A Career in Design Engineering
What do engineers do? It is a difficult question to answer because there are almost as many types of engineering jobs as there are engineers. Finding your niche in engineering takes time, but there is a place for you, regardless of your interests and personality.
One of those niches is mechanical design and analysis. However, even within mechanical design and analysis, there are many different types of jobs done by engineers with many different types of personalities and backgrounds.
Most machines and equipment we use in everyday life have been designed by engineers. The design process usually begins with a set of requirements – things that the product is expected to do. The design engineers take these requirements, or specifications, and go to work designing the product in such a way that it will meet or exceed these requirements. In many companies, design engineers work in teams. A design team might consist of a program manager, who is the overall manager of the project, a project engineer, who coordinates the efforts of the engineers doing the design, and the design engineers themselves. The team might include mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, civil engineers, draftsmen, and skilled labor such as machinists and mechanics. As a design engineer, you are the expert on the technical capabilities and limitations of the design.
The design engineer uses many tools. Basic, thorough calculations are done to determine stresses, strains, temperatures, interactions with other components, etc. Research into different materials is often required. Talking on the telephone and in person with vendors who supply components and materials is often a big part of the design process. Sometimes a finite element analysis (FEA) of the design is needed to get computer predictions of stress, temperature, magnetic field, etc. Perhaps one of the most valuable assets a design engineer can have is just plain common sense. Having built a few projects in the garage, or working on your own car will certainly help you to be a better design engineer.
Some design engineers find that finite element analysis is a very exciting specialty. Larger companies may have full-time FEA analysts, while some engineering analysts work as FEA consultants, either independently or as part of a consulting company.
The physical configuration and materials selection for a product are not the only concerns of the design engineer, however. Long-term issues such as corrosion, fatigue, fracture, reliability, safety, product maintenance, costs, and the life expectancy of a product are just a few of the many considerations that go into a design.
Design engineers need to have creativity and new ideas. The design engineer may need to “think outside the box” to really make a good design, which can make the project challenging and interesting. The skills the engineer learns in college are invaluable as design engineers and analysts need to be constantly learning, both to keep up with new technologies and to learn about unfamiliar issues.
Most products need to have a pleasing appearance, so aesthetics might be important. Good writing skills are needed, too, because most products will need good directions for usage, a thorough report to the customer, or some other way of communicating the technical aspects of the product. Design engineers often make formal presentations about their designs to the customers paying for the product. This provides the challenge of having good verbal communication and being able to think on your feet.
People who like to “tinker” with things, make things in the basement or garage or fix things that have broken are often drawn into design engineering. A natural curiosity for how things work, why they work or don’t work, and why and how they break are invaluable traits for design engineers. Children who like to disassemble their toys to see what makes them tick are good candidates for a career in design engineering and analysis. There is immense satisfaction in having designed and built something that will make the world a better place. Of course, after the design is completed, the design engineer is the technical expert for the design and is still consulted for new applications of the design, improvements that can be made, and maintenance of the product.
A Career in Nanotechnology
Mechanical engineering is, by design, a broad engineering field requiring the knowledge of material properties (mechanical, chemical, electrical) with the skill to use this fundamental knowledge to create devices and products. The study and development of materials and devices with dimensions smaller than 100x10-9 meters (100 billionths of a meter or 100 nanometers) is the playground for engineers and scientists with a nanotechnology focus. For reference, viruses are typically 20 to 200 nm in size.
The mechanical engineering curriculum provides students interested in a career in nanotechnology with the fundamentals in math, chemistry, and physics to make sense of structures with dimensions 1,000 times smaller than red blood cells. When materials and devices can be designed and fabricated with desirable properties, an engineer has a very powerful method of creating devices and products that were never-before possible.
Broad Career Possibilites
Expertise in nanotechnology is broadly applicable across the technical fields. Nanotechnology holds promise for decreasing the power consumption of electronics and machines, providing unique treatments to disease, and enabling the creation of stronger and lighter materials.
Employers of mechanical engineers with a nanotechnology focus include large technology companies, small start-up companies, and national and government labs. Given the interdisciplinary experience gained by studying nanotechnology, mechanical engineers strengthen their breadth of knowledge across technical disciplines. Nearly any modern technology has aspects of mechanical, electrical, and materials engineering. Breadth of knowledge means employment stability by providing a large employment base.
Engineers have the ability to design, fabricate, and test devices. Nanotechnology engineers could focus on:
- the theory of nanotechnology and spend significant time simulating device function;
- the fabrication of nanotechnology and develop new techniques to make new products;
- or the characterization and testing of nanotechnology to verify theory and fabrication results.
According to BCC Research, the global market for nanotechnology was $20.1 billion in 2011 and will reach $48.9 billion by 2017, with a forecast of $37.3 billion for nanoscale materials and $11.4 billion for nanoscale equipment. Mechanical engineers have the proper depth and breadth across the science, physics, and engineering to make tangible contributions to moth materials and equipment for this burgeoning field.
Educational requirements for nanoscale-focused engineers range from a B.S. to graduate degrees. Earning a M.S. degree with a research focus on nanoscale devices, materials, methods, and theory provides many opportunities into the research and development world of nanotechnology. Continuing on to earn a Ph.D. will enable true depth in your chosen interest area within nanotechnology. Given the true interdisciplinary nature of nanotechnology, research typically requires a strong knowledge of cross-disciplinary fields, e.g. mechanical and electrical engineering, materials science, chemistry, and physics.
If you like solving problems as well as defining the problems and formulating solutions based on a solid understanding of fundamental principles, nanotechnology is the right field for you.