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Redefining the ME PUBLIC ACCESS

New Technologies and Skills Change the Profession as it Seeks to Fit a Wide-Open Global Marketplace.

[+] Author Notes

Alan S. Brown. a frequent contributor to Mechanical Engineering is a technical writer based in Dayton. N.J.

Mechanical Engineering 126(09), 34-38 (Sep 01, 2004) (5 pages) doi:10.1115/1.2004-SEP-1

This article focuses on new technologies and skills that change the profession as it seeks to fit a wide-open global marketplace. Mechanical engineers are actively involved in analyzing the workings of muscle, developing interfaces for artificial nerves, creating virtual reality environments, building nanomachines and medical nanodiagnostics, and even creating realistic physical rules for video games. The MIT-Wharton international vehicle program is collecting case studies from component makers to determine what types of manufacturing are best suited for overseas facilities. The institute’s preliminary findings are not surprising. A manufacturer of diesel fuel injectors that runs a highly automated plant with clean rooms and tight-tolerance production may prefer to stay close to local technologists. Biomechanics, which develops prosthetics and medical devices, is already a growing field. In the future, though, new challenges will involve the mechanical aspects of artificial bone, skin, muscle, nerves, and even organs at both the cellular and tissue levels.

Helen Cole may be the prototype of the new mechanical engineer. She has earned three ME degrees, including a doctorate in solid mechanics that involved optical measurements of physical properties. NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center then hired her to perform optomechanical analysis in the optics department. She helped the lab build its micro-optics capabilities and collaborated with the U.S. Army on microfabrication. She is now developing applications within NASA for lab-on-a-chip micro analytical devices.

Cole is only one of thousands who are stretching the definition of mechanical engineering. Mechanical engineers are actively involved in analyzing the workings of muscle, developing interfaces for artificial nerves, creating virtual reality environments, building nanomachines and medical nanodiagnostics, and even creating realistic physical rules for video games. Alice Agogino, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, estimates that mechanical engineers have coded more than half the world's industrial and simulation software.

Increasingly, the profession is looking at these trailblazers as it seeks to redefine itself and train MEs for the future. It is perhaps the most intense discussion of its type in a generation. Like similar exercises in the past, it is a dialogue that began with a rising tide of uncertainty about the future.

The downsizings and mass firings after the dot.com bubble deflated left many engineers feeling vulnerable. So did the jobless recovery that followed. More ominously, MEs see engineering jobs being outsourced overseas, where labor, especially professional lab or, is much, much cheaper.

So far, the "offshoring" of U.S. information technology has attracted most of the attention. Many early offshore contracts went to India, whose educational system produces well-educated, English-speaking engineering professionals. They first showed up on corporate radar in the late 1990s, when companies were desperate for help in tracking down potential Y2K problems. More recently, Indian firms have moved from writing software code and handling technical service calls to larger, complex systems projects.

Other work has moved from the States to Eastern Europe and China. The operating system for Microsoft's latest tablet PC, for example, was developed in Shanghai.

"This is what globalization looks like," said Jack Fritz, a program officer in the National Academy of Engineering. "We want poor countries to do better, and as they do, they will take over some types of work."

Fritz, whose non-profit organization advises Congress, said policy makers have little solid data to assess how strong the offshoring tide has become. He hopes to put together a study that will better define the issue and look at how it affects a broad range of engineers. Yet to Fritz and others who have studied the trend, one fact is clear: Corporations are moving services offshore to slash costs, just as they moved manufacturing overseas during the past two decades.

For MEs, all the hubbub may sound familiar. They saw engineering jobs follow manufacturing overseas during the 1980s and 1990s. In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics warns that the number of mechanical engineering jobs will continue to decline as manufacturing jobs leave the country.

