Changes in the Engineering Profession Over 80 Years

April 7, 2009
On Machine Design’s 80th Anniversary, the editors take stock, asking several experts what changes the engineering profession has gone through and what has stayed the same.
The 1937 natural-gas explosion at the New London School in Texas, which killed over 295 students and teachers, proved the impetus to institute engineering licensing in Texas. They wanted to be sure only qualified people could call themselves engineers.

Herbert Hoover used to tell of meeting a woman on a ship while traveling. After several conversations over a week or so, the woman asked what his occupation was. Hoover told her he was an engineer, a mining engineer. And the woman replied, “An engineer? I thought you were a gentleman.” It seems the lady, like many people of her time, assumed engineering was not a gentlemanly career.

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This lack of respect from society still galls many in engineering, especially compared to the public adulation (or at least high salaries) given to doctors, lawyers, and scientists.

“Part of the respect problem is that the personality of the average engineer and the way they are taught does not bring out the best as far as earning respect from society,” says Henry Petroski, a professor of civil engineering and history at Duke University, and author of several books on engineering. “Engineers tend to be shy, and not very talkative, unless you’re discussing their latest project or some aspect of engineering that interests them. In history and traditions of their professions.”

The Bureau of Labor Statistics data for 2006 shows there were about 1.5 million engineers working in their profession in 2006 (the most recent year data is available). For comparison, The BLS reports there were 761,100 lawyers and 633,000 doctors and surgeons working in that same year.

One early high point for engineers was Britain’s Victorian Age when a popular series of books, Lives of engineers, was written by Samuel Miles. “These were biographies of famous engineers who were held up as paragons of virtue and achievement, and as true gentlemen.” says Petroski.

One reason engineers may not get the respect they deserve is that they always seem to be working in the shadows of scientists and leaving the public unsure what engineers really do, besides drive trains. “The public just isn’t too savvy. They confuse science and engineering, almost always to the detriment of engineers,” says Edward Pershey, vice president of special projects at the Western Reserve Historical Society with a Ph.D. in the history of technology. “A scientist’s goal is to uncover new information about how the world works. Engineers take this knowledge and solve problems.”

“Look at the Manhattan Project, which was reported more as a scientific achievement rather than an engineering challenge,” notes Petroski. “Scientists were definitely involved, but due to their personalities — their stronger egos and eagerness to talk about themselves — they got most of the credit. And after World War II, scientists had much more authority in controlling public policy relating to science and technology all the way up through the Apollo Project, which was even more of an engineering project than building the atom bomb.

Engineers in the early days of the space race used to tell the story that when a rocket launched successfully, it was called a scientific breakthrough. But if it exploded on the pad or shortly thereafter, it was called an engineering failure.

“Engineers probably should have gotten incensed about how they were treated, but because of their personalities, they just went back to the drawing boards,” says Petroski.

 One move engineers took back in the mid-1800s to increase their stature in society was to form professional organizations. Eventually this grew into the Professional Engineers license in the early to mid-1900s, a way to ensure only those educated and trained in orthodox engineering could call themselves engineers. “It was a way to regulate the profession and to give more respect to ‘real’ engineers,” says Petroski.

With some states, it took a disaster and loss of life before anything was done to ensure only qualified people could legally call themselves engineers. In Texas, for example, the New London public school was destroyed when its gas-fired boiler exploded. At least 295 students and teachers were killed and many others left injured and maimed. This tragedy spurred Texas to pass a registration law requiring those wanting to call themselves engineers to meet certain requirements and become licensed. (The accident also led to the requirement that ethyl mercaptan, a substance that smells like rotten eggs, be added to natural gas to give the odorless fuel a telltale smell, one that would alert most people to a gas leak.)

Data on engineering salaries comes from several sources, including the National Society of Professional Engineers and Bureau of Labor Statistics. Note the salary trend changes sharply in 2003-2004. That’s when NSPE expanded its survey to include more engineers, which sent numbers down, according to NSPE.

“So now each state has its own definition of what it takes to be an engineer, which is similar to doctors and lawyers who must be licensed to practice in a particular state.”

