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Mechanical Engineering—The Ever-Evolving Profession


by Avram Bar-Cohen

Recent waves of "obsolescence angst" washing over the mechanical engineering community [e.g.
theMechanical Engineering magazine feature story "The End of the M.E.?" May 2005] appear to
ignore the strength of the discipline's scientific foundation and its evolutionary transformation
over the millennia. An informed view of the current frontiers of science and technology and
recognition of the world's unslaked thirst for new products suggest that reports of mechanical
engineering's demise are premature and grossly exaggerated (to paraphrase Mark Twain).
Mechanical engineering is not only alive and well: it is critical to the competitiveness of the
United States in the 21st century.

The discipline originated in the early machines—inclined planes, levers, screws, pulleys, and
springs—which provided a means (the so-called mechanical advantage) to enhance the limited
strength of the human body. Animal power was harnessed next, followed by the exploitation of
swift rivers and strong winds. During these early years, kinematics, dynamics, strength of
materials, and the innovative design of mechanisms and transmissions, as well as agricultural
and production tools, were at the heart of the discipline. But with the introduction of steam
power as the prime mover and the enabler of large-scale manufacturing and long-distance
transportation, the mechanical engineer's vocabulary grew to include thermodynamics, heat
transfer, and fluid mechanics.

With the advent of the reciprocating internal combustion engine and then the gas turbine, which
expanded land and sea transportation and made long-range air travel possible, the mechanical
engineer again mastered, and successfully applied, the new sciences of combustion and
aerodynamics. The electric generator, electrical grid, and the electric motor brought cheap power
to every corner of the civilized world, relying on mechanical engineers to help design and build
the power stations, switches, and controllers, and to link the means of production and
transportation to this new prime mover. The availability of a compact, high-power prime mover
for compressing an evaporated refrigerant enabled the creation of mechanical refrigeration and
air conditioning, undeniably among humankind's greatest inventions.

The microelectronic revolution and the beginning of space exploration in the latter half of the
20th century introduced miniaturization into the practice of mechanical engineering. While
bigger, faster, stronger continued to apply to many ME domains, for important sectors of the
profession small was beautiful. After an initial monopoly by electrical engineers and materials
scientists, by the early 1970s large numbers of mechanical engineers were developing
fabrication, assembly, and packaging processes for millimeter- and then micron-scale electronic
components, combining their knowledge of mechanics, dynamics, and heat transfer with new
bonding and joining technologies to create miniature, thermally stabilized, and highly reliable
electronic components and systems.

Curiously, with electrical engineers leading the digital revolution, more and more of the
electrical power distribution and control, particularly for electromechanical products, was taken
over by MEs. Stepper motors, along with electrical clutches, were used commonly to replace
mechanical transmissions. The launch weight constraints encountered by the U.S. space program
stimulated the use of engineered composite materials and legitimized the design and optimization
of minimum mass solutions. In the latter part of the 20th century, use of the growing capability
in engineered materials, microelectronics, and microcontrollers to create artificial organs and
prosthetic limbs gave birth to a new, biomedical domain in mechanical engineering practice and

In parallel with the profession's contributions to the solution of space, microelectronics, and
biomedical "mega challenges," the vast post-World War II expansion of scientific research and
the perceived socioeconomic benefit of rapid, and frequent, commercial product introduction
brought to the fore the mechanical engineer's unique role in "product realization." The broad
science and engineering base, as well as experiential learning of product design, characteristic of
ME education in the latter decades of the past century, has defined the mechanical engineer as a
system and product integrator, well positioned to harness a diverse set of emerging, scale-
spanning technologies to produce a constant stream of innovative products.

The scales of design and fabrication are continuing to shrink. Minimization of mass and required
energy are now a common expectation in product development. "Smart" materials with
embedded controllers are no longer a novelty. And the application of mechanical engineering
principles to biological systems is being pursued by a greater and greater number of new
graduates. Rather than signaling the end of mechanical engineering, these developments portend
the continued, and perhaps even more rapid, evolution of the profession in the decades ahead.

The viability and potential impact of mechanical engineering in the 21st century is clearly in
evidence in the commercialization of the scientific trilogy—information, biomedicine and
nanotechnology—defining the frontiers of science in the early years of the 21st century. Thermal
management and mechanics are crucial to the successful packaging and exploitation of nanoscale
electronic circuits and photonic devices emerging from research laboratories. Kinematicians are
leading the efforts to unravel the secrets of protein folding, essential to genomics, proteomics and
DNA scaffolding. Thermodynamics underpins the application of polymerase chain reaction and
self-assembly processes, key techniques in miniaturized bio-assaying and in nano fabrication,
respectively. The integration of smart materials and micro-controllers, along with the application
of rapid prototyping and advanced manufacturing techniques, is transforming—and
personalizing—the biomedical industry.

If the growing body of new science is to yield a significant number of near-term products, the
product realization process—integral to the practice of mechanical engineering—must be used to
address the gulf between discovery and commercial success. In the absence of modeling
techniques, failure analysis, reliability prediction, established design tools, and cost-effective
manufacturing processes, the incalculable promise of info, bio, and nano technologies for
improving the human condition will remain largely unrealized.

For humankind to successfully meet the burgeoning challenges to its dominion on this earth—
breathable air, potable water, plentiful energy and safety from the elements—the knowledge
embodied in three millennia of mechanical engineering practice must be reapplied in the context
of the 21st century. While these components of mechanical engineering knowledge can and
should be integrated into the toolkits of the other branches of engineering, it is the MEs who are
best able to place this knowledge at the service of society and product development

So, although the mechanical engineers of 2005 may be working very different applications with
very different tools from those of 1955, 1905, and 1005, today's practitioners of the mechanical
arts are the evolved descendants of earlier engineers. Moreover, in the decades and centuries
ahead, when solid mechanics, fluid mechanics, kinematics, heat transfer, dynamics, and
manufacturing issues arise, mechanical engineers will be there to respond. The depth of
mechanical engineering knowledge, the strength of its foundations, the significance of its
contributions to mankind, and the resilience of its practitioners bespeak a future rich in
opportunities and a profession that will—and must—continue to play a critical role in the
creation of innovative solution to society's unmet needs.

Avram Bar-Cohen, an ASME Fellow, is a mechanical engineering professor and department

chair at the University of Maryland in College Park.