Machinedesign 2722 Mloew Vpt Sm 0

Is the design engineer extinct?

Oct. 5, 2009
Skilled design engineers seem to be disappearing from the U.S., to the detriment of companies that develop products in America.

Matthew Loew
Chief Engineer
Daxcon Engineering Inc.
Bartonville, Ill.

Unfortunately, the design engineer is becoming a rare breed in industry and might even be headed for extinction in the U.S. A competent design engineer has one of the most critical roles in product development, but there are fewer and fewer with the requisite skills. One reason is people confuse the capabilities of CAD engineers with those of design engineers.

Design engineers are mechanical, electrical, structural, and other engineers who use CAD, modeling, and simulation tools to develop components and systems. In contrast, CAD engineers mainly use CAD to create a geometry that becomes a product. CAD engineers are essentially modelers and detailers with a degree or enough experience to let them be granted the title of engineer.

The main difference is CAD engineers use tools while design engineers use knowledge — tools are just a means to hasten the development process. A mechanical-design engineer, for example should have:

• A strong grasp of mechanical-engineering fundamentals such as statics, dynamics, components, and familiarity with electrical-engineering concepts.

• Ability to understand design requirements and constraints, think conceptually, and know the appropriate use of CAD, abstract modeling, engineering spreadsheets, and FE models needed to solve problems.

• Good structural-engineering skills and the ability to conceptualize load paths, construct free-body diagrams, use integrated analysis tools, and have experience with optimization techniques.

• Capacity to analyze and construct mechanisms, as well as familiarity with fasteners, fabrications, machining, welding, and other manufacturing methods.

• Ability to work in a team, conduct effective design reviews, and interface with management, suppliers, customers, and internal quality, manufacturing, and purchasing departments.

It is increasingly rare to find individuals with most of these skills. Not every design problem is solved simply by developing geometry in CAD. Not every structural problem is an FEA problem. Not every fluid flow or heat-transfer problem requires CFD. A skilled design engineer knows when and how to use these tools and when to use closed-form calculations.

While designers with good CAD skills generally shouldn’t be given overall product engineering responsibility, the truth is it happens in many organizations. Designers are often paid less than engineers and when a designer proves resourceful, they can appear to management to be a suitable replacement.

Clearly it is not economical to staff an entire design team with design engineers. Teams should combine design and CAD engineers, pure analysts, designers, detailers, and specialists. Across Europe and Asia design engineers in technical leadership roles take responsibility for fundamental product development. They seem to be able to calculate loads and stresses and understand manufacturing methods, CAD, and some FEA. Sure, organizations overseas still have specialists who only do detailing, FEA, CFD, or controls, for instance, but they support the design engineers. This seems to happen infrequently in the U.S.

More emphasis should be placed on making sure some team members have basic mechanical-engineering skills. Companies that fail to do this are likely to suffer. MD

Edited by Kenneth Korane

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