What is the most important engineering problem of our future?

In an attempt to learn more about Engineering and becoming an Engineer, I would like to ask all the Engineers in this community this question:

What is(are) the most important engineering problem(s) we are going to face in the near future?

FIRST has done a tremendous job inspiring kids to become Engineers through the competition. But how about educating them with something that relates to the real world? How about telling us what kind of problems we will be facing when the next group of college students graduate and become Engineers? What is the most important engineering problem(s) we should expect to face in the next 10 years? 20 years? 50 years? 100 years?

I do realize that “most important” means different things to different people, so let’s broaden the discussion up and extend its definition as wide as possible. I don’t care whether it is the most expensive, the most difficult, the most beneficial, the most demanding, the most impossible, and so on, as long as it is big enough to make us go “Wow…” Just surprise me ;-).

Our greatest challenge is a alternative/substitute for oil and oil based products. Smart people have been telling us for years that oil is not a renewable resource and we have ignored the warnings. Look around at all the cars, plastics and polymers around you based on oil and you will see what a revolution there will be to replace oil. The industrial revolution will pale in comparison to what the world will go through when the well(s) runs dry. Everyone should pick up a copy of the August issue of National Geographic to read about alternative energy sources. If you want a long term job consider going into alternative energy companies that deal with solar and wind power. They will become hot areas very shortly.

I agree with Al that alternative energy will be the next hot area. I would also like to include the production of clean drinking water. For most of the world there is not a reliable source of drinking water. As the human race expands and covers more of this world, there will be a need to convert local water sources to safe water sources.

This isn’t nearly as important as the issues posted above, but does plague many engineers…increasing processing speed, while decreasing power consumption in microprocessors.

Al has my vote. Oil replacement.
And not just for the world of power generation.

I just want to highlight what he said…
Plastics are oil based. Look around you right now - how much plastic do you see?

By the way - I’m of the belief that the world will not run out of oil. As supply lowers, demand will increase, and cost will increase. So you might not run out of oil, but someday you’ll have to pay $500 for a gallon of gasoline, or $75 for a plastic ball point pen. Someone will figure need to figure a way out of that…

Slightly off topic but, my opinion is based on a U.S perspective and Engineering in general.

I have a real concern that America is incapable of competing with foreign markets in goods and services. The cost of production in the US prohibits innovation. When pricing drives you into the global market, you take away most aspects of engineering opportunities as well. Over time that erodes a sector of capability and leaves us again looking elsewhere.

Not to make this a political matter but there are many reasons why we’ve come to this point. There are also many ways to change this situation. But I believe we’ve created a monster and it’s only going to get much worse before it gets better. We cannot sustain an entirely service based economy for long. If FIRST succeeds in increasing the amount of interest and patronage of engineering in the U.S., that can definitely help matters. Although if the opportunities for them diminish as they come into an empty market, the purpose would be partly lost.

Until countries like China and India get a higher standard of living, and the people demand better social services etc. their production will not incur the cost of infrastructure. While here in the U.S. that snowball is rolling 100mph down a long hill. This may be more a matter for economists but it directly affects the life span of the American Engineer.

Solve that problem and then we can move on to the bigger ones, otherwise only the lawyers will be left to figure it all out :wink:

Just to extend and add further comment on the need for a petroleum replacement, most people have no clue as to the depth that we as a world are dependent on oil.

Look at the obvious first, energy. Burning petroleum products to create energy not only depletes the already diminishing supplies, but is the single larges source of pollution on the planet (not that I’m a rabid environmentalist, just a realist). We need multiple replacement technologies for the energy we derive from petroleum based products. First, we need large scale, clean and efficient energy sources to generate electricity to power industry. Secondly, we need a “portable” replacement technology for all of our transportation needs (and I’m not just talking about cars. We have to include planes, trains and automobiles along with boats and everything else that we move from one place to another).

And then, we have to consider plastics. Just about all plastics come from petroleum, and just about everything we use has some plastic in it, or comes wrapped in plastic, or is made on an assembly line that has plastic in it.

Did you know that many medicines are petroleum based? Did you know that, with exception of water, petroleum based solvents are the most commonly used in all industry? Did you know that most agricultural fertilizers and pesticides are petroleum products? Do you get the point?

I agree with the earlier statement that the next major technological revolution will be focused on petroleum replacement technology, and this revolution will dwarf all past revolutions in its scope and impact.

