Engineering companies are facing a new world - discover the key challenges that skilled engineering managers can help them overcome.
This post is by Dr Angeliki Papasava, Programme Director for the University of Hull's online MSc in Engineering Management.
The post-pandemic world has taught us that managers need to be prepared to deal with the unexpected. The organisations that were able to create opportunities out of the pandemic not only managed to survive but they became stronger and thrived.
Today's engineering challenges
In the engineering profession, there are so many different challenges that engineering managers have to face today. The classic issues of the past, including dealing with versatile multinational teams, organising subcontractors, dealing with quality and safety, setting strategic goals and objectives and ensuring profitable operations, still exist and in the post-pandemic world they became even more challenging.
For example, due to travel restrictions engineering managers who lead projects abroad have to manage their teams remotely. For other professions this may be easily feasible but for engineers working in industries such as construction, oil and gas or civil engineering it is a very difficult task.
Issues such as time management, subcontractor work and supervision have to take place remotely and engineering managers have to become inventive and to think outside the box.
Remote working can only occur if the activities meet that specific requirement. As a project manager working on a live site there is only so much that can be done remotely. Yes, there are design houses and engineering houses that allow for ‘off-site’ activity, however the daily ‘on-site’ activities have to continue.
Getting multinational workforces motivated on a site when they are not able to travel to see their families due to international travel restrictions is a huge challenge. Trying to bring back key personal that have gone for vacation and have been stuck in a country that has restricted travel has also been an issue (Bromyard, 2021).
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As a response to the pandemic, many engineering companies decided to reduce their costs. PwC’s latest COVID-19 CFO Pulse Survey found that 81% of CFOs considered cost reductions in response to the crisis, and 60% responded they were planning to defer or cancel investments, particularly in areas such as operations, capex, facilities and workforce (PwC, 2021).
How could engineering managers continue to run profitable operations without investing in growth?
Supply chain disruption
Another example of post pandemic management challenges that engineering managers face includes the management of procurement and supply chain. Engineering managers must deal with significant shortages of materials and delays due to the supply chain disruption.
Manufacturers stopped working, plants closed down, shipping companies are unable to handle the demand. Engineering managers have to ensure that their departments are able to effectively operate even when there were shortages in production due to the lack of raw materials.
According to Bromyard, (2021) bringing in long lead items that have been ordered months in advance is a new challenge, as many overseas plants had to close for months on end due to local government restrictions. This all puts a strain on the project roll out and the original baseline, which then has to be shifted to accommodate the delays.
One of the most important challenges that engineering managers face today is the creation of a low carbon future. Although confinement measures took place in April and carbon emissions decreased by 17% globally there is still a long way to go.
The UK is committed to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, creating an enormous systems challenge for engineering managers. The infrastructure system needs to be transformed from transport to energy and new technologies need to be developed.
COVID-19 has helped engineering companies achieve radical transformations in a very short period of time, assisting engineering managers to understand that everything is possible (NewScientist, 2020).
The importance of training and development
On the other hand, many engineering companies were prepared to face the above issues. The Mechanical Engineering Magazine performed a survey which resulted in nearly 500 responses from a variety of engineers. They were told by many that they had already been prepared to work remotely for some time.
When quarantine measures went into effect where they lived and worked, it was relatively easy to make the transition (Persun, 2020). The use of advanced technology, software tools and remote meeting applications became a part of the engineering manager’s daily life.
Training and development is crucial so that engineering managers can get up to speed with such tools. Continuous learning was essential before the pandemic, it is crucial today.
The next generation
Academia is facing a constant challenge when training the next generation of engineering managers as industrial technology is changing fast.
The Industry 4.0 initiative is formulating new trends in applied technologies worldwide, resulting in the need for constantly adapting educational programmes. The socioeconomic changes caused by the pandemic challenged both the industry and the society in general.
Higher education needs to take into account these challenges, especially when dealing with Industry 4.0. The pandemic could become an opportunity to deal with the challenges of training and developing engineers and managers to make the most out of a virtual work model that has risen out of necessity and is here to stay (Benis, Amador Nelke & Winokur, 2021).
Looking to the future
Engineering companies will face a new world when the pandemic ends. Portfolios will change with both private and public sector owners placing more emphasis on resilience and sustainability. The marketplace will also change as some national governments may face resource limitations and others will be eager to invest in infrastructure to facilitate their recovery.
The only certainty for engineering managers is that it is a period of continuous uncertainty. At the moment it is very difficult to foresee exactly how projects, competitors and clients may differ from their pre-pandemic reality.
Yet, organisations that emerge from this crisis with a resilient supply chain, solid finances, skilled employees and a capacity to analyse the data required by decision makers, will be the ones that will seize the opportunities of the future and will be the market leaders no matter how the post-pandemic world evolves (PwC, 2021).
Get the skills to meet the engineering challenges of the future with the University of Hull's online MSc in Engineering Management:
Benis A, Amador Nelke S, Winokur M. (2021). Training the Next Industrial Engineers and Managers about Industry 4.0: A Case Study about Challenges and Opportunities in the COVID-19 Era. Sensors (Basel). Apr 21; 21(9):2905. doi: 10.3390/s21092905. PMID: 33919164; PMCID: PMC8122260.
New Scientist. (2020). Engineering in a post-pandemic world. [online] Available at: https://www.newscientist.com/article/2251823-engineering-in-a-post-pandemic-world/ [Accessed 2 September 2021].
Persun, T., 2020. How Engineers are Working Through the Coronavirus Pandemic - ASME. [online] The American Society of Mechanical Engineers. Available at: https://www.asme.org/topics-resources/content/how-engineers-are-working-through-the-coronavirus-pandemic [Accessed 2 September 2021].
PwC. (2021). Engineering & Construction in a post-COVID world: weathering the storm. [online] Available at: https://www.pwc.com/gx/en/issues/crisis-solutions/covid-19/engineering-construction-post-covid-world.html [Accessed 2 September 2021].
Interview with Simon D. Bromyard, Project Director at OAK Group Holdings (Bahrain), MSc in Engineering Management Hull Online Student.