Technology has advanced tremendously in the last few years and is only going to continue to compound. If you’ve ever heard of Moore’s Law, this is the idea that technology’s complexity doubles every year. Just imagine what that means for the next few years.
But those who keep up to date with new technological advancements will be rewarded with new tools to experiment, play, and, of course, earn more clients and revenue.
One industry which has experienced a major tech boom is engineering and construction. The ‘Digital Engineering’ revolution is offering new opportunities to those willing to adopt new technologies and upskill.
With a long history of battling the sea with innovation in hydraulic engineering, the Netherlands has naturally fostered a growing number of engineering and construction corporates, agencies, startups, and scaleups who are now taking the lead in the digital engineering space.
To find out more about how digital engineering is transforming the industry at all levels, we spoke with two Dutch engineering companies: Arcadis a global design, engineering, and management consulting company established in 1888 and VIKTOR, a relatively new Dutch scaleup and recent cohort of Techleap’s Rise Program that’s making digital upskilling and tools more accessible for engineers across the board.
Advantages of digital engineering
First and foremost, what does digital engineering actually mean?
For Matthew Marson, Global Market Sector Lead at sustainable design and engineering company Arcadis, who’s been working in the industry for many years, it’s more of a general movement towards emerging tech:
It’s a bit of a catch all term because I don’t think we quite have the words or the shorthand yet to really give it a proper meaning. It can be anything that ranges from playing with the form of a building to create new, fun, and daring shapes with parametric modeling to the way we interact with a space or even the way a space speaks back to us in the form of smart buildings or the Internet of Things. It could even be about predicting future performance by using a digital twin to test small changes — without having to change anything in the physical world.
Digital engineering involves professionals using 3D models, digital twins, data analytics, and other advanced technologies to bring their designs to life. Previously, engineers were using pencils and sketchbooks to design projects.
By moving to digital, we’re not only making it easier for designs to be shared, but most risks are virtually eliminated (no pun intended). Digital engineering allows professionals to test their designs before acting on them, finding structural issues before a project has even been built.
This will be essential in the move towards more sustainable projects as it enables engineers to account for changing variables like weather conditions.
As Marson explained, one of the biggest problems that we already face today is solar gain. While large glass facades that display spectacular views are popular (think the Eye Museum or the Sydney Opera House), on a clear day the sun can easily turn such a building into a greenhouse on the inside. To regulate the temperature, these buildings then need to crank up the AC, fueling ever growing energy consumption.
But new technologies like 3D modeling, Digital twins, and HVAC analytics allows engineers to easily run simulations taking into account weather, building orientation, and the ratio of glass to other materials.
You want to balance having those gorgeous views, while not allowing the sun to overheat the building. By running all those different sets of options, you can find the optimum between the orientation of the building and the amount of glass (and therefore access to the view), and then calculate energy consumption based on the reduced solar gain.
The average commercial building uses about 160 kilowatt hours of energy per meter squared. Whereas, with the very best in class design today we can achieve around 110. If you’ve got any chance operating at net zero carbon, you need to get that down to around 55 kilowatt hours.
In addition to overcoming possible failures and little flexibility, engineers can push the limits of their design, something that has never been able to be done safely. Modern design AND safety can be prioritized while mitigating any risks. One example Marson shared was utilizing 3D printing to build a footbridge.
If you send a robot to 3D print a design, then it’s very unlikely that a person’s going to be hurt in the process. It also means that we’re able to make shapes or perhaps use materials that we might not have before. When you’re doing something that’s 3D printed, you’ve got the opportunity to be so much more intricate in what you do. Often some of the best structures that you get are from a part of architecture called biomimicry, which effectively copies the shapes that you see in the natural world. A 3D printer lets you create those shapes that a person probably couldn’t craft. The enhanced precision also means we can use less materials, making each project more sustainable.
In addition, clients are able to see a design before its built, creating better satisfaction in customers. No more starting a project only to have an unhappy client who wants to change things around. This saves both time and money.
“The tools have given us the ability to look at how a design is going to work in advance and do the maths across complicated shapes. If I tried to do that in Excel, it’d probably take me forever and make my brain explode. It’s augmented us with a whole range of superpowers to do new cool stuff,” Marson told TNW.
