Today, we are firmly into the fourth industrial revolution – one that is powered by software and data. Every company worth its salt is getting on board and embarking on an aggressive journey of digitalization to enhance their customers’ experience, increase internal productivity, and drive economies of scale across their enterprise. To move the initiatives forward with speed, significant investments are being made in digital infrastructure and software engineering talent. There is now a huge demand for people with skills in cloud computing, mobile development, UI/UX, cyber security, data science, machine learning … – the list grows by the day. As Marc Andreesen presciently remarked almost a decade ago, “software is eating the world”, and all of us are trying to join the party.
With all this buzz, it can sometimes be hard to remember that there are other engineers on this planet who do not write software but are nevertheless developing equally critical solutions for humanity. One group that sits at almost the opposite end of the spectrum from the software folks is the community of mechanical engineers. These erstwhile heroes of the first industrial revolution must feel like their world is under siege today. Even though the world literally depends on their creations to operate and survive, they as a community seem to be almost forgotten, with even their recent contributions classified under a catch-all tag called “tech”. This article makes a small attempt to bring some balance to today’s lopsided conversation. You may see it as a tribute to under-appreciated mechanical engineers in a world seemingly obsessed with software.
Move fast and break things – done the right way
Mechanical engineers are not new to disruption. It comes with the territory when you are operating in one of the world’s oldest engineering disciplines. They have learned over the years to adapt as the world changes around them and keep doing what they have always done best – build great infrastructure products that make modern life possible.
However, in a world obsessed with all things digital, we seem to have lost our appreciation for what it takes to build something that we can touch and feel – something that our life may very well depend on. Our power generation plants, our transportation systems, our appliances, our climate control systems, our water purification plants – all critical to our day-to-day life – are highly dependent on smoothly running mechanical hardware, and we just take them for granted.
Unfortunately, the physical world is messy and does not always work predictably. Mechanical things by their very nature deteriorate and wear over time. They can stick, jam, fatigue, and fail, sometimes in catastrophic ways. We don’t have to worry about this stuff because of dedicated mechanical engineers who work behind the scenes to manage these risks and ensure our safety. These folks expend a lot of effort to test their designs well beyond their operating limits and ensure fail-safe operation when things do break. They literally move fast and break things – but they do it in controlled tests conditions with crash test dummies rather than in the real world with live humans.
As the industrial world aggressively pushes forward to digitalize, our mechanical engineers are ensuring that the hardware on which all this new software will ride is robust. For if software is eating the world, hardware is hosting the party. Even the most intelligent control system or the most appealing user interface will be of no use if the underlying system does not deliver its core physical functions. For example, would you ride a car with the most beautiful touchscreen interface if the brakes failed every so often? So while we should wholeheartedly recognize and celebrate our software engineers for all their innovative products, we should equally celebrate our mechanical engineers, and for that matter, all types of hardware engineers who build the infrastructure that supports them. As they innovate and push their new designs to the very far edges of what is possible, we can rest assured that they will also be working hard to unearth any new failure modes, analyze them, and design them out, before the products are ever put in front of humans.
Mechanical Engineering in the 21st Century – what does it look like?
At the turn of the millennium, mechanical engineers started realizing that humanity’s expectations from products have evolved. Traditional vectors of differentiation such as cost, safety and reliability are now increasingly considered background noise – these things are expected, everyone has them, and only order-of-magnitude changes in these attributes create noticeable value. In order to differentiate, these functional “hard” KPIs need to be augmented with some softer ones like convenience and user delight. Form is now as important as function, and there is a significant premium to be had for the best designed products.
Given these changes in expectations, how have mechanical engineers adapted, and what new tools have they added to their repertoire to develop our next generation of products? In my view, there are three important developments and trends that are enabling breakthrough innovations by mechanical engineers in recent days:
Advanced simulation tools and new manufacturing techniques are progressively opening up the design space. For the longest time, our designs have been constrained by how well we are able to model and predict the performance of our physical systems. This capability has seen a huge evolution in the past decade. With the progressive increases in computational speed, we now have access to multi-domain simulation tools that can optimize for weight, cost, and a variety of performance metrics, while running on consumer grade computing platforms. Millions of designs can be simulated in a matter of hours or days to iteratively migrate towards the best solution, which can then be built to validate its performance. Such advanced simulation tools are generating highly optimized design concepts that were not possible to conceive in the past, with complex topologies and material compositions. Which brings us to another important topic – manufacturability. Until very recently, the designs generated from simulation tools had to be modified to be manufacturable which meant that features like weird shapes and intertwined materials had to be made simpler, which ended up compromising the overall performance. With the advent of techniques like additive manufacturing, this is no longer a constraint. 3D printing systems now allow us to create highly complex shapes and have rapidly expanded the range of sizes and material compositions that they can support. With this freedom, we are now truly able to explore human centric design and develop products that are ergonomic, customized, visually pleasing and fully optimized for performance.
Advances in materials science are enabling a slew of mechanical innovations. Carbon-fiber composites and aluminum alloys are among a class of lightweight materials with much higher strength-to-weight ratios that are powering the growth of industries like electric vehicles, robots, cobots, drones, and soon, personal flight. Smart materials and polymers are enabling applications such as adaptive fabrics and artificial muscles where properties can be changed on demand and be responsive to ambient conditions. New engineered surfaces and coatings are allowing us to better tailor material properties for friction, wear, corrosion, aerodynamic drag and moisture resistance. As we combine these tunable material properties with our advanced simulation capabilities, what was not possible just a few years ago due to mechanical and physical constraints is suddenly becoming feasible.
Sensing and AI are making physical assets more predictable and intelligent. Most mechanical systems must be maintained at prescribed intervals during their lifetime to ensure adequate performance. Even so, a good proportion of them malfunction or fail without warning, resulting in inconvenience and potentially expensive repairs or replacements. All of this has been changing of late with the development of ultra-low-cost sensors that are being used to instrument infrastructural assets and track their performance. Sophisticated signal processing algorithms are being used to convert raw signals like vibration and temperature into actionable insights that help understand if the underlying system is working properly. This information is then used to schedule a maintenance visit before the onset of a malfunction or failure, hence increasing customer satisfaction and creating huge improvements in operational productivity. Mechanical engineers are playing a critical role in making all this happen. They use their understanding of the underlying physics to figure out what sensors to use and where to put them, and then use their deep domain expertise to develop algorithms that convert the raw signals into useful interpretations. These are then fed into an expert system or AI model to derive insights and take actions, either autonomously or via human intervention. This approach is now being deployed at scale and should eventually result in an intelligent system of systems that is robust, efficient and cost effective.
The above three trends are helping mechanical engineers innovate and should keep them quite busy for years to come. And humanity will continue to benefit as these innovative products are rolled out into our daily lives.
So here is a shout out to my fellow mechanical engineers, the unsung heroes of the digital age. You may not be getting a lot of attention nowadays, but I know that you are still plugging away, working on that next life changing product that will make our daily existence just a little more comfortable. Keep going – the world depends on you.