The inaugural IHS Engineering360 “Pulse of Engineering” research survey reveals three key challenges facing engineers and allied professionals almost everywhere in the world: appropriate skill levels and expertise, adequate time to complete projects, and effective communication among design team members, managers and clients. A lack of all three was cited time and again, with each constraint affecting a company’s bottom line and impacting the engineer’s ability to do his or her job effectively.

"The biggest obstacle is the lack of preparation ahead of the project, with a too-quick study of customer pains, needs and desires and a too-weak valuation of the development budget," wrote one respondent to a survey question. Another said that the biggest challenge is to “get the right message communicated to the customer.” And a third summed up the broader organizational challenge by writing “the bigger the group, the slower the progress without a competent leader.”

As part of its editorial mission, IHS Engineering360 set out to discover what’s on the minds of thousands of engineers worldwide to arrive at this benchmark “Pulse of Engineering” research project. The research offered an opportunity to validate what many people already think is true about the profession, and to uncover information about market dynamics and industry trends that otherwise might not be apparent.

Survey responses came from more than 2,100 engineers and allied professionals, 49% of them based in the United States. The rest came from around the world, including countries as diverse as India, Great Britain and Northern Ireland, South Africa, China, France and Australia. Some trends uncovered by the research mirror those found in other fields; other trends are specific to engineering.

Faster Pace, Tighter Resources

At a high level, responses validated the idea that both the pace of engineering is accelerating and that engineers are asked to do more with fewer resources. One question asked respondents to indicate the types of resource and competitive issues facing their company. Fully 57% said they are required to do more with less. Another 52% said that the pace of engineering is accelerating. Nearly 30% said that new hires were being added to handle increasing workloads and not just to replace vacant positions, a positive sign that employment growth is happening. A relatively small percentage--18%--said they felt overwhelmed by information.

Engineers are being hired as workloads increase. Engineers are being hired as workloads increase. “Actual, real-world knowledge and experience is lacking in all too many of the engineers I interview,” wrote one respondent. “There is a distinct lack of basic knowledge of materials' properties and reliance on unvetted information (Wikipedia specifically) and unfounded opinions.”

Fewer than half of respondents (46%) said that technology was improving their productivity. This aligns with the notion that, despite sizeable recent investments in R&D and enabling technology, companies are not actually more productive.

Engineers who took part in the survey range from those who specialize in aerospace and defense to those whose primary focus is on field and technical design services and general manufacturing. Some write software and others engineer robots. Their employers include the government, public companies, private firm and--in some cases--sole proprietorships.

Most are involved in engineering and design, consulting, or process and production. There are project managers along with those doing research and development. About 81% of those who responded to the survey said they were at the manager level or lower; another 7% categorized themselves as C-level executives and 9% considered themselves directors.

Seasoned Veterans and Eager Newcomers

Respondents overall were an experienced group, with about 84% saying they have 10 or more years of engineering experience, and 36% saying they have 30 or more years in the profession.

“Been here a long time, low-hanging fruit is gone,” wrote one engineer.

Just 1% reported having been an engineer for one year or less.

"I'm pretty new to the game, so I have to figure things out as I go, which slows me down,” wrote one. “Also, I can feel my skills from school waning since I hardly have to use them."

Regardless of their longevity in the profession or even their geographic location, respondents agreed on a number of factors that are affecting their day-to-day work: budgetary and time constraints, a shortage of resources to do their job effectively and a lack of people entering the field with sufficient knowledge to replace those who have retired or who soon will.

These constraints were reflected in responses to survey questions that asked whether respondents agreed or disagreed with a number of statements: that the designs they are working on are more complex and sophisticated, that product design cycles are shrinking, that there are fewer design “win” opportunities available, and that there are more time-to-market pressures.

Most respondents were neutral when asked about the volume of design win opportunities, but agreed that designs are more complex and that design cycles are shrinking. They also strongly agreed that time-to-market pressures are increasing.

One engineer described working in an environment with “extremely aggressive schedules” and project scopes that were “still being defined as we execute.” Another wrote of “complicated designs (that) require more time than allowed, especially when we are entering a new field of development."

A third engineer wrote, "We are not pioneers in the field, so we have to do better than the Number One.” As a result, the firm’s product “has to give the lowest operating cost per unit of output. In our product line especially (hydraulics) product life is interlinked with parameters such as pressure and drive speed. If we overdo parameters, the customer will have less life from (the) machine. Design optimization poses the tough constraint."