Needless to say, PE licensing has not garnered much respect for engineers over the last half century. This might be due to companies like GE and Lockheed that hire lots of engineers but haven’t been too keen on PE licensing. “Companies didn’t want to lose control of their employees and have them form unions,” says Petroski. “They might have thought those with PE licenses would want more money and perhaps more say in how they did their jobs. As a result of this pressure from companies and no organization on engineers’ part, there has been little legislation requiring a PE license for engineering jobs and projects.”

“Engineers are treated differently in other countries, especially non-English speaking countries,” notes Petroski. There, engineers are recognized for keeping civilization on track and raising the quality of life. They are given credit for the roads, bridges, and water and sewage systems, as well as all the new electronic devices. In America, people seem to just take all those advances for granted.

Petroski also points to a common practice in Germany, as well as in South American countries, which is to use “Engineer” as an honorific, much like the titles Doctor or Reverend. “In Germany, for example, you might be introduced to Engineer Schmitt. Back around the 1920s, an engineer named David Steinman, an important bridge builder who wanted engineers to get more respect, tried to institute a similar etiquette in the U.S. He was also the first president of the National Society of Professional Engineers. Steinman pushed for engineers to use that term, Engr., in front of their names. He would even sign every letter to the editor, and he wrote often, with that title.”

Respect for engineers probably hit a low in the mid-1960s through the 1970s. “The weapons used in Vietnam were often ‘blamed’ on engineers, along with pollution and all the woes of modern industry,” says Pershey.

“Yes, engineers took it on the chin for the weapons we relied on in Vietnam,” agrees Petroski. “Napalm, jet fighters, mines, and so on. Engineers were held responsible by some for designing and building weapons. They also took flack for environmental problems and pollution, although these antiengineering feelings dimmed by the 1980s.”

One aspect of the profession that has not changed is the basic job of engineering: To solve problems economically. Or as Petroski puts it, to carry out the engineering method and pursue institutionalized invention. “There will always be new tools and new technologies. But what goes on in an engineer’s head isn’t going to change too much.”

What has changed, and changed drastically, are the tools and technologies engineers use.

“The most obvious change, especially since World War II, is the increased use of computers,” says Pershey “Engineers now use computers to design, to analyze designs for both function and cost, and then to make the device they designed. CNC, for example, has radically changed the way machine shops operate.”

Petroski agrees that one of the biggest changes over the last eight decades has been in the tools engineers use. “In the 1920s, engineers would have used slide rules for calculations or done them by hand,’ he says. “Today, students and working engineers don’t even know how to use a slide rule, nor should they. After all, computers and calculators are so handy.”

Besides the slide rule, engineers in the past also relied on drafting instruments and their own abilities at sketching and mechanical drawing. “Their desks, or maybe actually drafting tables, would hold T-squares, triangles, compasses, pens, and pencils. Everything would be drawn by hand, not rendered by machines. Today, mechanical drawing is almost obsolete, thanks to computers and CAD software. We don’t even teach it at my university, at least not as a stand-alone course. The goal these days is to train students to read drawings rather than make them.”

Advances in technology have also changed how engineers, along with the rest of society, communicates. Prior to the 1960s, engineers had to get by with telephones, landlines at that, along with telegrams and the postal service. “It’s much easier today for engineers to stay in touch regarding projects and suppliers with e-mail, cell phones, faxes, and computer software that supports video conferences and collaborative work on projects,” notes Pershey.”

Travel has changed as well. “Back then, engineers would travel by train or ship if a project or client was far enough away,” says Petroski. “Today they do it by plane and think nothing of flying across country for a single meeting or trade show, if it’s important enough. Travel took longer back then, so most engineers probably made fewer trips. But engineers could get real work done on trains and ships, so they likely made good use of the travel time.”

Advances in technology not only affect the tools engineers use but also what they studied and projects they handle. In the mid-1800s, for example, engineers fell into two groups. Military engineers tackled military problems such as building weapons and fortifications, while civilian (or civil) engineers handled everything else. As technology advanced, civil engineers who dealt with locomotives and steam power broke off and became mechanical engineers. Those dealing with electricity became electrical engineers. Mining and metallurgical engineering were two other early branches that, along with mechanical cal, electrical, civil, and chemical, made up the vast majority of engineers in 1929. Today there are at least 16 engineering disciplines, with more likely on the way as technology expands. For example, there’s talk of making software engineering a legitimate engineering discipline with its own undergraduate program.