The upskilling dilemma
The more you know about technology, the better. There are no limits to the skills you can learn to apply in this ever-changing industry. More and more engineers are becoming versed in augmented and virtual reality, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and drone technology. But perhaps that’s exactly the problem.
There are SO many new technologies out there and engineers are often finding themselves in a position where they want to upskill, but they don’t know where to start. Marson suggests:
Start with an understanding of low or no code tools. There are all sorts of tools out there that will do the heavy lifting for you, you just need to learn how to tell it what you want it to do, or the steps that it has to go through. In that vein, I would say learn the basics of what I call web tech, which is the fundamental building blocks like basic HTML and learning how APIs work.
Digital engineers are expected to both have traditional engineering skills as well as software development skills. It’s impossible to take advantage of these advancements without understanding the inner workings of algorithms that power these technologies. Those that don’t step up to learn now will just continue to fall more behind. With technology, it’s always better to stay ahead of the curve rather than behind it.
Building a solid foundation and understanding of coding concepts like algorithms, arrays, and lists will help you adapt to any language you need to learn to take your career to the next step. These concepts are at the core of anything you’ll learn in technology. They aren’t disappearing anytime soon.
VIKTOR, a low-code web development platform for the engineering and construction industry, believes that, in a sea of technologies and programming languages, learning Python could be the most valuable skill in adapting to the shift towards digital engineering. With their platform, Python savvy engineers can develop a wide range of applications using parametric design, digital twins, engineering automation, GIS, and product configurations.
As a recent cohort of Techleap’s Rise Program for fast-growing scaleups, their easy-to-use tool is convincing more engineers to learn the popular coding language.
Could Python be the key skill for future digital engineers?
Python is quickly growing to be the most popular coding language. It’s relatively easy to learn, very readable, and platform-independent. As a data engineer, it was the first language I chose to teach myself. And, honestly, it’s the only one I’ve really had to learn. Everything is written in Python nowadays.
Wouter Riedijk and Peter Madlener, founders of VIKTOR, believe it’s a very good language to learn because it supports object-oriented programming.
This allows you to break down your software into small problems (objects) that you then can solve, one object at a time. It’s like building something from smaller components. This is similar to how an engineer looks at physical objects that have to be designed, built and maintained.
Python is a natural transition from thinking like an engineer to thinking like a software engineer.
VIKTOR utilizes Python in its web development app to define logic that easily integrates with industry-leading software. Python is also used extensively in areas like robotics, AI, and machine learning, technologies revolutionizing digital engineering. According to Forbes, it saw a growth of 456%, making it the most popular programming language in the world.
Why is Python so popular in these areas? It has a vast number of libraries like Pandas, Scikit-learn, and TensorFlow that save developer’s time and make all of these areas easier. Python allows massive amounts of data to be processed and iterated, one of the reasons it is so popular with AI and ML.
The language is also great for those without advanced software development degrees because it allows complex problems to be solved with fewer lines of codes. One of the reasons it’s so popular is because it can be used by beginners or scaled up to be utilized by the most advanced programmers. It’s a language all professionals can grow with as they expand their coding skill set.
Riedijk and Madlener say:
If an engineer already has the basic knowledge to use Python, they can also build their own web applications for automation and optimization.
They recommend starting a project and building something of your own to learn the language. Here are some of the specific resources they recommend:
- Codecademy: https://www.codecademy.com/learn/learn-python
- Coding Bootcamps: https://www.coding-bootcamps.com/
- DataCamp: https://www.datacamp.com/
- Dataquest: https://www.dataquest.io/ (for Python for data science)
- HackInScience: https://www.hackinscience.org/ (free and open-source platform)
- High School Technology Services: https://www.myhsts.org/ (for general Python)
Digital engineering is the future of the construction industry. Adapting and leaning into technology will help give you a competitive advantage. You will be able to save time and money, create better relationships with your clients, and test the possibilities of advanced design and safety. It’s pretty clear that those who aren’t adapting to the ever-changing technology will be left behind.
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