Artificial intelligence – Exciting opportunities for German engineers

Artificial Intelligence has become a buzzword in many industries, promising major competitive advantages by enabling more rationalized, efficient, faster and cost-effective processes. But many people also fear that their jobs could be replaced by AI. That is something that at least highly qualified engineers do not have to worry about.

Usually abbreviated as AI, Artificial Intelligence is the stuff that dreams are made of. It is destined to transform everything in our daily lives - from googling to texting to driving. Actually, just about anything you can think of …

For instance, autonomous driving would not be possible without AI. In the near future, all we will need to do is tell our car where we want to go. Then we can sit back, relax, read a book, check e-mails or dial into a conference call – the car will take care of the rest. AI will steer, brake, overtake, reach the destination and even park the car when we arrive. With AI, travel by car is going to become as easy, safe and reliable as rail travel.

And that is just one of the dreams that is now within reach, thanks to Artificial Intelligence. In plant engineering, one of Germany’s most important export sectors, we also dream about the seemingly limitless applications of AI. Put it in less romantic terms: We need to build our future based on AI.

Artificial Intelligence is a branch of Computer Science that deals with automated intelligent behavior and machine learning. This abstract-sounding discipline holds incredible potential for us as plant engineers when it comes to designing and building high-tech facilities. Our multi-faceted job includes ensuring that the individual systems, subsystems and components of a plant are matched to perfection, that all connecting lines and pipes are exactly the right length without interfering with each other, that we use the most suitable materials for each piece of equipment, and finally that the total energy and resources required to run the plant over its entire lifecycle are as low as possible for optimized, cost-efficient operations.

In order to achieve this, design engineers have to factor in the interactions and effects of a multitude of variables. But even sophisticated design platforms such as tools and databases containing historical data and empirical calculations have their limitations. The problem is that engineers are usually only able to track a limited number of such parameters simultaneously. Conversely, Artificial Intelligence can answer four, five or even more of these questions simultaneously – and with greater speed and accuracy than a human being.

Let me emphasize that we are not talking science fiction – this is becoming reality in plant engineering and it is becoming reality already. Researchers at the Technical University of Munich, for example, have already developed initial prototypes. The first generation of systems will be launched in the market in three to five years. I anticipate that, here at Exyte, we will not have to wait any longer than five years to access systems that we can adapt for our own cleanroom construction business.

But should we really be looking forward to a future shaped by AI? I think so, because AI makes everything more efficient, faster and cheaper. The downside, of course, is that AI will not only make some workers redundant, but also render some professions obsolete. One example is truck or taxi drivers, who are under no illusions about the prospect of autonomous driving putting them out of the majority of their jobs. Therefore, the forward-thinkers among them are already preparing for such a future by switching from regular taxi work to chauffeuring services.

Plant engineering will experience a very different trend. Rather than killing off jobs, AI will actually create new ones. More to the point, it will bring jobs back to Germany.

We tend to have this image of German engineering as a powerhouse, but the truth is that the industry has been declining for quite some time. Many engineering services have long been outsourced to countries such as India where the engineers are also highly trained, but paid a lot less than their German peers. That is why this segment has also seen significant relocation of jobs from Europe to the Indian subcontinent or South East Asia over the past decades.

Artificial intelligence will reverse this trend. The greater the penetration of AI in domestic plant engineering, the more we will need highly qualified engineers working right here in Germany.

Artificial intelligence will admittedly make plant designers redundant in the future, but until the point that machines can teach themselves what they need to know, we will still need many highly qualified engineers for quality control and the development of advanced algorithms and networks. It is well known that new technologies in particular are prone to teething problems. Human brainpower and manual intervention will be mandatory to iron these out, and this will create new jobs in the field of AI.

German universities have both the teaching and research capabilities in place to fill this gap with excellently qualified graduates. A number of interesting projects are already underway. One example is on-site camera monitoring of building or installation progress so that AI can then be used to align the status quo with the digitalized blueprints or virtual models. This makes it easier to estimate and quantify the progress of the work, identify deviations from the specifications, and define the appropriate corrective measures. Manpower and material requirements as well as logistics could also be planned down to the finest detail.

But there is one thing we should not forget when we discuss AI: It all relies on data – and lots of it. You could state that data is the bread and butter of AI. Here, we risk hitting a self-created brick wall in Germany and Europe, where we have the strictest data protection laws in the world. We can imagine what is going to happen if AI-enabled building site monitoring will achieve market maturity. People will start to question if it is intended to provide employee surveillance and then lobby its ban.

A balance needs to be achieved: We do require data protection, but we also need data if we want to pioneer the evolution of AI. Achieving a good balance between data protection and the need to gather data is a challenge we will have to face in the near future. In our competitors’ homeland of China, data protection clearly plays a secondary role. There, all available data on individuals – and companies – is compiled in what is known as a social score. We would not tolerate such a system here, but it gives Chinese companies access to a unique set of personal data, which they are using without any restrictions to develop AI technology.

Therefore, even if it does transpire that most AI products are developed by Chinese manufacturers, we will still need specialized engineers to perform quality control here in Germany. One way or the other, AI is set to become a real job creator for this profession.

Dr. Wolfgang Büchele, CEO Exyte

The original article was was published in German on Linkedin on October 31st 2019: Künstliche Intelligenz – eine Chance für deutsche Ingenieure