Andrey Popov/Dreamstime
Engineer in physical pain

Pain Points for Mechanical Engineers

Feb. 23, 2021
Can mechanical engineers succeed if they only handle mechanical problems, ignoring electrical and electronic technologies?

There still are a host of purely mechanical products being developed. But the spread of smart, connected technology into even the most mundane mechanical design niches means mechanical engineers must incorporate electronics, sensors and wireless connectivity into many of the products they design. Here’s a look at the four top challenges facing mechanical engineers, keeping in mind that the drive toward IoT only further complicates their jobs.

1. CAD models look too good. As the CAD tools of the trade have evolved, even the crudest, concept-phase mechanical designs can be rapidly rendered to look realistic on screen. This is not a bad thing, generally. However, in presenting the ideas of mechanical engineers to a non-ME audience, computer screen images can be deceptive, making designs appear far more complete than they actually are.

The role of a mechanical designer is more than just creating a product’s outward appearance. It is also necessary to provide the unseen features needed to deliver functions and performance. Likewise, on-screen images do not reflect the work required before and after to ensure the correct materials are chosen, product costs have been minimized, and the structural and environmental requirements have been analyzed and are reflected in the model.

2. Simulation tools have advanced, but basic issues remain. Basic geometry modeling capabilities have evolved to a high level of function and simplicity over the years, but some of the biggest and most radical changes have been related to simulation tools. Engineers can now very quickly and easily build simulation models for analysis and then run those analyses to quickly generate results.

However, the old rules still apply. If the simulation models are not constructed with the right boundary conditions, they will quickly generate beautiful results that in no way represent the design’s real-world performance. If you can’t understand what an expected result from manual analysis will be to within 25% accuracy, then you probably shouldn’t run a computer model.

Without a sense of what may be a reasonable answer, it is still far too easy generate ridiculous results from simulations. One has to be able to assess the quality of the simulation results to know whether it yields new, useful information or a false sense of reality.

3. Mechanical engineers are the “glue” between industrial and electrical design. The perennial challenge of “smaller, faster, lighter” oftentimes falls on the shoulders of mechanical engineers to resolve. It remains a challenge to balance the competing demands of the industrial designers around aesthetics, brand presentation and ergonomics with the growing demands to stuff ever more powerful and energy-dense electronics into a single enclosure. Throw in the need to include antennas with the right geometry and placement, and one has a very multi-faceted problem. It often falls to mechanical designers to combine the needs of the other product functions into a single structure.

Additionally, the mechanical system engineers are responsible for the fully integrated product cost, including pulling together the full bill-of-materials. It is here focusing the design on a unit product cost must come together. MEs must also negotiate with industrial designers around features that may be driving material or process costs above the realm of acceptability. As has always been the case, mechanical engineers must have solid negotiating skills to “herd all the cats” into alignment.

4. There’s never enough time or money for adequate testing. Testing is most often thought of as a downstream activity. In product development, time is usually not a friend. There is always pressure to cut down or eliminate sub-system or full system testing. And when it comes to full system testing, the costs of building and testing models can be high. But testing serves two key functions. First, it provides another point of confidence in the accuracy of the simulation models (and provides insights for refinement towards greater accuracy). Second, it reveals flaws not readily captured in simulation models despite the incredible simulation capabilities now in the hands of engineers.

Like their cohorts in electrical engineering, the adage holds true for ME’s too, that “Nobody said this would be easy.” While it is certainly true many products are simple to design, today’s MEs need to be masters at balancing tradeoffs inherent in developing Internet of Things (IoT) solutions. Even in relatively simple products, the bar has been raised in the expectation that products will be exceedingly attractive, engaging and durable. These are the challenges that keeps engineering careers interesting and ever-changing.

Mitch Maiman is president and cofounder Intelligent Product Solutions, a product design and development firm.

About the Author

Mitch Maiman | President and Co-Founder

Mitch Maiman is the President and Co-Founder of Intelligent Product Solutions (IPS), a leading product design and development firm. He honed his deep knowledge of product design on the strength of a 30-year career with companies that manufacture commercially successful products for the consumer, industrial, and DoD markets. Prior to launching IPS, Mitch was VP of Engineering at Symbol Technologies.

Always espousing a hands-on approach to design, he holds a portfolio of numerous United States and international patents. Mitch holds a Bachelor of Science from Hofstra University, a Master of Science in Mechanical Engineering from Columbia University, and an MBA from Fairleigh Dickinson University.

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