3 Books All Mechanical Engineers Must Read


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We thought it might be interesting to ask a few mechanical engineering professors what books they thought should be on every professional mechanical engineer’s bookshelf; books that convey key lessons and principles. Below are three submitted reviews. Perhaps these books are already on your bookshelf. If not, maybe they should be. Happy reading.

To Engineer Is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design
By Henry Petroski

“In this book, and other writings, Petroski emphasizes the importance of studying and understanding design failures as a means to creating better designs. This book cites many well-known examples of engineering failures such as the Hyatt Regency skywalk, the Mianus River bridge collapse, and the DC-10 engine servicing procedure. However, the main message of the book is that failures may be initiated by factors that were not considered in the original design, or not re-evaluated as designs were optimized or changed. Particularly now, as our design analysis and visualization tools become increasingly refined and precise, Petroski’s book reminds us that no computer tool can ever replace critical thinking on the part of an engineer.”

- Allen H. Hoffman, professor of mechanical engineering, Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
By Robert Pirsig

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is arguably one of the most important books written in the 20th century. Although published over 40 years ago, it remains highly relevant today as a key volume on any mechanical engineer’s bookshelf. Conceived and written well before the formalized introduction of quality management and standards, Robert Pirsig asks the question, “What is quality?”—a question that ultimately literally drove him insane. Written in narrative form, this book has multiple layers. On the surface, it is the story of a father (the author) on a motorcycle trip with his 12-year-old son. As the journey unfolds, the second layer of the book is revealed as the author comes to terms with a ghost named Phaedrus, who is his former personality prior to his receiving electroshock therapy, which was the ultimate downward spiral into insanity. As the story of Phaedrus is slowly becomes known, the third layer of the book is also revealed, which is a journey into the philosophical questions that remain relevant today: Why does technology alienate rather than unify society? What is quality, and if we can’t define it, how do we live a high-quality life? This book represents a journey upon which all mechanical engineers should embark.”

- Anthony J. Marchese, professor of mechanical engineering, Colorado State University

The Design of Everyday Things
By Donald Norman

“Every mechanical engineer should have a copy of Don Norman’s terrific book, The Design of Everyday Things. This book is a classic. It’s been through several editions, yet each time I read it I come away with insights that are new, fresh, and important. This is because the book is only partly about design; it is also about people and the ways that people use, or struggle to use, simple, familiar products. Using consumer products such as doors, faucets, and keypads as examples, Norman asks us to step back from our problem-solving work from time to time and consider how people will use or maintain the things that we have created. The examples of poor design are hilarious and Norman’s guidelines for good design are both simple and profound. The Design of Everyday Things can change the way we think about the products we use, and about the part we play in creating new products.”

- Jeffrey A. Donnell, professor of mechanical engineering, Georgia Institute of Technology

Mark Crawford is an independent writer.

Perhaps these books are already on your bookshelf—if not, maybe they should be.

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June 2016

by Mark Crawford, ASME.org