Are Mechanical Design Engineers Becoming Extinct?

November , 2009

So Matthew Loew wrote an article about whether the Mechanical Design Engineer is a vanishing breed.  (Matthew refers to a “Design Engineer” but here in the Bay Area that is often a particular kind of Electrical Engineer, so I’m using the longer term.)  He’s looking at it from the point of view of someone doing the hiring, so I want to talk about it from the point of view of the person seeking to be hired.

I have always considered myself to be a generalist.  My undergraduate degree is from St. John’s College, whose program consists of what used to be considered an education, reading and discussing the classics.  I went there rather than a more conventional school even though I knew I was most interested in math and science in some form.  I made that choice partly because the students there were engaged and excited about learning in a way I didn’t see at other schools, and partly because I wanted to understand the basics and the beginnings and the underpinnings of things, and where else was I going to get to actually read and study Euclid, Ptolomy, Newton, Einstein, Lobachevsky and so many others, rather than reading a textbook?

After St. John’s I knew I wanted to study engineering, and I specifically targeted Stanford because of their emphasis on both aesthetics and performance.  While taking undergraduate engineering courses to prepare for applying to graduate school, I fell in love with free body diagrams and hand calculations (i.e. solving a problem, usually to find stresses, using pencil, paper and calculator, but not a finite element analysis (FEA) tool).  They were so cool!

I give all of this as a preface to comment on Matthew’s shock at someone saying about a statics problem, “I have not solved one of those since college.”

I’m a seasoned mechanical engineer, with a Master’s Degree and over 10 years of experience.  Not only that, but I’m someone who loved to do hand calculations and was extremely fluent in them at one time.  And I’ve done a hand calculation maybe once a year in all the time I’ve been out of school.  That’s probably being generous.  Could I do one today?  Of course.  Would I be as fluent at it today as I was when Shigley was fresh in my mind?  I don’t think so.

So why is that?  There are a couple of reasons.  When you work in a large company in a mature industry, your job tends to be very narrow.  There is the perception that if you’re doing only one function day in and day out, that you’re going to be especially fluent and proficient.  While there is some truth to this, there is also a big downside to so much specialization.  It can easily make someone become so narrowly focused on that one function that they lose sight of other aspects that affect the part.  Designing the perfect part for crashworthiness, for example, is completely useless if the part can’t be manufactured, can’t be assembled to other parts, or costs 20 times what any other part in the structure does.

So let’s say my job is working on side impact for safety and crash.  I’m doing FEA, I’m evaluating test setups to make sure they are correct, I’m correlating my analyses to test results, I’m suggesting design improvements to get the performance we want, I’m working closely with the stamping guys and the assembly guys to make sure my design improvements can be manufactured, etc.  But one thing I’m definitely not doing is doing any hand calculations.

Which brings me to the second reason.  When you’re working on something with a complex geometry such as an automotive structure, and the type of performance you are concerned with is the crash performance, or even separating out the primary normal modes of the structure from those of the engine, there just is not a hand calculation that makes sense.  Now if you’re working on a small component part whose geometry is fairly simple and the main concern is whether a human hand pushing on it will break it, then sure, a hand calculation is great, and will give you at least a first order answer.

From my point of view, the frustrating thing is that, even if you’re very  interested in being a generalist engineer, there is no career path for that.  On the one hand there is the factor of each job being fairly narrow, as outlined above.  So that would lead the would-be generalist to do a bunch of very different jobs.  Yet short of an admittedly impressive stunt like the San Jose recent graduate who did 50 jobs in 50 states in a year,  most employers would rather hire someone who’s already done the exact same job in the same industry.  This makes the mission of doing a bunch of different roles a very difficult one.  As a result people, even those who are actively fighting it, tend to get typecast into one particular role.

Robert A. Heinlein once said, “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”  I agree with him, and while there are things on his list I haven’t yet done, there are others I have done that he didn’t list, like milk a cow or weave a cloth.

I agree with Matthew’s list of what a mechanical engineer should be able to do.  But just because I haven’t done something lately, that doesn’t mean I don’t have the brains and the drive to figure it out!

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One Response to “Are Mechanical Design Engineers Becoming Extinct?”

  1. Interesting! It’s good to know there are other generalists out there. Sometimes it’s hard to find them. I’m not sure we need as many generalists as specialists – at least for now – because most of the work is quite specialized.

    Thanks for a great article.

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