Mechanical Engineering in the Internet of Things Era




Did you hear? The world is about to change. A new technological wave is coming that will forever change products. And along with that, organizations will need to change how they design and develop those products.

Wait. What do did you say? No really. You sighed and groaned, “…again?”

OK. You have a point. It seems that every year, there are forecasts predicting dramatic change both in products and how they must be developed. But regardless of the frequency of the boy crying “wolf,” changes are afoot.

In this post, we’ll look at some of those recent changes and what they mean for mechanical engineers who design at least some aspect of these products.

Innovation from Software and the Internet of Things
What are the trends reshaping product development?

First off, findings from numerous studies are saying that innovation is now coming from electronics and software in mechatronic products. Systems that used to be completely mechanical now have controls that are largely electronic and software driven.

Second, watch out because here comes the Internet of Things. This is basically the idea that traditional mechatronic products can be connected to the Internet, offering both Internet-driven capabilities but also communicating back to the original manufacturer.

Both are compelling trends. Both have nothing directly to do with mechanical engineering. However, mechanical engineers need to take broader considerations into account while designing. Here are some things to start:

Plan for Software Control
Maybe this goes without saying, but moving forward, practically all controls will be electronics and software driven. For mechanical engineers, this touches on the need to refresh the supplier base to include those offering motors, pumps, valves and all manner of other traditional components that can be controlled by software. You’ll be getting these requirements: Bank on it.

Plan for Upgradeability
Next up? Just like a smartphone or laptop, the control systems for these products will have the ability to upgrade themselves over an Internet connection. This includes fixing software bugs, but also includes new capabilities added over the air.

Given that scenario, mechanical engineers need to start preparing for what comes next. While software can be upgraded over the air, mechanical aspects of a system cannot. That means you may need to start including more functionality and capability, especially for long lifecycle and hard to service products, that might not be immediately leveraged. The idea is that when the software is upgraded in the future, the mechanical capabilities are there to be controlled. Plan for future requirements.

Plan for Sensor-ability
Lastly, innovation from software and the Internet of Things isn’t just about servicing and upgrading the product: It’s also about communicating back to the original manufacturer. Again, when looking for components, it will be important to find those that include sensors that gather information about product operations and success. This allows the product to be assessed remotely, which can be used to proactively address service issues, provide guidance on usage and design the next generation of the product.

Takeaways
Buried in all this is a slightly ugly implication: Innovation doesn’t come from mechanical engineers anymore. If you have that thought, however, reserve judgment. The pendulum of opinion always seems to swing fast and hard nowadays. And if it seems to be swinging away from mechanical engineering right now, just wait a little bit. Soon enough, it will come swinging back with people talking about the need for mechanical engineers to bring innovation back into the physical world, not the virtual one.

Take care. Talk soon. Thanks for reading.

This blog post has been licensed for hosting by PTC. The concepts, ideas and positions of this post have been developed independently by Industry Analyst Chad Jackson of Lifecycle Insights. Some content has been updated by PTC since original posting.

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