and new emerging technologies such as AI and robotics.

TERC also recommends promoting inclusive engineering outcomes for all with more diverse input via strengthening mechanisms to facilitate and fund multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary research; convening and connecting with the professional engineering community to enhance impact; and inspiring the next generation.

Cross-cutting themes

Challenges identified under cross-cutting themes include achieving net zero and sustainability; faster digital design; greater access and use of data; increasing human resilience; understanding complex systems; harnessing disruptive, emerging technologies; and underpinning tools and techniques.

The report recommends integrating, developing, and progressing outcomes against the themes. It calls on the engineering community to engage with the themes and encourages research and skills funders to support the development of researchers to address the themes and enable development of supportive science, tools, and techniques.

Dame Lynn Gladden, Executive Chair of ESPRC, said: “The new perspectives that have been offered have been refreshing and have truly shaped our thinking in the development of this report. We are committed to working with the engineering community to realise their recommendations.

“Engineering skills are essential to deliver the innovation and new technologies required to deliver social and economic success across the UK.”

David Bogle, President of IChemE, said: “This report aims to ensure the UK retains a world-leading position in academic excellence and thought leadership in engineering. The high-level priorities and cross-cutting themes resonate strongly in chemical engineering including an emphasis on embedding ethical principles and practices. One of the priorities is to connect with the professional engineering community, which I welcome. These are priorities that need collaboration.”

IChemE was among the contributors to the report, which was published following a series of workshops, roundtable meetings, and written contributions. It was created for a variety of audiences, including research funders, universities, professional engineering institutions, Government policy influencers, and researchers.

Article by Amanda Jasi

Staff reporter, The Chemical Engineer

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