Equipping engineers for the next production revolution

The rapid technological changes driving the next production revolution are challenging the adequacy of current engineering education and training systems (OECD 2017). Tom Ridgman explores the history of engineering education and how we should be educating the engineers of the future.


While there is no argument over whether higher education institutions (HEIs) should be developing graduate-level work skills, there is much disagreement on what this looks like and what work skills are actually needed by a graduate engineer in the future. 


The natural first step is to understand what employers need. But this is no simple task. The majority of graduate engineers will not end up working in the same discipline domain that their degree is in. A number of game-changing technologies are now maturing, which is creating a rapidly changing industrial workplace with new production processes and digital technologies. This not only means changes to the machines operating in a factory, but also changes in the role of engineers in a factory. 


History of engineering training 

Currently, half of the nationally accredited engineers working in industry have a degree in engineering – the other half don’t. This split between engineers with and without university degrees is historical. Engineering as a discipline in the UK only really began during the religious wars of the 1500s. Armies got so big that they could no longer live off the land and needed to build roads, buildings, storage facilities and supply chains to provide the resources that they needed. For the next 250 years engineering was a practice-based discipline with engineers learning through workplace application. 


It was only in the 1800s that the idea that engineering could be a taught subject began to get traction. By the 1890s this concept had expanded and there were a number of institutions teaching engineering across the world. 


Critiques of engineering education 

There have been numerous formal assessments of engineering education since engineering first moved into the classroom and an increasing need to assess whether a graduate engineer is competent. The Mann Report identified the following key issues: 

  • The majority of four-year courses are taught as two years science and two years application – theory and practice should be taught simultaneously. 
  • Examinations as an assessment method are unconnected with teaching. 
  • Fields of application are expanding and teaching is not keeping up. 
  • Engineering courses have high drop-out rates. 
  • There is a poor correlation between exam grades and the quality of graduate work. 

You might be surprised (or not) to learn that the Mann Report on US Engineering Education was written in 1918. It contains many of the same critiques that are commonly identified in contemporary reviews of university engineering curricula. 

In addition to these challenges, there is also a series of preconceptions about engineering that may be preventing students from choosing it as a career.


Engineering is seen as a problem-solving discipline. It is assumed that learning is hierarchical and that its students require skills of analysis and modelling in abstract maths and physics to be successful. This can put off potential students who have more creative preferences.


Another challenge is that many engineering graduates do not end up working in the engineering discipline that they specialised in. For example, only about 40% of mechanical engineers go into mechanical engineering, while the percentage for specialised engineering disciplines can be as low as 15%. This means that there is a risk that the depth and breadth of knowledge and skills is inadequate for the graduate’s first post. HEIs are recognising this and evolving their engineering programmes to give students skills that are transferable to different workplaces, such as data analysis and problem-solving skills.



Project, problem solving and workplace placement learning 

There has been increasing interest over the past decade in alternative education methods that are designed to give engineering graduates experience in solving real-world problems and to demonstrate the transferability of their knowledge. Examples of this include problem/project-based learning, hands-on learning and capstone subjects. All of these methods aim to bring together the knowledge and skills learned by a student during their degree and then to apply this in a project or workplace. These different approaches have had varying degrees of success, with those that are most successful being integrated with innovative teaching and learning methods throughout the degree. 


The University of Cambridge’s Department of Engineering undergraduate degree gives students a broad scientific and engineering background and an in-depth knowledge in areas that students choose to specialise in. There is also a strong focus on developing important transferrable skills, which incorporates the ability to apply problem-solving strategies, a creative approach, team-working skills, ability to analyse data, written and oral communication and presentation skills, and research skills. 


The Manufacturing Engineering Tripos (MET), which is an option for the final two years of the Cambridge four-year undergraduate degree, provides students with a grounding in management and manufacturing technologies. Key components of these two years include completing a major design project to develop a new product with real business potential, in tandem with understanding the market, producing a comprehensive business plan and assessing the product’s financial viability. In addition, students work together in groups to undertake a series of structured industrial projects to solve substantial issues within a company. 


The Advanced Course in Design, Manufacture and Management (ACDMM), originally a Postgraduate Certificate Course and now run through the IfM as the MPhil in Industrial Systems, Manufacture and Management (ISMM), was set up to bridge the gap between the capabilities of new engineering graduates and the requirements of industry. It achieves this by intensive tuition, with each graduate completing up to nine in-company projects and visiting up to 100 companies. 


The course uses a mentoring approach that looks at both subject and skill competence and encourages the graduates to think for themselves how they need to develop in order to position themselves for the career of their choice. The intention of this is to try and build a framework that will allow graduates to manage their own learning, not only during the course, but also throughout their professional career. 


Where do we need to go in the future? 

While HEIs are making changes to how they teach engineering, there is still a mismatch between the discipline/ knowledge-based nature of academic departments and the predominantly skills-based requirements of industry. Practical industry-based projects like those mentioned are helping to increase the industrial exposure of many graduates and give them the skills to adapt their life-long learning skills to different workplaces.


However, we can still do more. Future engineering education needs to expand further out of the classroom to better replicate the complex and changing environment that is experienced once a graduate enters the workforce. This means that engineering education needs to move further away from its focus on assessment tasks with definite answers, to reflect the great complexity of the discipline of engineering – and not just technical complexity. To support the intellectual development of our students we need to help them to understand how to use ambiguous knowledge in complex problem solving. This includes learning how to find knowledge, evaluate it for its usefulness for the problem in hand, recognise and overcome the barriers to use and test it where necessary. 


We need to continue to extend the technical focus of engineering education to incorporate business and social knowledge and skills. We also need to shift from just understanding elements to understanding systems and their relationships. 


In a world where knowledge is available at the press of a key, the competitive advantage lies in understanding when, where and whether to use it. The engineers of the future will be most valued for their knowledge and skills in relating rather than applying, representing rather than transferring and their ability to rationalise and experiment. Having strong capabilities in these areas will enable engineers not only adapt to new technologies and production processes, but to develop and lead them.


Tom Ridgman has spent his career working to develop and improve national and international education and measurement standards in engineering, serving as Chair of the Registration and Standards Committee for five years, which oversees University accreditation and registration for Chartered and Incorporated Engineers and Engineering Technicians. He is also on the Board of Trustees of the Engineering Council, chairs the Quality Assurance Committee and is an ex-officio member of the Registration and Standards Committee and the International Advisory Panel. 

For further information please contact:

Tom Ridgman

T: +44 (0) 1223 338180

E: twr20@cam.ac.uk