Yet MEs may be in a better position than IT professionals, who enjoyed decades of uninterrupted job growth. MEs have lived through recessions and downsizings before. Despite the constant media barrage about out-of-work engineers, BLS numbers show that the number of MEs on domestic payrolls remained fairly steady between 1999 and 2002. The United States employed 203,620 MEs in 2002, down modestly from 207,300 in 2000 but slightly ahead of 202,910 in 1999. Median salaries actually rose to $65,170 in 2002, from $57,010 in 1999.

A 2001 University of Michigan alumni survey confirms how MEs have thrived. More than one-third of the 180 graduates who responded had moved into management, gone on to start new companies, or used their degrees as springboards to enter careers such as medicine, law, and business management.

Yet the profession remains in flux. Many of the same pressures that have led to increased use of outsourcing and off shoring in information technology promise massive alterations in the mechanical engineering landscape over the coming years.

Many of these trends are clearly visible in the automobile industry, said John B. Moavenzadeh, a former mechanical engineer and now executive director of the joint MIT-Wharton School of Business International Motor Vehicle Program.

During the 1990s, he explained, Detroit automakers spun off their parts manufacturing operations. These divisions, such as General Motors' Delphi and Ford's Visteon, had grown bloated and expensive over the years. By setting them up as independent suppliers, the automakers hoped to reduce their own costs while increasing competition among parts suppliers. To survive, the division had to slash costs and nail down deals with other automakers.

This proved a different world for many mechanical engineers. Instead of working in-house to create systems, they now had to collaborate with designers and other engineers at the automakers and at the smaller companies that supplied discrete products. The ability to work concurrently on flexible and always-changing teams became a critical job requirement.

This pattern was by no means unique to the auto industry. It was repeated throughout American industry during the past decade.

Another change involved manufacturing locations. At the start of the 1990s, the auto industry was fixed on building a "world car" that could, with minor modifications, be sold anywhere. The industry soon discovered that buyers have local tastes. During the 19901;, the industry began to build where it sold.

"That's why we're in China:' said Moavenzadeh. "People there are just lapping them up. When I went to Tiananmen Square two years ago, the ratio of bicycles to cars was about seven to three. When I returned last November, the ratio had reversed. Production in China is about two million vehicles per year. Automakers have flocked to China and their suppliers have followed."

The MIT -Wharton international vehicle program is collecting case studies from component makers to determine what types of manufacturing are best suited for overseas facilities. The institute's preliminary findings are not surprising. A manufacturer of diesel fuel injectors that runs a highly automated plant with clean rooms and tight-tolerance production may prefer to stay close to local technologists. Labor-intensive assembly operations, such as making wire harnesses, have a greater incentive to move where wages are cheap.

According to Moavenzadeh, the renewed emphasis on "build where you sell" has important implications for U.S. mechanical engineers. "We see lots of anecdotal evidence that there is a management push to get more engineers to China, because it is a growing customer, and India, because of its highly trained people," he said. "They want to push more engineering into those countries or constrain developing those types of positions in the United States, Europe, and other high-cost areas.

"Cost is a big factor. This is not a very profitable industry and it's brutal out there," Moavenzadeh said. "They're looking for opportunities to cut costs." Yet not all services are moving offshore. "I've talked with some people in management, and they said very clearly that they've learned not to chase labor," Moavenzadeh said. Some work-particularly rote work that involves repetitive application of a specific methodology to a defined problem-is better suited to outsourcing.

Take, for example, warrantology, the study of warranty data to analyze the reliability of auto parts and systems. "There's a guy who sits in the corner by himself with giant Excel spreadsheets and cuts data 50 different ways," Moavenzadeh said. "They don't need him to interact with other engineers in the department. They can simply e-mail a spreadsheet to Bangalore at the end of the day and have five people study that data while they're sleeping."

Those jobs are what Adnan Akay, head of Carnegie Mellon University's engineering department, calls "blue collar engineering." They are the routine technology jobs that can be done without too much concern for high-level issues. (This has also proved the case in IT, where companies without carefully defined work statements and procedures have generally failed to achieve significant savings from outsourcing.)