In 1929 up through most of the 1960s, engineers were mostly white males. Like most professions and many jobs in the U.S., engineering was closed to minorities and women. But with the civil-rights movement and women’s lib in the 1960s, society, including engineering firms and employers opened up, became more tolerant and accepting.

“Today, however, going into an engineering firms is like going into the United Nations.” says Petroski.

“Yes, the ethnic diversity in engineering changed dramatically, especially through the later part of the 20th century,” says Pershey. Minorities and women now account for about 40% of engineering undergrads.

Recollections and impressions.
To get an idea of how the engineering profession has changed over the last eight decades, MACHINE DESIGN editors interviewed experienced engineers from some of the country’s leading companies. Here’s what they had to say.

Tom Miller, North America Bearings Unit Manager for igus

Tom Miller
Over the course of my career with igus, I have seen a definite change in the opinions engineers have about plastics. Many engineers simply didn’t think plastics could handle tough applications. It wasn’t common knowledge that plastic bearings could endure extreme temperatures, heavy loads, and high speeds. Today, I think engineers realize the makeup of a plastic bearing can be changed to meet application requirements, which is crucial as project timelines become shorter and shorter.

Engineers still feel the pressure to improve the performance of their designs, but now they must do it in a fraction of the time they had before. From inception to finished product, the cycle has been significantly accelerated. I remember when projects sometimes took years from start to completion. Nowadays we might need to find the right bearing for one of our customers in a matter of days.

For today’s engineers, there is definitely more acceptance for thinking outside the box. Engineers understand they have to be willing to try different solutions and components to stay one step ahead of the competition. And although tight deadlines put pressure on engineers, the upside is that it makes their suppliers more accountable. We understand that engineers just don’t have the time they used to; they depend on our testing information and that our products will deliver what we promise.

Johannes Volzer, engineering manager at Festo AG

Johannes Volzer
Today, nothing works without information technology, this change is revolutionary. With 3D-CAD, we’re designing three times faster than before, and the time saved using FEA for strength calculations is even greater. And that’s true even though with greater computing power came an equal increase in model complexity. But IT opens up a big playground for trial and error and undisciplined work. Sometimes progress is foiled by having to take too many iterative steps to get the best result instead of analytical thinking before designing.

And since less effort is spent setting up models, more effort goes into material modeling and specialized postprocessing, such as fatigue analysis. Done right, this means better products on the market faster — much to the customers’ benefit.

Craig Maxwell, Vice President of Technology and Innovation at Parker Hannifin Corp.

Craig Maxwell
The tools we have today are just incredible, far superior to anything we could have imagined as far as the math, analytics, and ability to create virtual models before we actually cut any metal. That’s one reason we build better products today and take for granted things like reliability and six-sigma quality. In the fluid-power arena, we don’t tolerate problems that gotten much better, materials have changed dramatically, performance in applications before we ever make one.

But what hasn’t really changed a whole lot is the speed of the design process. With these incredible tools, we modeling and analyzing, but the downside is that technology can become a crutch — unless the software tells you exactly what it is you want to know, some people tend to lock up. Sometimes you can build and test a part and have an answer sooner than the time it takes to model it.

It’s the notion of close approximation, where your gut, experience, and knowledge get you in the ballpark. And with real parts, there’s no concern about whether or not the model is accurate, an issue that’s always a worry with virtual techniques. We’re trying to instill that in the next generation of young engineers. Combining modeling tools and the ability to do close approximations will really accelerate design speed.

Tom Stimson, Vice President of Business Process Advancement at The Timken Co.

Tom Stimson
My college years in engineering school coincided with the transition from slide rules to programmable calculators. One of the more exciting events during my last semester, in fact, was getting to use the lone Apple Macintosh in the campus’s brand new PC lab. When I began my career, everyone was jumping at the chance to learn CAD/CAM practices that were implemented in the early 1980s. Throughout my career it has been amazing to see the influence these digital electronics have had on engineering -everything from designs and methods to services and manufacturing. Gone are the days of multiple prototypes for trial and error testing. Today we simply run simulations at minimal cost.

