What is engineering? It can simply be defined as the application of science and mathematics to the solving of practical problems.
Engineering is both a science and an art. Scientists explore the mysteries of nature and seek knowledge of the behaviour and properties of matter. Engineers use this knowledge to create technology to serve the needs of man. Engineering is an art because it involves creativity. Every bridge, automatic telephone exchange, aircraft and tractor, which you see and perhaps use, is the product of engineering creativity.
In fact, engineers have a hand in the shaping of anything in use anywhere such as chips, chairs, television, toys, highways, kidney machines, robots and milk bottles. They are the wealth creators without whom the country’s economy cannot improve. By designing irrigation and dams for the rural people, they reduce famine and poverty. Hence, engineering can be the right choice for the person who wants to improve the quality of life around us and contribute to the country’s economic growth as well as for those who want a prestigious top management or professional post.
As with all man-made things, engineering creations are subject to wear and tear due to use and the onslaught of weather. Thus having created, the engineer is called upon to maintain and keep in good condition that which he has created. It is in this role – in the maintenance of machinery and structures, the engineer is most frequently seen by the public, because it is in this role that the engineer most frequently interacts with the public.
In the pursuit of his work, many resources are put at the disposal of the engineer. These include human, material and capital resources. The engineer is responsible for the optimum use of these resources, that is, he is responsible for the competent management of these resources. Thus the practising engineer is also a manager.
All ideas and creations by engineers may eventually be commercially exploited. As engineers are the ones who have in-depth knowledge of the product, they are able to promote and market the product. Thus, an engineer can also be very much involved in the sales and marketing of engineering products.
VARIOUS ENGINEERING DISCIPLINES
Since engineering activities cover a wide scope, it is physically impossible for any one engineer to acquire the knowledge and expertise demanded by the various activities. To cope with this demand, engineers have to specialise.
Therefore, there are different kinds of engineers. The variety of engineers in any country is, to a degree, a reflection of the industrial development in that country. In Malaysia, the 5 main groups of engineers today are the civil, mechanical, electrical, chemical and agricultural engineers. There are also increasing numbers of electronic, instrumentation, telecommunications, mining, structural and other engineers.
Most engineering projects require the services of engineering specialists of more than one discipline. For example, in the construction of a power station, the massive construction work is undertaken by the civil engineers; while mechanical engineers design and commission the boilers, turbines, fuel handling systems and other associated equipment; electrical engineers are responsible for the alternators and transmission equipment; and instrumentations and control engineers are responsible for the control and safety of the shutdown system.
Civil engineers are concerned with the design, planning and construction of highways, bridges, dams, building structures, sewage plants and off-shore structures. They design and construct the biggest (and longest lasting) single physical undertaking for which man is responsible. A career in civil engineering can satisfy many tastes. These include outdoor work on site, indoor on design or preparation of contracts, schemes which are breathtaking in their overall concept or mundane but at least equally valuable in service to the community. More than any other branch of engineering, civil engineers tend to be consultants, called in by local authorities or architects for whom they plan and design projects.
In Malaysia, most civil engineers work in consultancy firms, public services departments and contracting companies. They design and supervise construction projects and various infrastructure schemes dealing with the architects, contractors and project proponents.
Electrical and Electronic Engineering
These two overlap. Broadly speaking, electrical engineering is concerned with the use and generation of electricity to produce heat, light and mechanical power. Electrical engineers work in generating stations, distribution systems and on the manufacturing of all kinds of electrical machinery from tiny motors for refrigerators to heavy motors for industrial plants.
The invention of thermionic valve gives rise to electronics which is mainly concerned with computers, telecommunication, automation/instrumentation and control. Electronics have since become the fastest expanding area in engineering around the world and in Malaysia. It has brought an impact to virtually every industrial, commercial, scientific and professional activity.
(a) Computers – The electronic engineering industry produces the hardware which houses the software – the Programs and other component which computer system needs to enable it to perform its task. The computer System includes microprocessors, visual display units, printers, mainframes, mini and micro-printers.
(B) Telecommunications – This is concerned with communication facilities between several participants in different locations, sometimes as far away as thousands of miles across the oceans. Some of the telecommunication advances made possible by electronic engineers include telex, telefax, radio networks, satellite and television. With telecommunication technologies, we are now able to watch live telecast of events held thousands of miles away, something our ancestors have never dreamt of.
(c) Automation, Instrumentation and Control – Automation is concerned with the operation of automatic control devices, such as automatic ovens and cookers, computer controlled gadgets on the mass-production line at factories, traffic light control, robotics, etc.
Instrumentation is concerned with the techniques of accurate measurement of physical variables, often in difficult environmental conditions and the display of such information in the best possible manner. Examples are the measurement and display of:
– Altitude, speed, engine temperature of an aircraft;
– Pressure, temperature, flow, etc of a chemical plant;
– Blood pressure, heart rate, temperature of a patient in an intensive care unit.
