Industry Market Trends

A Brief Look into the Future of Mechanical Engineering

Sep 11, 2012

While mechanical engineers are upbeat about the future for their profession, they are less certain that their skills will be adequate to meet global challenges in the coming 20 years, a new study on the future of the engineering profession concludes.

Mechanical engineers are generally optimistic about their ability to solve major global problems over the next two decades, although they believe they will need additional skills to remain competitive, according to a new study by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME).

Based on a survey of more than 1,200 engineers with a minimum of two years' experience in mechanical engineering-related positions, ASME found that about half of respondents are optimistic about the ability of the engineering profession to meet global challenges over the next 10-20 years, with roughly an equal saying they are moderately optimistic. Approximately 3 percent of respondents are not optimistic.

The report, titled The State of Mechanical Engineering: Today and Beyond, reveals that early-career engineers and students will play a major role in meeting global challenges over the next two decades. Overall, respondents expect the fields of energy, bioengineering/biomedical, computers, electronics, nanotechnology and water to be the most cutting-edge engineering disciplines over the next twenty years.

However, engineers are less certain that their skills will be adequate to effectively deal with meeting the basic needs of a world population nearing 7 billion people.

"With the expanding global population comes the need to address challenges such as clean water, sanitation, food and energy," ASME said in an announcement of the findings. "While the study shows optimism about the ability of engineers to meet global challenges, it points to the importance of working on interdisciplinary teams of professionals to address these issues."

To combat key global problems, engineers expect to receive more interdisciplinary training and to work with team members from outside the engineering profession.  Success will require engineers to continually update and improve their interdisciplinary skills to remain competitive.

When asked to categorize which engineering tools and techniques are "fading," "enduring" or "emerging," few respondents cited any tools or techniques as fading. This suggests that, in the opinion of today's engineer, the current skill set remains robust and relevant to meeting contemporary needs.

In more specific areas of expertise, respondents consider emerging concepts, such as motion simulation, animation and virtual prototype creation to be the most cutting-edge techniques and skill sets for the future. The fact that they categorize these as "emerging" nearly as often as "enduring" suggests that survey respondents believe these technologies will become both widespread and relevant in the long-term.

Nevertheless,  a large percentage of respondents cited having a lack of knowledge in these emerging tools and techniques.  Other areas where engineers believe their knowledge is somewhat limited include GMP, code analysis, MathCAD, NQA-1, icing analysis and Six Sigma.

Meanwhile, foundational tools and techniques, such as 3-D CAD, computational fluid dynamics, finite element analysis, lifecycle analysis and project management, were all identified as growth areas.

Looking ahead, engineers believe they will require additional competencies and skills outside the offerings in current degree programs.

When asked to name the most-needed professional skills for engineers to succeed, skills related to globalization, borderless markets and economics ranked high. One in five respondents cited communication skills and computer/software skills. Multidisciplinary skills also ranked high, with one in seven engineers identifying them as important for the future. Business competency is another top-cited skill area.

"Respondents believe communications skills such as business writing, technical writing, public speaking and presentation preparation will be even more critical as engineers work in and among varied groups," Senior Editor John Kosowatz wrote in an editorial. "The skills needed to successfully work in global, borderless markets and to understand and manipulate economies also include knowledge of languages and culture."

In addition to professional skills, respondents see the following as the most crucial personal skills needed over the next 10-20 years: commercial astuteness; social responsibility; cost consciousness; diplomacy; and effectiveness in the boardroom.

"The results indicate that... engineers look forward to a greater leadership role in bringing socially responsible, commercially successful projects and products to market," according to the study's authors.