Inspiration, innovation are essential to engineering’s future

Keith Nosbusch is the chairman and CEO of Rockwell Automation Inc., one of the world largest industrial automation companies. Ian Robertson is dean of the University of Wisconsin-Madison College of Engineering. We asked them for their thoughts on the 3C’s as they prepared for the NEF regional dialogue in Madison, Wisconsin. Editor’s note: Keith Nosbusch is currently on the board of directors for Rockwell Automation. This interview was conducted while he held the chairman and CEO titles.

Q. How can we inspire the next generation of innovative engineers?

KN: We must make engineering “cool” and fun while helping the next generation understand that engineering also adds value. Engineers improve the quality of life and standard of living for everyone by making the world more productive and sustainable. With the appropriate education and experiences they can make a big difference in the world. Creating passion starts early in the education process.

IR: Engage them! Our role is to show elementary, middle and high school students how math and science bring life to the technology they use every day. In addition, young people aspire to a career that will make a difference. Engineering is that career—and we can be ambassadors in the ways we communicate what engineers do. We can encourage teachers to infuse engineering and hands-on experiences in classes. The UW-Madison College of Engineering allows students to visit, see our laboratories, meet our students, and actually do some engineering. Whatever the initiative, it should help students feel confident that an engineering degree is an attainable goal.

Q. What can universities do to prepare engineering students for 21st century challenges?

IR: We need design curricula to provide depth within disciplines, as well as transdisciplinary breadth. Additionally, our goal is to graduate students who are well-rounded people with a truly global perspective—and to accomplish that, we need to provide engineering students with a menu of academic and co-curricular opportunities, including studying or working abroad, exercising creativity through hands-on design projects and innovation competitions, and developing their leadership skills.

KN: Universities need to create interdisciplinary education and experiences including project-based learning in a collaborative environment. That is what will be required to solve tomorrow’s complex technical challenges. And, to get the best ideas, this collaboration must produce graduates that reflect diverse backgrounds. Communication skills play an important role in generating successful outcomes from innovative ideas. The ability to simplify and communicate complex concepts and technology and “sell” your ideas is key to getting support for them. Engineers need additional training on these skills, and universities need to strengthen their collaboration with companies and provide students with real-world experiences.

Q. How can advanced technology and manufacturing keep the United States competitive?

KN: Manufacturing is an exciting place for applying the latest technology to solve real-world problems and make people’s lives better. Evolving technology is changing the manufacturing landscape to smart, safe and sustainable operations. The growing convergence of information and operation technology enables what I call The Connected Enterprise. Modern technologies are helping connect information from smart industrial assets to the rest of the organization and out across the entire value chain. I believe the implementation of The Connected Enterprise will drive more change in industrial operations in the next 10 years than in the past 50 years.

IR: Advances in materials research and manufacturing will inspire new ventures and strengthen the country’s global manufacturing competitiveness. New or optimized materials enable manufacturers to improve existing or produce new products, and to do so in more sustainable, efficient and cost-effective ways. Here at UW-Madison, our transdisciplinary Grainger Institute for Engineering is currently focused on addressing challenges in materials discovery and advanced manufacturing—both of which are critical to U.S. economic competitiveness in a global marketplace.