The industry is buzzing over the Internet of Things (IoT). For consumers and businesses, there’s the promise of never-before-seen smart products—ones that do your shopping, manage energy costs, and keep customers happy by initiating fixes to problems they never knew they had.
But what about mechanical engineers? Is there any upside to working with a technology poised to disrupt existing skill sets and dismantle familiar development processes?
Sad engineer (with apologies to Imgflip)
As a matter of fact, there is. It’s called an unprecedented opportunity for reinvention, encouraging engineers to branch out into areas like big data analytics and the exploration of new business models while shifting routine roles into career overdrive.
Make no bones about it--the rise of IoT is going to make an already challenging role that much more complex. Engineers will no longer be able to effectively practice their craft in a vacuum--instead of being valued by their command of basic design principles or their dexterity with 3D modeling and simulation technologies, engineers will need to be equally adept at investigating design problems in the context of a broader ecosystem of software and services.
With smart, connected products comes a mash up of mechanical, electrical, and software components—with a lot of emphasis on software—resulting in an even higher priority placed on systems engineering expertise, now and going forward. Similarly, other areas commonly outside the boundaries of traditional engineering will become fair game for the mechanical engineer’s tool box. This includes in-depth knowledge of sensors and connectivity technologies to help create the “connected” piece of an IoT-enabled product strategy in addition to having a base familiarity with data collection and data analytics tools.
If it seems like a lot to know, it is. But moving beyond one’s comfort zone usually comes with a pay off, and it’s no different in the case of IoT product design. For one thing, if the strategy and product design is orchestrated properly, an IoT-enabled product—let’s say a piece of industrial equipment or a consumer appliance—can actually be a design engineer’s best friend. These products will deliver previously hard-to-find in-field usage data—think average load capacity on a tractor, for example, or how often a refrigerator water dispenser is used—that can provide critical insights for designing the next iteration.
The influx of in-field usage data will also give engineers a more lasting relationship with products, which hasn’t been the case historically. Engineers typically lose any real visibility into a product once they pass the prototyping stage, which means they have little to no clue about actual performance or the variety of use cases. As a result, engineer get by on anecdotal feedback, which is swayed by personal experience and open to interpretation. But with in-field data mined for insights, engineers might be able to redesign components for optimal materials usage, reducing costs by avoiding over designing. IoT intelligence could also shed light on why a part keeps breaking down in certain use case scenarios, taking guesswork out of the equation and helping engineers innovate more compelling designs.
Engineering organizations are already jumping on the opportunity. According to a PcW report, 38% of manufacturers are embedding sensors in products to collect usage and health data to facilitate predictive and preventive maintenance as well as to drive future product innovations. Slightly over a third of this group (34% of respondents) believe it is “extremely critical” for U.S. manufacturers to embrace such an IoT-driven product design and operations strategy to maintain a competitive edge.
Beyond advancing actual product designs, this real-time, real-world feedback makes engineers smarter about what they’re working on, which believe it or not, can lead to better career opportunities. Having a taste for how a product is actually used establishes a clearer understanding of business strategies and user requirements, building a well-rounded perspective better suited for job prospects outside of the usual engineering circles. Engineers that take the bait and branch out beyond traditional 3D modeling skills to new areas like data management, connectivity, sensors, and even business development are better positioned for new ventures. As a result, IoT design helps blaze a path to other engineering disciplines and alternative areas of the business that historically haven’t been all that accessible to engineers, if at all.
So while IoT design might present initial hardships, the potential benefits are well worth the investment in learning new skill sets and fostering new experiences. Those engineers open to the challenge will have ample chance to flex their design muscle and reap the benefits of what’s likely to be a long and fruitful career—no doubt, with plenty of twists and turns along the way.
[Ed. Learn more about how the Internet of Things impacts you. Attend LiveWorx 2016, June 6-9 in Boston, and see how to streamline product development today and design smarter things tomorrow.]
Beth Stackpole is a contributing editor at Desktop Engineering (www.deskeng.com) who has been covering the engineering and design tool space for nearly a decade.
This blog post is funded by PTC. The concepts, ideas, and positions of this post have been developed independently by Beth Stackpole.