There have been several important steps forward over the years that have powered human progression and shaped the way our societies function. The switch to an agrarian model of working the land rather than hunting and gathering, the development of writing, and industrialization have all had a huge impact on the way humanity lives, thrives and prospers.
The Industrial Revolution that saw Great Britain leading the way in introducing new manufacturing processes from the latter part of the 18th century was a transitional period for the whole world, but it was far from the end of the journey. Some historians and commentators have identified a series of such revolutions, with the second industrial revolution going from the end of the 19th century into the 20th. This saw the emergence of new forms of energy, such as electricity, gas, and oil, as well as the rise of the internal combustion engine. Meanwhile, telecommunications advanced with the invention of the telephone and improvements to the telegraph system.
It could be argued, however, that modern life as we know it started with the third industrial revolution, also known as the Digital Revolution, which began in the latter half of the 20th century and involved huge leaps forward in electrical systems, electronics, communications and more. Crucially, this period also saw the development of modern computers and the foundation of the internet. The first mechanical computing device was actually conceived by Charles Babbage in 1822, but the principle of the modern computer was proposed by Alan Turing in his seminal 1936 paper On Computable Numbers. Computers only started to become widespread with the development of integrated circuits (ICS) and microchips in the 1960s and 70s.
This vital stage in human development was made possible by what we now refer to as electrical and computer engineers. These roles are vital to our modern lives and will only grow in importance moving forward. Many people believe that we are currently living through a fourth industrial revolution, which is sometimes referred to as Industry 4.0. We live in an increasingly interconnected and technologically reliant world, and Industry 4.0 includes emergent and improving technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT), data science, quantum computing, robotics and automation, smart manufacturing, electric vehicles, mixed reality (AR and VR) and more.
All of these technologies require skilled, knowledgeable and qualified people, including electrical and computer engineers. These individuals have already helped shape our modern lives considerably, and with technology continuing to evolve at a rapid pace, there has never been a better time to join them.
Electrical engineers will continue to improve our infrastructure as we transition to cleaner, greener energy grids and sources for the sake of the planet. Electronic and computer engineers will provide the hardware and frameworks needed as we continue to explore technologies such as quantum computing and the mixed virtual and augmented realities of the emerging metaverse. These disciplines will come together in areas such as designing and building smart cities and automated transport networks.
Some educational establishments are reflecting this evolving technological landscape in the courses they provide. Kettering University, for example, now offers a master of science in electrical and computer engineering course that is shaping the future of automotive engineering and advanced mobility. Delivered entirely online, it focuses on the systems that are essential to the future of transportation, such as the integration of electrical and computer systems for autonomous vehicles; the development of advanced mobility applications for electric, hybrid and autonomous vehicles; and the enhancement of robotics with artificial intelligence (AI).
What is an electrical engineer?
Electrical engineers design, develop, test and supervise the manufacture of electrical equipment, systems and components. As an electrical engineer, you could be involved in various stages of the design and manufacture of electrical systems and projects, from the initial concept through design details to testing and handover. You might also be involved in maintenance programs.
You could work in a variety of settings, from factories and power stations to workshops and research facilities, or you could be based in an office.
Electrical engineers work across a wide variety of fields and sectors, including:
- The building industry, including building services such as lighting, heating and ventilation
- Transportation networks and emerging related fields such as electric vehicles and the infrastructure needed for them
- Manufacturing and construction
- Power grids and energy production and distribution
- Green energy
The work can vary tremendously depending on the sector and role, but some typical responsibilities could include:
- Consulting with clients to determine their requirements
- Carrying out feasibility studies for new electrical engineering designs
- Designing new systems and products, including plans and diagrams
- Estimating costs and timescales for suitable solutions
- Producing models and prototypes of new designs using 3D design software
- Attending onsite meetings
- Designing and conducting tests
- Recording and analyzing test data, suggesting modifications and testing again
- Coordinating work with technicians, craftspeople and stakeholders
- Ensuring all relevant safety standards are met
- Overseeing servicing and maintenance programs
- Contributing to product documentation and reports
- Monitoring product use and performance with an eye on improving future design
The difference between electrical engineers and electronic engineers
The terms electrical engineer and electronic engineer are sometimes used interchangeably, but there is a difference between the two roles. In general terms, electrical engineering is concerned with the large-scale production, transmission and distribution of electrical power and the design of large-scale electrical systems. Electronic engineering, meanwhile, focuses more on the design, optimization and management of smaller electronic circuits and devices, including many of the consumer devices we use every day. Electronic engineers are involved in everything from smartphones and robotics to artificial intelligence, machine learning, radio and satellite communications, and computing systems.
What is a computer engineer?
