The Evolution of Mechanical Engineering & Where It’s Headed

Mechanical engineering students are learning a lot more today than they had in the past – moving their training beyond the likes of levers and beams and other classical mechanical topics. This learning is allowing the ME role to grow and change at pace with the increasingly connected environment around it, and enter the workforce better prepared to handle the role’s pain points.

“Schools are pushing students to learn more about all the different, related disciplines to help them understand, to a certain extent, other things like electronics, electrical engineering, computer science and coding,” shares Spencer Boone, Mechanical Engineer at Altitude. He and his colleagues, Lee Powers and Amy Loomis, resident MEs at Altitude, shared insight around how their work looks today and where it’s headed.

A Day in the Life of an ME

Mechanical engineers at Altitude are tasked with creating an end product that satisfies the product strategy sessions that preceded it, while bringing the industrial designer’s vision of optimal user experience to life.

“From 3D printing and prototypes and a little bit of sewing for one component and then testing assemblies . . . you can jump between that and sitting in front of the software to power it,” shares Amy, when asked about a day in her life. “And lots of talking with users, and bringing prototypes to them for testing. And then we’re building the stuff that we are developing digitally so that we can prove to clients, prove to ourselves, what it actually looks like, feels like, acts like and that it’s ready to be manufactured and handed to somebody else.”

Sounds like a great job for a hands-on type – to design, build and test out ideas all day! But there are definite pain points MEs face as well:

Struggles and Pain Points

Being totally integrated with other disciplines is great, until it isn’t. “You make better products, you can make new experiences but it’s also really hard because there are more complexities to trying to get a product made when there are many different types of systems that can all go wrong,” shared Spencer. “And they’re also working together and dependent upon each other – that can be really tough.” Because even though it’s great to make better products with new and better experiences, it’s not always so great traveling through to that end point.

One part of the journey that can be particularly taxing is communication – or lack thereof. It can create barriers.

Lee shares how these barriers are created: “Everyone speaks their own language. Right?  The client has their own internal language to describe their business and their industry which may be new to us. Strategists, they’re speaking in a language of emotions, and designers’ language may not be language at all, it may be visual. They may be trying to convey something through a shape or a form and, if not manufacturable, we have to find a way to get that shape or form into another form.  And then our language [ME’s] is highly technical. So we all have our own vocabularies and are speaking our own languages and so using the right language at the right time is definitely a communication struggle.” When researching and implementing something, mechanical engineers need to translate their technical details into a language the client, strategists and designers understand – as this understanding is essential to creating cohesive product that works as intended.

And making it work is critical, as companies continue taking products to Asia for manufacturing — which they are doing so much earlier in the design process than ever before.

Designs Are Transitioning to Manufacturer Much Earlier in the Process

“10 or 15 years ago, we would design a part, an assembly and a product from start to finish, and we would hand off a manufacturable database and someone would build it,” says Lee. “Eventually, the final testing, assembly and production design were absorbed by the client or outsourced to China but now, even the individual part design is starting to be absorbed as well. So instead of delivering a final manufacturable solution, we are delivering our third round prototype for someone in China to take it the rest of the way.” And that hand-off point continues to get pushed back as vendors incrementally increase their skill level to accommodate products earlier in the design process.

The trouble with this, of course, is that something is correspondingly, increasingly lost in translation. Beyond the strategy, product design and engineering language disconnect, the original design intent is diluted or lost entirely. It’s not easy to have companies break down communication walls when they’re in the same building, never mind across the ocean.

This is one aspect of the communication issue that’s growing – but there’s another, equally persistent piece that affects every manufacturer: The availability of new technologies that everyone wants . . . whether or not they make sense to implement!

Toss in a Side of AI and IoT, Please! – remove VR and AR

Feature creep.

Everyone wanted to be connected to the internet to gather data, as they’ve heard the Internet of Things (IoT) is something they must adopt or die. And if it isn’t IoT, it’s Artifical Intelligence (AI). They want to “just add AI to it” – and it sounds easy but it’s really hard to do. And unfortunately, with most digital products requiring a physical/hardware component, that task falls to the ME to make it happen. Expectations are higher and not necessarily realistic – and that’s a tough combo.

At Altitude, we are well poised to deliver on those expectations because we are savvy in all of it, but communicating the options available is a task in itself, and exploring how and why this technology does/doesn’t make sense is happening more and more. And it’s a trend that will definitely continue. It’s both exciting and exhausting at times. But who would want a job offering less?

Want to learn more about what we do? Reach out!

Gretchen Hoffman

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Gretchen Hoffman

VP Marketing