Engineering has also seen some interesting transitions. Engineers were once praised for expertise in making components. Now we are challenged and expected to be responsible for putting together modules and even entire systems. Engineers thrive on challenges and changes, but this objective required a complete business overhaul. At the same time, engineers went from thinking and feeling comfortable about local market needs and strong customer relationships, to working with global customers and having to learn the diverse needs of others.

Going forward, we must view our profession as one that it is not just about the products we make today, but about the skills engineers can access around the world, and how we can best leverage that know-how to solve customer problems. Here at Timken, we believe engineering success depends on our ability to improve the performance of our customers by discovering, developing, and aligning our knowledge and capabilities into innovative and valuable technical solutions.

Daniel R. Snyder recently retired after 27 years with SKF USA. He currently provides SKF with engineering-consulting services.

The biggest changes have to be the use of computers and the speed at which things happen. When I went to college, everything was done by hand calculation using log tables. Computers have let us extend our analysis capabilities and do things we never would have dreamed of even 15 years ago.

These tools have really shortened the design cycle so that the initial design is closer to the final product. Previously, the design department would have done an initial proposal, then made prototypes to test either in the lab or field. Based on the results of those tests, engineers would modify the prototype and start the process again. Now we can test designs virtually before making prototypes. We can also reduce the safety factors and use “rules of thumb.” Where we may have added a safety factor of 1.5 or 2 because we didn’t know the actual application conditions and resulting stresses, now we input operating conditions from the start so the design is lighter and performs better.

We’re all impatient today. Engineering is now a 24-hour job; you’re always in contact with work. At SKF, speed is one of our drivers as a company. We recognized years ago that computers and the Internet would make the marketplace much more competitive and that speed was necessary to succeed in all parts of the operation. The business depends on satisfying customer demand, and it comes down to the personal level. If a customer expects something to be turned around in a couple days, it has to be done.

One big challenge I see for the future of engineering is retaining corporate knowledge. A lot of engineers in the Baby Boom Generation have substantial background information in their heads and hands-on experience that will be lost if we don’t make it accessible to future engineers who only know what computer programs tell them.

Doug Williams, Chief Product Engineer at Baldor Motor Co.

Doug Williams
Dwight D. Eisenhower was president in 1959 when I started working as a mechanical-design engineer on electric motors. Back then all drawings were done by hand using T-squares, triangles, compasses, or a mechanical drafting machine. Finished drawings had to be printed out on an ammonia-developed blueprint machine which could open up almost any stuffy nose. And calculations were also done by hand or with the help of a hand-cranked adding machine or slide rule.

Electric calculators came along in mid-1960s and were a big step for ward. The ones with trig functions saved looking data up in math tables. Our first computer came along in 1978 and changed all our lives for the better. Then computer-aided drafting, the greatest advancement in creating drawings, arrived in 1980. It also let our sales offices around the world view and print designs in a few seconds. Now we model all our designs and products in 3D, and these models can be put on a printer to make prototypes quickly. Combining rapid prototyping with laser-cut parts let us put sample motors in customers’ hands fast and without costly tooling.

MD ad by Mr. Williams
I expect more advanced engineering tools to come from the computer world. All this means young engineers are a step ahead of us old timers, having grown up in our computer world.

 The ad, which ran in MACHINE DESIGN, was for a motor Mr. Williams designed.

James Truchard, cofounded National Instruments Corp.

James Truchard
Before the 1970s, engineering was highly empirical. The profession has strayed from a lot of that hands-on experience. The tools we now use introduce a level of abstraction. With slide rules, for example, you had a visual reference as to whether your equations were sending you in the right direction. You lose that when you do calculations electronically. This has certainly been one of the problems — the math has gotten isolated from the physical side of engineering. You don’t get the intuition you’d like to have, and the person who likes to get a hands-on feel for things isn’t as attracted to the profession in the first place. So you don’t get as many folks going into engineering, and that is a problem, too.