Yet Akay warns that more than blue collar engineering jobs are likely to go overseas. "The next step is for those engineers and the people with whom they work to move into other positions that involve more design and creativity," he said. "In a free global market, jobs and economic development will distribute themselves more evenly."

New technology makes such distribution much easier than in the past. Thanks to low-cost telecommunications and the Internet, the cost of staying in constant and immediate touch with far-flung enterprises has dropped to virtually zero.

At the same time, engineers everywhere have access to new tools that help teams collaborate with one another. At their simplest, these include e-mail and CAD documents. At a more complex level, they include systems that track document revisions and automatically route work through the engineering process.

These new collaboration and engineering tools are both automated and intelligent, according to Patricia Mead, who heads the NAE's Engineering Education 2020 program, which was formed to develop a better understanding of the skills engineers will need in 2020.

"As the technology continues to advance, the engineers of the future will handle different types of activities than they are doing now," she said. "Thanks to automation and smarter simulation and computational software, there's less need to apply intellectual guidance to certain types of activities. Some engineering jobs handled by people with advanced degrees may be done offshore or by people who do not necessarily have a bachelor's degree.

"Remember, 20 years ago, a lot of engineers were sitting at a drafting board. That's not going happen today, and the jobs we take for granted today may not be there tomorrow:' Mead said.

A. Galip Ulsoy concurs. He is director of the National Science Foundation's Division of Civil and Mechanical Systems and a former chairman of the ME department at the University of Michigan. He noted how agriculture and industry have grown more productive and require fewer workers than in the past.

"Those efficiencies are one of the things engineering brings to the table," he said. "The reason 80 percent of U.S. jobs are in service is not so much because services are growing, but because services are not as efficient as manufacturing. We need more people to produce a service. Now we're bringing engineering to services and making them more productive. This is a natural trend and consequence of engineering."

The question is: How do mechanical engineers navigate this shifting landscape?

In the past, U.S. engineers responded to technoeconomic challenges in one of two ways. They either developed new skills or abandoned entire fields-steel, textiles, ship building, consumer electronics-and moved oh to more advanced technologies.

Skill sets may have to change, but don't tell Lee Matsch that traditional engineering education is obsolete. "That kind of proposition reflects an alarming detachment from the reality of the profession," said the retired vice president of engineering at Allied Signal Aeromechanical Systems. "Mechanical engineering is pervasive and the fundamental skills, insights, and knowledge that come with it-thermodynamics, Newton's laws, heat transfer—are not going to go away.

"Instead of the obsolescence, it's exactly the opposite," he said. "There's so much engineering knowledge to be mastered, it's an endless, career-long challenge. The ability to solve problems and apply engineering knowledge is not a slam dunk that comes with an undergraduate degree. It involves skills you have to cultivate."

According to Matsch, the best engineers always learned new skills and sought assignments to broaden their knowledge. The profession, he said, should encourage the development of "deep generalists" whose ability to see interconnections between a broad range of activities makes them leaders through their ability to influence and inspire the work of others.

Corporate recruiters are also looking for potential leaders who bridge multiple technologies, said Sidney Leibovich, chair of Cornell University's mechanical and aerospace engineering department. "The type of jobs in demand hasn't changed that much," he said. "Recruiters still want very bright people who can work in teams and lead teams. What they're really looking for today is people with experience in multidisciplinary environments."

Cornell, like many top engineering programs, gives ME students opportunities to team with electrical engineers, computer scientists, and operations research engineers on complex projects whose solutions demand a broad range of skills. "Recruiters love people who have had those experiences," Leibovich said.

Ulsoy of the NSF agrees. "When Jet Propulsion Laboratory recruits at the University of Michigan, mechanical engineers are the people they hire for systems integration and coordination," he said. "The automakers need people who understand both mechanical systems and computer networks to integrate vehicle electronics." Because of their background in design, control, and manufacturing, mechanical engineers are well suited to manage complex projects, Ulsoy said.