On the other hand, control is the study of how individual elements can best be organised and operated to produce optimum performance, for example, the computer control of a machine, control of an aircraft, etc.
Mechanical engineers are concerned with all forms of prime movers, vehicles and handling equipments, indeed anything which has moving parts. The hoist and cranes which lift heavy weights and the lorries which transport heavy loads over long distances; the big factory machinery which manufacture and package the millions of articles upon which we all depend; the petrol and diesel engines which convert the captive energy in fuel oils into useful energy for driving our cars and other industrial equipment; these are all in the domain of mechanical engineering.
Some mechanical engineers specialize further and become industrial and production engineers. They are more concerned with manufacturing activities. The industrial engineer is more involved in the management of subsystems of the enterprise while the production engineer is more involved in the design of products and processes to achieve quality and value.
The chemical engineer deals with all aspects of processing raw materials into useful products. This involves the flow and transfer of large quantities of materials and their conversion from one form to another. Conversion can be physical as in distillation; by chemical reaction often at high temperatures and pressures as in ammonia production; or even biochemical where organisms are used to produce useful chemicals, as in penicillin production.
Chemical engineers work in a wide range of industries. They provide technical support and manage plants which process oil, coal, minerals, petrochemicals, plastics, metal, ceramic, food, drugs, textiles, etc. Locally, the palm oil, petroleum, and food industries employ a considerable number of chemical engineers.
Agricultural engineering deals with the application of the fundamental principles of engineering to the particular conditions and requirements of agriculture as an industry and as a field of applied science. As the name denotes, an agricultural engineer is one who has been trained in both engineering and agriculture. Combining the knowledge of the two, he develops, designs, organises and directs engineering work in the agriculture and closely allied industries, in order to strive for maximum efficiency and productivity. He may incorporate new technologies in the design, manufacture and maintenance of agricultural equipment, provide right housing for livestock or be involved in product mechanizing procedures and crop storage and processing.
Engineering is not so much a career, more an expertise which opens doors into a vast range of jobs. Their specific knowledge can be useful in an age when technology has a bearing on virtually any type of business. Besides, their analytical approach to problem-solving is invariably useful, even when the problem is not technical. As such, employers often prefer science and engineering graduates to art graduates. An engineering qualification can also lead to marketing, industrial management, journalism, and other graduate employment. It is, in fact, very much a transferable skill. A choice in engineering is useful at a time when everybody is likely to change jobs several times in his working life.
With Malaysia moving into industrialization, engineers will be playing a key role in nation building. A large number of engineers and technicians with advanced skills are needed in the manufacturing industry. There is a need to shift emphasis away from the production of civil engineering graduates and technicians towards the production of graduates with skills suitable for industry, in particular, chemical, electronic and industrial engineering.
NATURE OF JOBS
In each engineering discipline, an engineer can be involved in one or more of the following activities:
- Technical Services
- Research and Development
- Education and Training
- Trading and Marketing
Technical services include most of the public sector activities such as in the generation and distribution of electricity, telecommunications, sewage and waterworks, public transport system, roads and highways and drainage and irrigation. This sector provides employment for the largest number of engineers in Malaysia.
The employing agencies include the Jabatan Kerja Raya (JKR), Jabatan Parit dan Tali Air (JPT), Tenaga Nasional Berhad (TNB), Telekom Malaysia, Keretapi Tanah Melayu Berhad (KTMB) and the Armed Forces. These agencies overall employ a majority of civil engineers, followed by electrical and mechanical engineers. Most of the civil engineers are concentrated in the JKR and JPT, while TNB and Telekom Malaysia employ most of the electrical engineers in this sector. The mechanical engineers account for a much small proportion and are mainly employed in the maintenance units of these departments.
A specialized area of technical services is in the field of engineering consultancy. There is a significant number of engineering consultants in Malaysia who offer technical expertise in building construction, road building, air-conditioning design, factory and layout planning, design of fire-protection systems and so on. Consultants are generally engaged by both the private and the public sector when these organisations need special skills in particular area of engineering for specific periods of time when either their own staff are tied down with other projects or when it is uneconomical to engage suitable staff on a permanent basis.
Production and Manufacturing
Manufacturing activities range from unit production where large, single units such as multi-storey buildings, bridges and ships are made one at a time, through batch and mass production, to process industries which handle chemicals such as in refineries and chemical plants. Most of our everyday goods such as motor-cars, radios, air-conditioners, shoes and pencils fall into mass and batch production methods of manufacture. In the unit production end of this activity scale, one finds a majority of civil engineers; in the intermediate batch and mass production area majority of mechanical engineers; and at the process end, a majority of chemical engineers. Electrical engineers invariably provide service and maintenance facilities over this range of activities.
The manufacturing sector has been growing spectacularly in recent years, contributed for more than 50% of the country’s gross export, putting primary commodities to the second position. The main items of exports being electrical and electronics products; textiles, clothing and footwear, iron, steel and mineral products, rubber and wood products.