I think the most important challenges we will face will deal with survival - as a culture, nation, species, or even life on all of earth itself.

On any day we could detect a comet or asteroid heading our way, too big to stop or alter. The challenge then will be how do we survive the impact, or how do we relocate life to another planet - either Mars or in another solar system?

Or do we build a colony in space and wait till the earth can be inhabited again?

Things like oil and transportation will come and go - and the transisions will be gradual. We are not going to run out of oil overnight. It will slowly become more and more expensive, and humanity will adapt and improvise, like we always have.

But in the bigger sense, I dont think our most important challenges are engineering problems, they are social problems. Technology enables us to do what we want more efficently.

The real problem is what some people want. Death and destruction.

Somehow humanity needs to grow and mature past that.

On that note (and off topic) it amazes me how much more gas is costing these days than plastic pens.

Most important engineering problem, (coming from the 100% non-engineering mind of Beth) is oil in terms of pertinence, it’s a big deal right now. One that I would really like to see be solved is a way to travel fast enough to travel to other places in the universe before any given human dies. (and yes, I know that part of this has been discussed in Ken Wittleif’s (sorry if that’s spelled wrong) thread) I think that if we can converse with lifeforms of other planets that they may be able to provide us with solutions that they’ve come up with for problems that we have such as oil issues etc.

Once again, that came from the mind of a creative dreamer, not a sensible engineer.

I agree with KenWittlief that it will be the social issues that present the most important engineering problems to future generations, case and point, snuppy.

Snuppy is the first cloned dog, which raises the question not of how far we can go, but how far we should go under certain circumstances. (Dogs are inherently more difficult to clone because their ovulation is influenced differently then most other mammals when the same drugs are used on them). I believe it to be fact that one day we will be able to clone humans, but when we get to that point, the question will be, should we?

My opinion is that scientific progress is never bad, but sometimes the applications can be, and as Ken said, it comes down to human motive, which is our greatest gift and our biggest stumbling block. Not that I’m completely against having an evil clone army to serve me :wink: .

I’ll toss my vote in for oil. It’s bigger and more immediate than any piddling social problems. Deal with social problems after you’ve ensured an alternative supply for energy and food. Yes food. In addition to all the other petroleum based products listed above, did you know your cheap abundant food is petroleum based as well? The vast majority of fetrilizers are petro based, and most all food requires a good deal of fertilizer.

Really, though, the largest use of oil is for energy. Especially for transportation. Atleast 75% of oil goes into planes, trains, and automobiles, as it were. Come up with a cheap, efficient alternative for energy, and the oil supply will easily cover all other uses for several decades.

As for alternative energy sources, Solar Towers look promising.

I agree with you that oil is a serious concern for engineers of the future (and present). However, I disagree with your classification of oil, energy, and food as separate from the social problems of the world.

Many of the worlds political (and therefore, social) problems stem from this country’s overdependance on Middle Eastern oil. Many people from these nations are very angry and upset over the influence that the United States has over oil-producing states. The West’s presence in the Middle East (due to oil) is certainly one of the factors that has angered and outraged those who commit acts of terror. There have been numerous attacks on Iraqi oil pipelines since the start of the Second Gulf War. please, PLEASE don’t take this comment in a way that will start a political flame war - the fact is, our presence in the Middle East HAS created socio-economic problems surrounding the issue of oil production, and this is hard to deny, coming from BOTH sides of the political spectrum)

Also, the issue of food is a very pressing social problem. Socio-political factors are most responsible for world hunger. In addition to new food-producing technology, many social changes must be implemented before the problem of world hunger can be solved.

Many of humanity’s technological needs stem from it’s social problems. For example, global warming IS a social problem, considering that it will have an incredible impact upon world health and food production - all social issues. We as a society must make SOCIAL changes in order to deal with the problem of global warming, such as improving our energy conservation habits.

Some other examples of socially-driven technological innovations are many of the inventions of Dean Kamen. His invention of a wheelchair that can climb effortlessly, as well as raise a person up to their normal height - was created to deal with a social issue. Same goes for his portable dialysis machine and his water purification system. All of those inventions solve a social problem of some sort - and are by no means “piddling”.

I believe that the most important engineering problem(s) ARE in fact those that deal with socio-economic issues. What is the purpose of engineering, if not to make humanity’s overall quality of life better?

– Jaine

The biggest problem we’re going to have? People.