Somewhere between the role of the electrical or electronic engineer and the computer scientist sits that of the computer engineer. It is a relatively new role, having initially started as a specialty within electrical engineering before eventually becoming recognized as a distinct discipline in its own right. This also reflects the growing importance and ubiquity of computers and computerized systems in nearly every aspect of modern life, along with the increasing levels of complexity and specialism within this field of study.
Put simply, computer engineers are involved in the construction, implementation and maintenance of the hardware (and occasionally software) components of all types of computing systems and computer-controlled equipment. This could involve computing systems in a range of areas, from consumer electronics and medical devices to communication systems, aircraft, autonomous cars and all manner of smart devices.
Computer engineers can be called on to carry out a wide range of tasks, including the design, development, prototyping and testing of the microchips, circuits, processors, conductors and other components used in computing systems. Other roles will involve designing powerful systems that use these components, whether they are to be used in personal consumer electronics devices, integrated defense and communication systems, or even the computing systems that send spacecraft to Mars and beyond.
Computer engineers may also be involved in developing firmware, a specialized type of software that allows operating systems and applications to interact with and make use of the hardware to its fullest potential.
How to get into the electrical and computer engineering fields
Electrical and computer engineering (also known as ECE) is an exciting field at the moment thanks to the wide range of requirements for knowledgeable and qualified people working in these fields in an equally wide range of sectors. The lives we live today would be impossible without electrical and computer engineers. The smartphone in our pocket, the grid system that powers our homes, many of the medical advances that prolong and improve our lives, the gaming systems that keep us entertained, and the communications that keep us connected all rely to some degree on electrical, electronic and computer engineers.
There are several effective routes aspiring engineers can take into ECE roles and careers. You may be able to enter the field via an apprenticeship. In the UK, for example, you could work your way into a role as an electrical engineer through taking an electrical or electronic technical support engineer degree apprenticeship or an electro-mechanical engineer higher apprenticeship.
However, it is more common to break into the field via college studies, which could start with an undergraduate degree in electromechanical engineering, building services engineering, applied physics, computer science or another relevant subject. This could then be followed by a Master’s degree in the area of electrical or computer engineering you are interested in pursuing. Online education could provide a good route, especially if you are already working or have other obligations and want to change or step up your career.
Electrical and computer engineering in the future
The combined fields of electrical and computer engineering have the potential to create an even bigger impact on the way we live as we move forward into the future. New technologies are always being developed, and the ways in which we use and interact with existing ones can change over time. Future challenges include facing up to climate change and making the most of our resources, while aspirations could include extended space exploration programs and the further development of AI systems that could change the way we all live and work.
Some specific areas could include:
Smart grid engineering
Smart Grids involve the digitization of the power grid system, which is a huge undertaking when considered on national levels. Smart Grids are all about connection and communication, and the benefits could include faster restoration after a power outage, reduced costs for providers and customers, and a better integration of renewable power sources, especially when their contributions to the grid’s resources are variable, such as wind power that depends on prevailing weather conditions or solar power that varies across the day-night cycle. A relatively small-scale aspect of the Smart Grid system is the installation and usage of smart meters, which already allow millions of customers to monitor their own energy use.
Driverless and electric vehicles
Automated vehicles, including driverless cars, are already on their way to becoming a regular part of our daily lives. There are trials taking place around the world, and some areas already have access to limited driverless technology, such as self-driving taxis and automated deliveries.
Another huge area of interest at the moment is the transition to electric vehicles. This is considered to be a vital part of the drive to reduce emissions, moving to a carbon-neutral (or even carbon positive) future and reducing our reliance on fossil fuels. Progress is already being made, but there is a lot more to be done. The global electric vehicle market is already worth more than $725bn USD, but an estimated 290 million charging points are still required to achieve a global transition by 2040. All this new infrastructure requires electrical engineers, while the constant improvements to the design of the cars and their batteries also requires electrical, electronic and computer engineers.
The Internet of Things has seen the level of interconnectivity in our lives skyrocket in recent years. Most of us are now very familiar with devices such as smartphones and personal assistants, and many of us are starting to get used to interacting with smart thermostats, doorbells and even toasters and kettles. Take the concept of the smart home and expand it to incorporate entire streets and neighborhoods, and you have the beginnings of a smart city. The smart city uses a wide array of sensors and communications to collect and analyze data into actionable decisions. This could lead to huge savings in energy by deploying resources based on demand, improve public transport efficiency, and even change the traffic lights depending on actual traffic conditions.
As new technologies continue to emerge and existing and emerging ones improve, we will always need visionaries and skilled engineers to design, manage and maintain them. This means there will be a need for more and more skilled and qualified electrical and computer engineers well into the future.