When you think of mechanical engineering, what industries spring to mind first? While these engineers work for companies in almost every sector, they have long been closely associated with the production of machinery and automotive parts. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), 25 percent of the 288,800 mechanical engineers in 2016 worked in the manufacturing of either machinery or transportation equipment.
Looking ahead, total employment of mechanical engineers is expected to increase 9 percent from 2014 to 2024 – about as fast as average for all professions. The key drivers of this expansion will be demand from automotive suppliers as well as the further development of the nascent nanotechnology industry. Let’s look at each of these trends individually to see what the future holds for the engineers of today and tomorrow.
Mechanical engineering in the automotive industry: The electric car effect
Cars are complex products, with numerous components carefully designed and tested by mechanical engineers before ever even entering production. However, the rise of electric vehicles (EVs) – with their much simpler internal layouts – could significantly alter what mechanical engineers contribute to cars and trucks.
The biggest change is probably the succession of internal combustion engines by cleaner battery-based power systems. This shift is considerable, but it should not be read as the elimination of the bulk of all mechanical engineering tasks for typical automobiles. Anticipating the rise of EV back in 2012, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) highlighted the many challenges requiring specific attention from engineers, including:
- The need to replace various composites, plastics and aluminum alloys with sheet-metal steel, which is essential to the torque of an electric motor and minimizing the overall loss of its energy as heat.
- The increased demand for lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries. Navigant Research estimated the market for vehicle-specific Li-ions at $7.8 billion in 2015 and projected it would reach $30.6 billion in 2024.
- The development of rugged mechatronics hardware to accompany AC/DC inverters and high-amperage/voltage motor controls. These pieces of equipment have to withstand constant vibrations as well as wide variances in temperature.
- The design, testing and installation of the different infrastructures supporting EVs. For example, mechanical engineers may contribute to the roadside charging stations necessary for recharging an EV on the go.
Plus, mechanical engineers will continue to focus on specific components like the drivetrains, transmissions and steering controls of EVs. Such parts are carryovers from traditional auto manufacturing, along with others including brakes, suspension and heating/cooling systems. Even with the looming decrease in importance of the gas-powered engine, there is still more than enough work for mechanical engineers to perform in ensuring the efficiency, safety and cost-effectiveness of mass-produced EVs.
As car manufacturing becomes more automated, mechanical engineers will also be front and center in the creation of the robots and other machines that drive automotive assembly lines. Automakers are already among the largest purchasers of specialty robots, which are the work of mechanical engineers.
Automotive-related mechanical engineering does not always resemble the classic conceptions of engineering as strictly the art of designing parts, either. Engineers do not merely pore over the specifications of an engine or wiring; they also assist in the selection and application of materials during manufacturing. More specifically, engineers will apply their knowledge of fluid mechanics and tribology (i.e., the study of how surfaces react in relative motion) in determining the ideal combination of material and design in a component such as a hood cover or a taillight on an EV.
Nanotechnology: The other next big frontier for mechanical engineers
In addition to automotive, automation and robotics, the BLS forecast for mechanical engineers also highlighted the rich prospects ahead in nanotechnology. There is considerable overlap between nanoengineering and mechanical engineering, as the ASME itself has noted.
Nanotechnology pertains to the manipulation of materials at the smallest levels. Almost a decade ago, ASME convened a summit to set a vision for the next 20 years of mechanical engineering. That outlook included a starring role for nanotech as a facilitator of “technologies that foster a cleaner, healthier, safer and sustainable global environment.”
Many of the nanotech projects mechanical engineers will work on in the years ahead will resemble their efforts in other areas (such as automotive manufacturing), only on a much smaller scale. The possibilities include:
- Stronger composites: EVs and consumer electronics will benefit from the development of new materials that are both lighter and stronger than current mainstays such as carbon fiber. Graphene is one of the best known of these substances; it was recently engineered to filter whiskey into completely clear liquid.
- Superior energy storage infrastructures: Mechanical engineers are essential to the success of the growing renewable power sector. For instance, they can harness nanomaterials, like enhanced cathode materials, to create more efficient batteries and photovoltaic cells for storing excess solar energy.
- Biomedical devices: Nanotechnology could be a game-changer in medicine, thanks to its applications in the targeted diagnosis and treatment of many common conditions such as certain cancers. According to BCC Research, nanomedicine could become a $528 billion market by 2019, up from $214 billion in 2013.
Overall, nanotechnology could be integral to the future of almost every commercial and industrial sector, provided it is implemented via durable sensors and supported by sustainable manufacturing processes. Mechanical engineers will be responsible for ensuring both of these conditions are met.
How a master’s degree in mechanical engineering will prepare you for tomorrow’s careers
Becoming a successful mechanical engineer requires advanced training and access to specific facilities; in the case of nanoengineers, they will eventually have to work in specialized nanofabrication plants. An interdisciplinary approach covering topics in physics, chemistry and electrical engineering is often necessary for ultimately putting together the knowledge and technical skills for tackling the most prominent challenges in mechanical engineering.
A master’s degree from the University of California – Riverside can put you on that track. Learn more by visiting the mechanical engineering program page today.