Distillation columns are very common in chemical engineering. Bridges are very common in civil engineering.
In chemical engineering, the design of distillation columns have to a very substantial degree been incorporated in software platforms. While students need to understand the key assumptions undergirding the calculations in these software platforms, it has become no longer necessary to do hand calculations. The opportunity for novel research in distillation is low, except as novel materials may require considerations above and beyond those embodied in software platforms.
In civil engineering, design of bridges (except for the very small number of high performance or “signature” bridges) has become routinized with embodiment in codes and standards, and by the use of structural analysis platforms. While students need to understand the key assumptions undergirding the calculations is these codes, standards and software platforms, it has become no longer necessary to do hand calculations. The opportunity for novel research in bridge design is low, except as novel materials and highly unique situations may require considerations above and beyond those embodied in codes, standards and software platforms.
With increasing automation of engineering design, it becomes essential that students be educated for the non-routine problems that will go beyond the capability of extant software, codes and standards. While they must know about the codes, standards and software, this should not be the strong focus of their education. More and more the design and maintenance of the routine, while important (perhaps more so in civil engineering where systems must last a long time) will become the purview of technicians and automation. The role of engineers in these circumstances will be to be alert to, characterize, and modify activity for the unusual.
PS – as an environmental engineer specializing in water, I would say much the same thing for activated sludge, rapid sand water filtration or primary sedimentation. Though there is important work in optimization and in the automated design of resilient systems yet to be done in these contexts.