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Posted: Aug 18, 2008
Advice for mechanical engineers: get into nanotechnology
(Nanowerk Spotlight) The term 'mechanical engineering' generally describes the branch of engineering that deals with the design and construction and operation of machines and other mechanical systems. Students training to become engineering professionals have to delve into subjects such as instrumentation and measurement, thermodynamics, statics and dynamics, heat transfer, strengths of materials and solid mechanics with instruction in CAD and CAM, energy conversion, fluid dynamics and mechanics, kinematics, hydraulics and pneumatics, engineering design and so on. If you are currently doing coursework in mechanical engineering, better add nanotechnology courses to your core curriculum.
Back in April, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) convened more than 120 engineering and science leaders from 19 countries representing industry, academia and government in Washington, DC to imagine what mechanical engineering will become between now and 2028. They identified the elements of a shared vision that mechanical engineering will collaborate as a global profession over the next 20 years to develop engineering solutions that foster a cleaner, healthier, safer and sustainable world.
One of the key conclusions from this Global Summit on the Future of Mechanical Engineering was that nanotechnology and biotechnology will dominate technological development in the next 20 years and will be incorporated into all aspects of technology that affect our lives on a daily basis. Bio- and nanotechnologies will provide the building blocks that future engineers will use to solve pressing problems in diverse fields including medicine, energy, water management, aeronautics, agriculture and environmental management.
"Mechanical engineers over the next two decades will be called upon to develop technologies that foster a cleaner, healthier, safer and sustainable global environment" reads one of the key statements from the summit's final report "2028 Vision for Mechanical Engineering" (pdf).
As it is becoming more and more obvious that biotechnologies and nanotechnologies lie at the core of technological innovation, many of the greatest opportunities for mechanical engineers lie in the intersection of these two fields of technology. If you follow this argument, than mechanical engineering will become THE field to get into if you want to make the world a better place.
Among the many interesting trends and ideas captured by the ASME report are two particularly intriguing conclusions: the curriculum for mechanical engineers must be restructured to include addressing the needs of destitute people; and because globalization has made the world 'flat', a convergence of emerging technologies will drastically change how engineers work and create a renaissance for engineering entrepreneurs that actually strengthens local operations.
The report states that one of the most critical challenges facing mechanical engineers is developing engineering solutions that will foster a cleaner, healthier, safer and sustainable world.
One of the panelists, Maria Prieto-Laffargue, President-elect, World Federation of Engineering Organisations, emphasized that the necessary tools to combat problems like poverty and many environmental issues already exist. What are needed are more and better engineering solutions that are tailored to specific places and situations.
Globally there is a huge market for mechanical engineering that serves the poorest among us. The ASME report estimates that, currently, around four billion people live on less than $2 per day. By 2030, almost two billion additional people are expected to populate the earth, ninety-five percent of them in developing or underdeveloped countries. "This large and growing population will need access to food and clean water, effective sanitation, energy, education, healthcare and affordable transportation."
The ASME panel argues that serving this population requires a restructuring of how engineers are taught to approach their profession. "This market is not populated by poor victims of circumstance, but resilient and creative entrepreneurs and potential customers. There is tremendous value in helping these people achieve a better quality of life. At present, most engineering schools do not address the needs of destitute people, even though many of these people live in industrialized countries. Yet, the needs of the underserved for engineering solutions are likely to increase as population grows. Teaching engineers how to develop locally appropriate engineering solutions for the underserved is a key to developing sustainably. For example, Engineers Without Borders is fostering sustainable development and teaching engineers valuable skills for the future."
Mechanical engineering in your basement?
"By 2028, advances in computer aided design, materials, robotics, nanotechnology and biotechnology will democratize the process of designing and creating new devices. Engineers will be able to design solutions to local problems. Individual engineers will have more latitude to design and build their devices using indigenous materials and labor " creating a renaissance for engineering entrepreneurs. The engineering workforce will change as more engineers work at home as part of larger decentralized engineering companies or as independent entrepreneurs."
Echoing a trend that already has taken shape among globally operating industrial companies, the ASME panel argues that emerging technologies in computer aided design (CAD), materials, robotics, nanotechnology and biotechnology will likely come together to transform how engineers work. "Faster processing and network speeds will soon allow future engineers to design entire products as a system rather than separate pieces. This will expand the capacities of engineers and enable more complex designs to be completed anywhere.
"Within 20 years, it is likely that home based personal fabricators will be economically attractive and available to anyone who wants them. Engineers will be able to act as independent operators interacting with colleagues around the world. They can design at home with advanced CAD systems or in collaboration with their global colleagues in virtual worlds. They will be able to use home-based fabrication technology to test many of their designs. Engineers of the future will have better tools to build careers as individual inventors, independent entrepreneurs and employees in distributed businesses that draw on engineering talent from around the world."
One panel member, futurist Rohit Talwar highlighted virtual worlds, like Second Life, as one of the new technologies transforming how we perceive reality. "Virtual worlds could soon become truly interactive environments for interacting with colleagues. Combined with advances in CAD systems, it will be possible for mechanical engineers to collaborate in immersive interactive environments where they can design collaboratively, test hypothesis, run models and simulations and observe their creations in three dimensions much as an engineer can observe a car being built with their colleagues on the shop floor."
As every mechanical engineer knows, change is hard to predict in a dynamic system. And the rate of change we are experiencing due to technological advances can appear frightening at times. Society with its institutions, cultures and economies moves at a much slower rate. But, as the ASME panel emphasized, the grand challenges of energy, water and food are great at the global scale and they must now be addressed.
"Whenever society has needed great contribution from mechanical engineering in the past, the profession has stepped up to the challenge. All that will be different in 2028 is the increased scope of the challenges and the increased number of people who will be living in a cleaner, healthier, safer and sustainable world because mechanical engineers believed they should."
Encouraging words. So, to all you mechanical engineering student: Brush up on your bio and nano and go make it happen!