This strong growth is of great significance both to the national economic development as well as to employment in Malaysia which is traditionally an agricultural country. One ton of rubber processed into even a simple product such as slippers is worth 3 times the price of raw rubber. Again, an estate producing 10 tons of rubber per year needs only one direct employee, while a factory processing 10 tons of rubber per year requires at least 4 direct workers. As many engineers are required in manufacturing and production line, this development augurs well for the employment opportunities of the engineers. It can also be envisaged that there will be a shift of employment of engineers from the traditional maintenance and technical services areas towards production and manufacturing.
Research and Development
Engineering art is never static. As new discoveries are made by scientists, engineers search for more economic applications of these discoveries to improve the quality of life of people. At the forefront of this area of activity, are the engineers engaged in research and development.
Traditionally, most of the engineers actively engaged in research are either in the government sponsored research organisations such as SIRIM, or the universities with engineering faculties. With the country moving towards industrialization, a gradual shift to the private sector can be envisaged.
There is some glamour attached to this work, at least in the public eye. But in the pragmatic world of engineers, most research and development work is just plain and meticulous hard work, that is, test and more tests of concept and product. There is very little opportunity for the frontiers-of-knowledge kind of research.
Some of the bigger manufacturing organisations in the country have one or more engineers performing this function. Most of the research at these organisations is aimed at maximizing sales and profits. For example, a research and development department may be asked to try to come up with a better-selling product than a company’s competitor, or to investigate why there is a recurrent fault in a particular production process or product; or to test and study the properties of a new material before using it for production.
Education and Training
To supply the demand for engineering manpower, a large number of engineers are involved in engineering education and training. The lecturers are found in the engineering faculties of our universities, technical colleges, polytechnics, industrial training institutes and trade schools.
The on-the-job training of fresh engineering graduates is a responsibility shared by all professional engineers. An apprenticeship is invariably adopted, and new engineering graduates work under the supervision of more senior engineers for a period of three years. This period of guided application of the theory gained through their formal education courses serve to provide grounding in the art of engineering.
It is in the role of the maintenance engineer, that the public is most aware of the engineer because it is in this role that there is perhaps maximum contact with non-engineers. Maintenance engineers in the public sector maintain the public utilities such as roads, railways, waterworks and electricity supply.
Maintenance engineers in the manufacturing sector maintain the enormous investments in machinery and equipment essential to the basic production process.
Maintenance engineering demands a thorough and detailed understanding of the processes involved as well as the associated structures and machinery. All kinds of engineers are involved in this activity – civil engineers in the maintenance of buildings, roads and waterways; electrical engineers in the maintenance of electricity generating and distribution systems; mechanical engineers in the maintenance of plant and machinery; agricultural engineers in the maintenance of crop production and processing equipment and chemical engineers in the maintenance of control and production systems in the process industries.
With age and experience, most engineers progress from raw engineering to management. This is a common trend in all branches of engineering. Top executive positions in many large organisations involved in engineering activities are held by engineers. This is because managerial positions in such organisations demand a sound background in engineering matters to make decisions in areas which on the surface may appear as purely administrative or financial. There are degrees which combine engineering with management, economics, languages and other subjects. There are postgraduate courses in business management, systems analysis, which may either be taken locally or overseas and usually immediately after the first degree or a few years later so as to strengthen one’s managerial skills.
Trading and Marketing
With their specialized technical knowledge, engineers with a flair for marketing may be involved in technical sales and marketing such as marketing of computers (by electronic engineers), agricultural equipment (by agricultural engineers), scientific instrument and other engineering products.
Engineers involved in sales spend most of their time away selling anything from machine tools to domestic freezers and motor cars. Customers may be laymen to whom virtues of a product have to be explained, or professionals who ask searching questions about its performance and properties. Sales of equipment involving very large investments may take months of meetings and negotiations.
Engineers involved in marketing and trading also act as a link between prospective customers and manufacturers. They convey criticisms and suggestions of customers to the top management.
With experience and capital, some engineers initiate their own enterprise, selling a whole range of engineering products. Thus an engineering qualification can also lead to a career in business.
WORK ENVIRONMENT & CONDITIONS
An engineer probably has a wider choice of the types of work to do than any other profession. They may be based in one or more of the following places; a factory, a laboratory, an office or outdoor on site. The amount of time an engineer spent at the drawing board or using a light pen or desk-top computer, or involve in fieldwork outdoor varies with each particular job, but it is estimated that most engineers spend about 1/3 of their time discussing work with colleagues or clients. Team-work is paramount to the engineers. With team-work, difficult and seemingly impossible tasks are made simple.
Engineers should also be prepared to spend some time away from home and depending on the job; hours can be irregular and may involve evening and weekend work.
If you are inquisitive and are interested in electronics, dismantling and assembling cars, working with timber and metals, and have a high standard in mathematics and science in school, a career as an engineer would likely suit you.
Prof. Datuk Ir Dr Ow Chee Sheng, FASc, August , 2016
The Institution of Engineers Malaysia (IEM)
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