Today, we have the opportunity to go back to the slide-rule era, at least in terms of getting a feel for how engineered systems will behave. We can do full-scale simulations that tie together math with physical demonstrations. You can show things quickly in a physical form with little extra effort. So we can return to seeing the math working and to doing what engineers really bond with, hands-on work.

I think the abstraction problem even contributed to Wall Street’s recent difficulties. They would have been better off if they had been able to see their equations working somehow.

Jack Clark, Surface Analytics LLC

Jack Clark
I have been working in manufacturing most of my career. For many years now, I have been helping companies follow better specification and metrology practices.

Over the past 40 years, metrology has come a long way since analog meters reported rms voltage for roughness. Some years ago, a company making optical gages for inspecting glass surfaces asked me to see if the instrument had other uses in the industrial market for tasks such as manufacturing gears, cylinder bores, diesel-fuel injector parts, and power-steeringpump components. Until then, manufacturers had tended to focus metrology efforts on the geometry or form of parts, falling mostly into the CMM world.

Over time, optical gages have helped push a continuing trend towards using 3D in addition to or instead of 2D or line-profile data in manufacturing. This trend is especially prevalent where component function has been defined by measurands assigned via drawing callouts or notes. Areal or 3D metrology provides a much stronger sense of where the real functional area of a surface sits, whether in its form, roughness, or somewhere in-between.

Metrology has come far in quantifying form, but more work needs to be done in quantifying and understanding how roughness affects performance. Today, I am a member of a number of standards groups such as B46, the U.S. committee for surface roughness, and a working group called ISO TC213 16, which focuses on global 3D or areal surfaceroughness standards to help create new standards. These are for newer metrologies, such as devices that digitally measure high-pressure conical fuelinjector seats for form, roughness, and runout in mere seconds. The devices let manufacturers predict diesel fuel-injector leakage and, in some cases, eliminate costly "wet tests."

Austin J. O’Malley, Chief Technology Officer of Dassault Systèmes SolidWorks Corp.

Austin J. O'Malley
I joined as one of the original developers of SolidWorks, writing large parts of the software and helping develop its architecture.

In the mid-1980’s, I was a Unix and Enterprise software developer. SolidWorks began in the mid-1990s under the assumption Windows-based engineering software would be the next big thing.

If you look at technology now, the discussion has shifted away from just the desktop to includes cloud computing, software-as-a-service, and new ways to share data. In fact, SolidWorks Labs is experimenting with Ajax and Silverlight Web technologies to let people edit and view 2D CAD documents. Other discussions focus on how the next generation of computer-related items such as input devices will look. At a recent trade show, we showcased CAD viewing and sketching tools on the Microsoft Surface computer. This device features a computer screen that lets user interact by touch and also recognizes objects you place on it.

It is interesting that, even today, paper is an important communication medium for manufacturing. Engineers spend a lot of time creating drawings that can get quite complex, involving strict standards, tables, and a wide variety of annotations. So it’s still important for us to focus on the details that help people get their jobs done.

At a high level, what users want is a great user experience. Given all of the great software out there in the entertainment, gaming, and lifestyle areas, the bar is rising even higher to provide a great user experience — this includes high performance, a great user interface, and excellent reliability. We recently made organizational changes that let us consider the user experience throughout our development cycle. Once we’ve got concepts developed, extensive usability testing lets us give users what they want. We then take the latest technologies, such as touch and the Web, and apply them when they make sense. Our developers work closely with the user-experience team, and directly with customers, to provide a consistent product line. Providing users with a good, consistent user experience really differentiates us in our market. The new user experience-based software-design processes are a big change.

Bob Guillemette, Chief Engineer at Bimba Manufacturing Co.

Bob Giullemette
The tools are probably the thing that have changed the most during my career. In the 1960s, for example, Ford documented plant layouts on quarter-inch-grided Mylar sheets kept in drawers. Taped-on transparencies or drafting tape represented assembly stations. It was a full-time job to maintain those sheets and make sure they were ready for the next changeover.

The whole copying process was laborious as well. You would have to make blue-line drawings with an ammonia process. There were small businesses that specialized in just making copies.

