Flexible Engineering for the Future
Many in the oil and gas industry are increasingly looking for ways to reduce costs and improve efficiencies. Some like GE and Statoil are going so far as to offer incentives such as cash awards and research funding for engineers able to demonstrate novel ways to improve associated technologies. The engineers attempting to meet those challenges today are not the same breed as prior generations; they’re using a broader set of skills and more flexible problem solving methods. Many of them have embraced the concept of “flexible engineering.”
One way to look at flexible engineering is through what MIT’s Richard de Neufville calls “flexibility in engineering design” or FIED. Neufville describes the engineering design concept as a way “to create a system that can adapt to the actual demands occurring at different points of time over its lifetime.” More simply, flexible engineering is a design approach that attempts to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of a complex, multi-task system that must remain highly reliable throughout its operation. This conceptual design approach stands apart from a more traditional approach that attempts to find an overall middle ground among a range of requirements. As Neufville puts it, the traditional approach more often than not leads to a design that’s too much or not enough for a project. By applying flexible engineering principles to an oil platform, refinery, or drilling rig, that infrastructure has the potential to adapt to a wider set of circumstances and provide an improved lifetime value to the owner.
However, flexible engineering isn’t just an engineering design concept; it’s also a training methodology. MIT and other schools have strategically introduced engineering programs that focus on flexible engineering degrees. Such degrees give students more control over their education, allowing for self-directed study of practical engineering challenges in biotechnology, robotics, and infrastructure development while not skimping on required core engineering concepts. Norman Fortenberry, executive director of the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE), praised this new approach, telling Inside Higher Ed in 2012 “[t]here is a recognition within the engineering community that the challenges that engineers have to address require a greater deal of flexibility; a broader mix of skills than in the most traditional of traditional programs.” As such, today’s engineers end up with more practical skills and a deeper understanding of how to apply them to a design in order to yield more flexible and profitable designs and infrastructure.