Many engineers noted that they are increasingly asked to work on more complex and sophisticated designs but also tasked with completing them in shorter time frames, in part due to pressure to get products to market faster. Many of the comments about these issues mentioned a lack of sufficiently trained personnel and smaller budgets for upfront design work and troubleshooting. That led to more than 70% of respondents agreeing that constraints on resources, specialized knowledge, budgets and time were jeopardizing productivity, product quality and innovation at their firm.

The increasingly global nature of engineering has increased time pressures for companies, although most respondents think their company is adapting at least as well as the competition to new technologies. Although technical skills and expertise were cited as problems, nearly 72% of those who answered said the engineering workforce at their company has remained the same or increased over the past two years.

Knowledge Management Challenges

However, while the number of engineers employed may have risen, the loss of institutional knowledge represents an important survey finding. Nearly three of every four said knowledge management was at least of moderate importance to their company; 47% said that knowlege loss through retirement or other separation either was very important or extremely important. Even so, nearly half of respondents (47%) said their company has no formal practice in place to capture and retain knowledge that otherwise may depart.

Knowledge lost through retirement and employment separation is a concern for many engineering professionals.Knowledge lost through retirement and employment separation is a concern for many engineering professionals.More than one in three respondents works for a company that employs 10 or fewer engineers, an indication of the important role that small firms play. But more than 20% of respondents said their company is at the other end of the spectrum, employing more than 500 engineers.

Regardless of the firm’s size, some 55% of respondents said the average size of the design team they work on ranges between one and five people. Small teams predominate regardless of the overall size of the firm.

Given that many respondents work at a small engineering firm, it comes as little surprise that 28% said their company’s annual revenues are less than $10 million. Of the 36% who said their company’s annual revenues topped $250 million, around 20% pegged their company’s annual take at greater than $1 billion.

As for the designs they’re working on, those surveyed noted things such as video compression, wavefront mirrors, robotic manufacturing cells, military fighters and helicopters and new power plants. Responses also included instrumentation and controls for an unmanned offshore oil and gas platform, new technologies for automotive parts and gas turbines.

One respondent may have spoken for many others with the comment, “I like working with products that are new because they pose challenges that are not easy to overcome.”

Engineering for Sustainability

Designing and developing environmentally sustainable products was cited as being very important or extremely important by 50% of respondents, an important finding. Work to achieve product and process energy efficiency goals was noted as the primary driver. As for regulations that are the most significant drivers of sustainability, responders frequently cited the European Union’s Restriction on Hazardous Substantives (ROHS) directive; its Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) directive; and regulations that focus on conflict minerals and energy efficiency. Respondents generally agreed that regulatory pressures around sustainability are increasing and rules are becoming more complex.

Design teams are small regardless of the engineering firm's overall size.Design teams are small regardless of the engineering firm's overall size.Improving energy efficiency, reducing resource consumption and cutting emissions into the air, water and land were cited as the most important sustainability strategies being used. Reduced packaging, the use of eco-friendly packaging and the use of eco-friendly disposal practices were among the strategies cited the least among respondents.

For the most part, respondents said the number of design teams, along with the size of their company’s workforce, has either increased or at least remained steady during the past two years. That may be seen as an encouraging sign after much of the global economy suffered through a downturn that in many areas lasted four or more years. Of the engineers who responded to a question about the direction of the number of designs/projects they work on, more than 63% said that number had either stayed the same or had increased. By contrast, 21% said that number had fallen or decreased significantly.

Financially Healthy

Revenue targets were not cited as the leading objective used to measure a team or department’s performance. Instead, customer satisfaction was the metric cited most often (60%), followed by product quality (57%) with respondents able to select more than one answer. Achieving revenue targets and product unit cost each was cited by 36% of respondents as a performance metric. When asked how frequently specific targets were being met, nearly 75% said they always or frequently meet that standard.

Although management issues were often cited as a productivity deterrent, most of those (83%) who responded consider their company to be either the leading or at least an average performer relative to the competition. Loyalty also prevailed as just 2% considered their company to be a lower performer compared with other firms.

Engineers in general value their career and current job, with 83% of respondents saying they think they are likely to be employed at the same company five years from now. However, when asked what would cause them to leave their current role nearly 30% said it would likely be to move to a different company. Another 5% said they would work for a competitor. Less than one in four said that a change in role would involve a promotion to a more senior job. Nearly 25% said they are likely to retire in the next five years.

Those looming retirements again highlight the issue of the potential for lost knowledge and expertise in the engineering field, something companies will need to address as competition continues to increase. But as the Engineering360 survey has found, the profession has a strong pulse and remains an attractive career in every part of the world.

Rory King and David Wagman contributed to this article.