Typifying an emerging trend among engineers, Helen Cole of NASA has seen her career cover some ground, from optics to labs-on-a-chip.

Grahic Jump LocationTypifying an emerging trend among engineers, Helen Cole of NASA has seen her career cover some ground, from optics to labs-on-a-chip.

Today's mechanical engineers, however, need more than strictly technical knowledge. When University of Michigan ME alumni ranked the skills that helped them most in their careers, they gave high marks to design and creativity, math, physics, and computer know-how. Yet none of these technical skills ranked higher than such "soft" capabilities as interpersonal relations, technical communications, and professional ethics.

This doesn't surprise Akay at Carnegie Mellon. "MEs increasingly work on teams that cross corporate and national boundaries," Akay said. "As systems grow larger and more complex, the engineering required to design and manufacture them becomes more complex. They require intense communications, just like a living system. If engineers don't do that from design through assembly, those complex systems are bound to fail."

Many colleges now teach those skills. At Cornell, for example, all MEs must write reports and make oral reports and design presentations. They not only work together on teams, but also use formal psychological methods to create compatible groups.

Other programs collaborate with their offshore counterparts. "Students develop a global mindset," according to Wait Laity, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory's nuclear products manager and ASME's vice president of engineering education. "They learn to place technology in a glob al context, while learning interdisciplinary teamwork. From the feedback I've seen, many of them say it's the best course they ever took."

To Agogino at Berkeley, the real world's toehold in ME education creates mechanical engineers who understand their customers. "One reason why mechanical engineers a-re so good at- creating software and integrating systems is that they're trained in customer-driven thought," she said.

To preserve jobs, engineers must remain on the leading edge of technology. Today, this includes projects that combine mechanical with electronic, D1aterials, chenucal, and biomechanical engineering. Integrating electronics and software into mechanical systems, for example, has become a growth field for MEs. T he future, though, will continue to stretch the definition of mechanical engineering.

Take nanotechnology, for example. It promises to become a cornerstone of the new century. Congress, which appropriated $3.7 billion for research over the next four years, certainly thinks so. So fa r, however, most nanoscale products have consisted of discrete particles used to make sunscreens, coatings, and semiconductor polishes. Moreover, the field has traditionally been the province of material, surface, and electrical engineers whose deposition techniques create the small devices.

Yet nanoparticles are just part of the overall trend to miniaturization. Microelectromechanical systems, such as accelerometers, sensors, actuators, and labs-on-a-chip, are already a growing industry, Leibovich said.

Ulsoy said he believes that MEs will play a critical role in finding ways to create systems that span many scales, from nano- and micrometers to n1illimeters and multi meters.

Biomechanics, which develops prosthetics and medical devices, is already a growing field. In the future, though, new challenges will involve the mechanical aspects of artificial bone, skin, muscle, nerves, and even organs at both the cellular and tissue levels.

Leibovich sees opportunities for engineers in conserving energy and reducing emmissions. "We have a $16 trillion energy infrastructure that ranges from vehicles and delivery systems to generators and refineries," he said. "Global warming will force us to re-engineer it entirely. How we do that and accommodate greener distributed energy resources will raise an awful lot of issues that involve mechanical engineering."

Like NASA's Helen Cole, who went from solid state physics to micro-optics to nucrofabrication to labs-on-a-chip, mechanical engineers must continue to evolve. They must push the creative, leading-edge, entrepreneurial projects that will keep the profession in the forefront.

When Berkeley started a new nano-biomolecular engineering program, it was Agogino who successfully lobbied the school's provost to include mechanical engineers. The program is now led by a mechanical engineer, Arun Majumdar, an ASME Fellow who also chairs the advisory board of ASME's Nanotechnology Institute.

"Too often, we limit ourselves," Agogino said. "We're well positioned to do so many things. It's an attitude. We have to have the confidence to reach out to biotechnology or nanotechnology and bring it into our field. I don't put up barriers that don't need to be there."

"We're well positioned to do so many things."

Copyright © 2004 by ASME
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