A New Type of Engineer is Emerging – Meet the Digital Engineer

by John Varrasi, ASME Public Information

Challenged to deal with the unprecedented rate of change brought by the increasingly digitized and data-driven economy, companies of all stripes are recruiting mechanical engineers with aptitude and specialized skills in computer programming, computer coding, and artificial intelligence.

According to educators, MEs in high demand today will be required to function comfortably in the virtual world and be able to design products and systems from real-time image-based representations.  “Now more than ever, mechanical engineers will need to mediate through a computer,” said Eliot Winer, professor and associate director of the Virtual Reality Center at Iowa State University.

Big Data

One factor driving this paradigm shift in the mechanical engineering profession stems from corporate interests to meet customer expectations in the emerging digital age.  According to a recent report by Accenture, 25 percent of the world’s economy will be digital by 2020.  In the midst of this digital revolution, customers will have greater access to product information that will enable them to interact with businesses through a wide range of data channels.  To succeed, companies will be required to develop highly automated and highly intelligent machines and processes that can harvest data and use it to create business solutions, improve products, and enhance customer interaction.  And they will need professionals skilled in parsing all this data into actionable plans.

Another factor playing a role in the new engineering model relates to technological complexity and the proliferation of sensors, artificial intelligence, and sophisticated electro-mechanical systems in products.  Driverless cars and interconnected household appliances already are at the threshold, and the not-too-distant future might bring such disruptive technologies as nano-robots that recognize and treat cancer.  Companies on the leading edge of these new technologies will seek mechanical engineers to write algorithms, develop autonomous learning systems and predictive models, and design intelligent controls.

“Any industry that deals with large amounts of data processing, statistics, analysis, and computer programming would welcome digital mechanical engineers,” said Tahira Reid, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Purdue University.  “These engineers use data to develop interactive user interfaces, specialty graphics software, and visualization tools.”

To train this new breed of mechanical engineer, Purdue has developed a curriculum that includes courses and laboratories in linear circuit analysis, automatic control systems, and signal processing, while recently expanding its offerings into the areas of perception-based engineering and digitally enabled materials prototyping .  Other universities are filling academic posts with professors and researchers with expertise in artificial intelligence, autonomous systems, and data-driven shape design.

Michigan Technological University in Houghton, Mich., has completely revised its mechanical engineering curriculum, incorporating a simulation focus into the design/build methodology and adding courses in controls, sensors, and systems thinking.  “The digital engineer is now expected to carry out simulations in the virtual environment first, before proceeding to the design, build, and test stages,” said William W. Predebon, professor and J.S. Endowed Department Chair in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Engineering Mechanics at Michigan Technological.  “In industry, this approach results in reduced product development cycles.”

New Skill Sets

In addition to achieving a high comfort level with simulation and virtual design, many mechanical engineers today are embracing the latest visualization and graphics tools that enable real-time image processing, mapping, and 3D modeling.  Others are immersing themselves into the domain of computer science, developing aptitudes in digital metrics, computer programming, and, in some instances, coding.

“Many companies today are seeking engineers with a blend of computer programming and traditional computer-aided design skills,” said Winer of Iowa State.

These companies populate many industries, from aviation and automotive to retailing and food service.  Currently, digital disruptors like Google and Microsoft are taking the lead, but traditional companies seeking innovation and a competitive edge are making strides.  Auto companies already are building new digital models supporting the connected car, while longer-term R&D programs will be focused on in-vehicle networks and boosting computer power for control systems.  GE Aviation, Samsung, and Boeing are among other players in the digital economy.    

To be more relevant to these companies, many mechanical engineering students are rethinking career preparation.  Some ME students are pursuing a dual major in computer science and mechanical engineering.  Others are learning information technology on their own.

“Many MEs with extensive knowledge in programming and other aspects of computer science are self-taught,” noted Tahira Reid of Purdue.  “Some enroll in corporate internships, in which in-depth training and advanced skills not available in the university setting may be acquired.  One student of mine told me that he learned quite a bit by attending hackathons.”

According to Reid, the interdisciplinary nature of mechanical engineering today will require some level of knowledge and comfort in information technology. “Oftentimes we find digital MEs embracing a number of disciplines outside of mechanical engineering, collaborating not only with electrical and other types of engineers but professionals from the social sciences and psychology as well,” said Reid. “With the burgeoning digital economy, the career landscape in mechanical engineering is evolving.”

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