The world’s population is somewhere around 6.5 million right now; in ten years, according to a quick and unscientific measurement, we could very well have another million on top of that.

Finding ways to provide food and water, to create shelter, to have medical care, to transport people and goods, and to keep our world and all of its inhabitants alive and in one piece? It’s going to take a lot of work from all kinds of disciplines to solve some of the problems that come with more people.

Engineers are going to be key in solving some of these problems, transportation and housing being two of them.

It’s a broad answer, yes, but why not focus on everything instead of just one piece of the puzzle? :slight_smile:

Im sure IMDwalrus meant billion - but it leads right into a thought I was just having about the importance of our social structure as a species.

70 years from now almost eveyone who is alive today will be dead

there are 6.5 billion people alive today

there doesnt have to be 6.5 billion or more people in the world 70 years from now - its totally a social problem

if only 1 out of 500 couples reproduced, and only had one child each, then 70 years from now there actually would be only 6.5 million people on the entire planet

think about that for a while

what oil problem?

what food problem?

what housing problem?

what clean air / water / environment problem?

its not our technology that is causing us grief,
and its not a lack of advanced technology,

 its us!

Just for the record, on this planet there is enough space and food for everyone, the problem lies in those who have what is needed and don’t share what they have.

there is enough space and room for people to survive (at this point), but there are not enough resources for every person on the planet to have a 4 bedroom house, 2 cars, 4 computers, 5 TVs, all the food they can eat…

there are only so many acres of land that can be farmed. Once the population gets above 1 person per acre, or 2 people per acre of farmland, people will starve.

but why do we need to let our population grow that large? what benefit is there to having 6 billion, or 10 billion people, instead of only 1 billion, or 100 million…?

I cant see any benefit to having the surface of the earth covered with humans.

Maybe this is part of the engineering question - how can we prosper without the need for a constantly increasing population?

What science and technology advancements would allow us to turn the size of our population back, way back? To allow our standard of living to continue to improve, with less and less people?

The first one is hardest to deal with. We live in an economy that demands ever increasing levels of production to stay “healthy”. If we all just consume at the same rate we are now for the next ten years, our economy would collapse, because it depends on growth to work. Fixing that is going to be a severe shock to the system.

The second one is easier. As people’s standard of living rises, the number of children they have decreases. In some countries today, they are staying afloat population-wise through immigration, not reproduction. Italy is an example as I recall, but that was in the media so I’m not sure how accurate it is.

To some extent all engineering “… elevates the standards of living and adds to the comforts of life” (see Herbert Hoover)

My list of major engineering challenges in the coming years:

  1. Developing alternative and more efficient energy production
  2. Cleaning up our environment and keeping it clean.
  3. Improving health care (Drugs, treatments, medical devices, etc)
  4. Improving availability of nutritious food and clean water throughout the world.
  5. Safer, more efficient transportation systems.

To attack these issues engineers in every field will need to focus on several things in everything they do:

  1. Improving efficiency to lower energy demand.
  2. Designs using recyclable/reusable materials.
  3. Less polluting mining, manufacturing, transportation, and products.
  4. Reducing obsolescence/increasing design life of products (Ever notice how few things we buy are designed to last more than 5-10 years?)
  5. Consider quality and safety in the design of all products and processes.

I’m sure there others, but the point is that the world needs engineers to make the right choices, rather than the expedient, easier, or initially cheaper way. Even if we are not designing a fusion reactor or water purification device, we are expected to not add to these problems and do what we can to help solve them.

To do this, the engineering student should strive to get a solid, broad engineering education, rather just learning how to hack some code in a particular language or squeak by doing the minimum required for a degree.

Very interesting answers, all. I agree that oil is probably critical at this point and in light of Hurricane Katrina, strengthening the infrastructure of levies and dams across hurricane-prone states would be crucial.

I think the most important issue currently is within us. I’m talking about our genetics. Normally in the wild animals with physical or mental disabilities die off but since we have removed much of the limiting factors of our species undesirable genetic material. One very apparent aspect is obesity. I have a friend who eats very healthily and exercises but can’t drop his weight below 200 pounds. He is not the only person i know who suffers from this problem. This is why i think that their should be a stress on genetic research. I hear lots of people talk about their fear of super humans but i think that without genetic research we end up crippling our selves. I still agree that research should be strictly monitored to avoid abuse though.