A brief history of engineering consultancy

"Consultants are like Mr. Wolf (Harvey Keitel) in Pulp Fiction: they tell you what you already know and they expect to be paid for it." - Anonymous

The origins of technical consultancies date from the middle of the 19th century as a result of large and complex projects of the railway companies. In those days of Brunel and Stephenson, construction was not separate from the tasks of the project engineer and the entrepreneur but the expansion of railway exceeded the capacity of those pioneers to supervise each aspect of the business. Latter, project engineers began to work on specific areas (structures, water, traffic design, project management, etc...) as consultants.

British engineers were the first engineer consultants but the idea soon spread among other countries. In its beginnings, consultancy was synonymous of civil engineering as this was the main field of activity. In Europe, two different engineering methods emerged. On one hand, the British model was based on a self-taught, empirical and inductive approach. On the other, the French one, a sector dominated by a highly institutionalized education with a strong academic background. The French administration regulated the activity of consultancy and became the most important client of local consulting. Thus, the sector was dominated by British and French firms until the World War II, when US consultancies emerged as the leaders of the sector.
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Consulting in Spain developed later than in other European and American countries and it was not until the 1960s that this activity began to be known. Civil engineering is still the most important field, followed by industry, energy, and, more recently, environmental engineering. The preparations of the Olympics in Barcelona and the International Expositions in Seville and Zaragoza had great influence on the expansion and internazionalization of the companies. The main overseas markets where Spanish firms operate are less developed countries in Latin America and the North of Africa. Only few Spanish consultancies are carrying out high-tech projects in very competitive European countries and only the future will say if complex projects designed from a peripheral country can meet the demands from more advanced economies.

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