The fastest change I witnessed was associated with the introduction of the PC. People forget that even through the early 1970s, we couldn’t do a lot of computations. We had mainframes, but you had to wait your turn to run calculations in a batch job. The first four or five tries would just expose syntax errors in the program. It took a long time to get useful answers so we didn’t use a computer unless it was critical. Later, everyone could run stress analysis, but it would take two or three weeks to get results for data we now expect to get in 5 minutes.

Sujeet Chand, Chief Technology Officer of Rockwell Automation

Sujeet Chand
There are two constants in the engineering profession that have not changed and will not change in the future. The first is how we look at engineers. Engineers are a unique group that knows how to solve problems and bring something of value to society by turning ideas into reality. The second constant is that the foundation of all engineering disciplines must remain strong analytical skills in science and math.

Still, there are several areas where there have been changes and will likely change again. The first covers the technical aspects. When I earned my engineering degree approximately 30 years ago, the focus was on being specialized in a certain discipline. Today we’re seeing more interdisciplinary work like mechatronics, where an electrical engineer needs expertise not just in electrical but also electronics, computer science, and mechanical. I see more melding of engineering disciplines with engineers becoming more flexible.

The second area concerns design constraints. Constraints include safety, sustainability, energy efficiency, reliability, manufacturability, and environmental. And there are more constraints today than before, and a lot more coming in the future. Engineers will have to understand all of these constraints their machines or products must meet.

The third area is collaboration. Today, the moment you walk into a work environment, you’re part of a team. An engineer must be able to collaborate and design virtually with a team distributed all over the world. And that involves communication, which means writing reports, giving presentations, talking to others, and attending meetings. The burden on engineers to communicate effectively continues to grow. Working with global teams presents language and culture barriers, how you talk to others, and even how you ask them to get something done.

Lee Sirio, Senior Electrical Engineer at TDK-Lambda Americas Inc.

Lee Sirio
Engineering is a demanding profession that requires a high level of education and experience to stay competitive. During the last two decades, we have seen substantial technological advances primarily due to the excellent work of engineers.

However, developing technology is expensive. Many OEM’s, big and small, restructured their engineering departments to better reflect their core talents while eliminating other areas of research and development. These companies outsourced noncore technologies to better concentrate on their capabilities and, more importantly, reduce overhead costs. But this led to unexpected problems for both the OEMs and engineers. Companies that once employed dozens of brilliant engineers now have only a handful on staff. The globalization of engineering talent expanded the supply of engineering services, but led to a limitation or reduction of engineering salaries and a lower perception of the profession by the public.

This phenomenon has produced a tech drought or “brain drain” for these companies. The synergy once derived from different engineering disciplines within the same organization is gone and it has become difficult for these companies to keep their ability to innovate.

The idea that companies can just repackage old technology cheaper and faster will not be enough to compete with start-ups that come out with interesting new products at lower cost. The loss means these much-celebrated hightech companies will need to restructure yet again to remain competitive and attract investors. Unless companies make a serious effort to reinvest in the engineering profession, the “brain drain” will continue and many potential engineers will pursue other, more-stable and respected professional fields.

Scott Hibbard, Vice President of Technology at Bosch Rexroth Corp.

Scott Hibbard
In over 30 years of design and development engineering, the biggest change I have seen in engineering is in information retrieval. Engineers once needed racks and racks of catalogs to design control systems. Today, the same research is reduced to a few keystrokes to search and retrieve specifications from a database, whether it is on a PC or online. There is no way to design and develop the complex systems of today using the methods of the 1970s.

Regarding the social aspects of engineering, the profession is more respected throughout industry. Thirty years ago, many outside the profession thought engineering meant either a “rocket scientist” or a “factory technician.” Due in great part to the proliferation of consumer devices such as PCs, cell phones, and MP3 players, many more people have a stronger appreciation of the trade and how it affects their lives — even if they still have no idea what engineers do.

As for as the future, the efforts of the engineering profession will continue to increase productivity to the point no one should have to go hungry or homeless, and we can extend the useful life of the human body far beyond what is accepted today.

READERS: What do you think?
What was the most important or biggest change in the engineering profession over the past 80 years? Enter your comments below, or E-mail us at [email protected], and be sure to put “profession” in the subject line.

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