Skip to content

The Changing Face of Engineering

This week has been a significant one for the Rolton Group, and the ink has now dried on the management buyout. While David plans his next adventure, I have been thinking about how much the industry has changed since the first of the Rolton companies opened for business over three decades ago.

21st June 2013    |     Peter Rolton: Chairman, Rolton Group

When I was a year-out student getting my first taste of the engineering world, I remember waiting patiently in the queue for the office’s single telex machine along with tens of other colleagues. Reams and reams of paper were used daily in the name of swift information transferral, or rather, what was considered swift at the time; since then we’ve moved to fax, and from there to e-mail. Long gone are the days when the Rolton general office was full of staff employed solely for the typing and posting of letters, and all but forgotten is the smell of ammonia permeating from the printer throughout the offices. Operating this machine was the sole occupation of a man nicknamed ‘Peter Print’ before modern printers and photocopiers became the norm and forced upon him a change in occupation. Project waiting times were stretched out over what these days would be considered unreasonable lengths of time, and it’s strange even to think back to the days when post was delivered and sent twice daily, given our now-standard ethos of paperless communications.

As a business, we take our corporate social responsibility seriously and aim to keep our carbon footprint as low as possible; not only has going paperless helped in this, but it has also been incredibly helpful in terms of organising archives and being able to recall relevant details from projects of yore. Thirty years ago, the idea of storing information on that sort of scale felt far out in the distant future, but in a very short time has become something we take for granted. Our online document management system has allowed us to clear decades worth of curled up, faded bits of paper, making our whole operation much more efficient and enabling a more lasting method of archiving. Catalogues that once took up shelves of space can now be found online, and we are able to achieve significantly more in significantly less time.

One of the major technological developments seen by the industry has been the advent of BIM, which allows our engineers to create virtual, to-scale models of buildings and therefore effectively construct them digitally to test run before a spade is put into the ground. This reduces the margin for error, improves efficiency, and allows the integration of different disciplines and companies; architects and engineers can now collaborate to create beautiful structures that are entirely fit for purpose and are the most efficient versions that they can be.

In amongst the many positive changes I’ve experienced over the years, and linked to this large-scale computerisation, is the less-welcome commoditisation of skills which is increasingly something engineers have to fight against. It takes the span of a career to develop the niche abilities and real nuance that will provide the best solutions for clients, and this can’t be replicated by a computer regardless of how many bells and whistles it boasts. When an architect makes their first sketch, it will be a creative process consisting of little more than a pad and an HB pencil, no computer in sight. This is because intelligent design required finesse, collaboration, and consideration, all of which are best undertaken by people, not their machines.

So where now for the future of engineering? It seems to me that one of the most obvious points to address is the time, money, and carbon wasted in travel for meetings that could now take place over the medium of Skype or WebEx. Whilst it is hugely important to build relationships with partners and clients, there definitely exists an opportunity for better utilisation of these technologies. In terms of the tools we use, I am sure they will continue to grow and impress us with their capabilities, but it will remain important to keep hold of that human touch.

Post Categories:

Loading Conversation