How will the Internet of Things change mechanical engineering?

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What if most appliances in your home were connected to the internet? That’s the future as imagined in many visions of the Internet of Things (IoT).

Today, when you think of IP-enabled devices, hardware such as your phone, tablet, smart TV or PC probably comes to mind, and for good reason: These gadgets all have screens, which are essential for the popular video streaming apps (e.g., Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, etc.) that have accounted for the bulk of all internet traffic in North America this decade, according to Sandvine.

A vast opportunity for mechanical engineers: Understanding the scale of the IoT

In the IoT, a qualifying “thing” might be much more minimalistic, having only a printed circuit board and a few other bundled components for exchanging data with other IoT nodes. It could be anything from a sensor embedded on an assembly line, to a refrigerator capable of communicating with various cloud computing services to reorder specific items for delivery. Such variety and general simplicity means that the IoT’s scale is potentially massive:

  • IT research firm Gartner has estimated that more than 8 billion devices would be connected to the IoT by the end of 2017. That represents a 30 percent jump from 2016. By 2020, the total could surpass 20 billion.
  • According to BI Intelligence, there will be $4.8 trillion in aggregate IoT investment from 2016 to 2021. App development and hardware will account for most of that spend, with the rest split between systems integration, data storage, security and connectivity.
  • Every industry will be affected by IoT opportunities. Projects already in use include beacons in retail environments to deliver targeted ads to customers, sensors in agriculture to measure soil acidity and trackers for lost parcel retrieval in logistics.

For mechanical engineers, the IoT is an opportunity to pioneer new products and influence interconnected systems of vast scale. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has projected 9 percent growth in positions in mechanical engineering from 2016 to 2026, near the high end of the average for all professions and slightly faster than engineering in general. The BLS has also stipulated that engineers involved in the latest advances in tech – like the IoT – will have the best prospects in the coming years.

How mechanical engineers can make a difference in the IoT

To understand what mechanical engineers will ultimately contribute to the IoT, let’s consider a recent incident that revealed some of the IoT’s current problems in terms of its security against cyberattacks:

  • The Key Reinstallation Attacks (KRACK) exploit in Wi-Fi security, identified in late 2017, made the traffic of just about any nominally secure wireless internet connection interceptable by nearby hackers.
  • While KRACK was rapidly fixed on platforms such as Apple iOS and Microsoft Windows, corrective updates for it were much slower to roll out to IoT endpoints – if they were released at all.
  • An article in Wired declared it would take “decades” to repair the damage caused by KRACK, largely because of IoT devices without any mechanisms for receiving these critical software patches.

The situation revealed significant shortcomings in the overall design and engineering of key IoT infrastructure to date. The IoT products of tomorrow need to be more future-proof. Mechanical engineers have a critical role to play in ensuring their long-term viability.

More specifically, these engineers will be responsible for developing hardware that can operate in more challenging conditions – e.g., factory floors, outdoor field, mines, etc. – than traditional computing devices and also receive regular software updates without breaking down. Ensuring seamless interactions between hardware and software is a central requirement in the IoT, as well as a task that mechanical engineers have long performed in other contexts.

Stopping the next KRACK from ravaging the IoT is contingent on thoroughly tested prototypes with well-integrated controllers, sensors and circuitries. The quality of mechanical engineering work is especially important to the sustainability of the IoT, since many of these devices won’t be replaced nearly as frequently as the typical smartphone or PC. Just think of equipment like internet routers, smart thermostats or home security cameras/systems: If you have them, you probably rely on them without really thinking about what they do. IoT endpoints are similar in this regard, so they have to be dependably engineered and long-lasting.

Security login interface for an IoT application.

The importance of collaboration with other engineers in the IoT

Given its scale and complexity, the IoT is the creation of many engineers, not just mechanical ones. It is particularly reliant on software, hardware and machine learning processes that together enables efficient communications between individual devices and the cloud. To that end, IoT infrastructure depends upon the work of software, electrical/electronics, industrial, materials and mechanical engineers.

These different professionals must work together on IoT, with an eye toward avoiding the disconnects that exacerbated the KRACK incident. In that case, software developers, chipset makers and product vendors sometimes struggled to issue coordinated fixes for thousands of specific IoT products.

Accordingly, it makes sense for engineers of all stripes to be on the same page early on. Connected cars are good examples of how such collaboration can produce positive and safe results:

  • Mechanical engineers oversee the aerodynamics and suspensions of these vehicles.
  • Electrical engineers design the battery distribution systems.
  • Software engineers (programmers) design applications that control dashboard features or respond to changing conditions on the road or under the hood.

Many vehicles now ship with wireless internet connectivity and embedded software. A Booz & Company report projected the connected car market would quadruple in revenue between 2015 and 2020, underscoring the growing demand for internet connectivity in non-traditional computing devices. Mechanical engineers can capitalize on the rapidly expanding IoT by having advanced credentials from programs that expose them to industry trends.

Gaining the upper hand in the IoT with a master’s degree

A master’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of California – Riverside can provide this essential background you need for building great devices in the IoT. Learn more by visiting the program overview page, where you can also request additional information from us.

Recommended Readings:

An Engineer’s Role in Machine Learning

Power Electronics and Engineering

Sources:

http://variety.com/2016/digital/news/netflix-bandwidth-share-2016-1201801064/https://www.bls.gov/ooh/architecture-and-engineering/mechanical-engineers.htm#tab-2
https://www.ptc.com/en/cad-software-blog/mechanical-engineering-in-the-internet-of-things-era
https://www.ptc.com/en/cad-software-blog/iot-what-about-mechanical-engineers
https://autodeskfusionconnect.com/things-getting-smarter-mechanical-engineers/
https://www.gartner.com/newsroom/id/3598917
http://www.businessinsider.com/iot-ecosystem-internet-of-things-forecasts-and-business-opportunities-2016-2?IR=T
https://www.wired.com/story/krack-wi-fi-iot-security-broken/
https://www.quora.com/What-is-the-role-of-mechanical-engineers-in-IOT
https://www.strategyand.pwc.com/media/file/Strategyand_In-the-Fast-Lane.pdf