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What Lies In the Future of Mechanical Design Industry

Design engineers' jobs are starting to look a lot different than just a decade ago.

Most of us likely engage in mechanical engineering design on a daily basis, but what’s the future for this crucial field?

Since the invention of CAD software, mechanical design has been revolutionized to its core. However, there are quite a lot of things about the process that are rather rudimentary. We still have to manually input constraints for parts that may seem obvious.

We can still make one minor mistake that can corrupt our whole model. Software is becoming smarter and smarter, but for the most part, the mechanical engineer is still where the innovation and the skill lies. What happens though, when programs become generative; when the mechanical engineer’s office dissolves and design moves into the future? Let’s take a deeper look. (Don’t worry, you’re still going to have a job.)

The next step for the mechanical design engineer

CAD programs, the foundation of mechanical design, we’re largely pushed forward by innovative code and programming. That has done wonders for the programs’ abilities, but it also means that CAD has evolved into a largely keyboard-oriented skill. Given that this is commonplace, you may not find anything odd about this fact.

What keyboard-based mechanical design does, however, is limit the designer to technical ability and knowledge of the specific software. There will always be a place for this, but computers will soon be able to allow freeform mechanical design within the confines of reality. This means that while, as engineers, we may be smart enough to input design constraints, we simply won’t have to. It opens up the age for pure engineering.

The echoing of this future reality has already been occurring. The age of touch screen computers has brought more natural mechanical design interface. Moving forward, it will likely be virtual reality and quantum computing that brings mechanical design into its ultimate realization for the engineer.

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When you think about mechanical design as more of a skilled work form given the tools coming in the future, mechanical engineers may soon have more options of where and how we work. We won’t be restricted to cubicles, rather we can be “technical artists” designing in virtual spaces or even on the job site – imagine that.

Any engineer actively engaged in any technical field today feasibly understands how significant simulation has become in the modern design process. This stretches twofold, from simulation’s improved capability to provide us with practically useful data and its increased use in the design process. Fully appreciating this modern design tool change requires that we look deeper into the state of simulation integrated CAD.

Integrated simulation in design

Diving deeper into simulation in the modern design process grants us a better look at what might be to come for our daily life as engineers. 

Simulations in terms of computer models like FEA in relation to CAE is a fairly new capability. Simulation simply defined as the use of predictive or practical models to prepare and access future designs dates back a little further. We can trace the desire for simulation essentially back to the beginning of engineering, but it’s modern usage began during the world wars and the space age. More refined simulation models were used in the Manhattan Project to model nuclear explosions and the design of the rockets used in the early space missions. Of course, all of this  “simulation” was done on paper and involved discrete mathematics, Navier-Stokes equations, and finite element analysis, among many other formulas.

What Lies In the Future of Mechanical Design Industry
Source: NASA/Public Domain/Wikimedia

Diverging from the mathematical roots of simulation, physical simulation was also used in the design process of the Apollo landing capsules. Astronauts alongside engineers were used to test processes for launch, landing, and usage of all of the Apollo hardware. These simplistic hardware simulations are the early beginnings of simulation tools that allow for usage cases and event analysis. During the height of the space age, Simula-67, the first simulation-centric programming language was developed which lead the way for modern computer simulation software.

Since these early days where the mathematics of simulation was refined, simulation solidified into a vital tool for engineers.  

In the last several years, simulation has been ingrained into our CAE tools, like our mechanical design software. Beyond simple case analysis capabilities, simulation in many senses now comes before design. This shifted workflow comes in the form of generative design tools and simulation’s use as a design aid. Rather than designing a part and then testing whether it will work, CAD-integrated simulation software like Nastran and Inventor’s shape generator tools allow for simulation before or alongside design. Generative design allows for simulation to create a design whereas analysis tools allow for testing of part design every step of the way.

The increasing utilization of simulation in modern part design is only natural, in fact, it’s primal to our drive as engineers. We innately seek to improve, innovate, optimize, and otherwise endeavor to design the best part/assembly/machine possible. Simulation tools and the development therein leverage themselves on our innate desire to know.

The hurdles to integrated simulation

Even with the current state of CAD integrated simulation tools, there are still hurdles to overcome and improvements to be made. The NAFEMS World Congress, the International Association for the Engineering Modelling, Analysis, and Simulation Community, recently recognized many areas needing improvement in simulation tools in their 2017 assembly. They cited the most prolific problems of current simulation tools reuse of knowledge, speed and model fidelity, and pre-design simulation. In other words, the ways that NAFEMS believes simulation tools need to improve are their abilities to capture and reapply learned knowledge from past analysis, the speed and fidelity of models (which will naturally improve with cloud implementation/increased processing power) and the ability for simulation to be used before the design process.

So, while the modern usage of simulation tools alongside CAD has improved and grown to a point that has far exceeded many’s expectations, there’s a long way to go before it is perfect. This means good things for us as engineers. If we want more abilities to simulate, chances are they are coming with improved technical infrastructure. Cloud implementation is so vital to the adoption of simulation because simulation by nature requires significant processing power. Cloud offsets this burden from the engineer to the cloud data center, making expansive simulation analysis possible for anyone, anywhere.

The future of simulation is now, but the innovation won’t be over anytime soon.

Freedom to engineer

Ultimately, the goal of advancing mechanical design is to replace the restricting confines of computer interface and let then engineer create in a pure form.

Diverging from the mechanical design interface, the industries that are most in need of mechanical design in the coming future are those like automotive and manufacturing. However, there’s is a new budding industry that will require the skills of the best mechanical designers – AI design. Artificially intelligent programs and machines will soon be doing a large part of the design of the future. First, they have to learn and be complemented by actual mechanical design engineers.

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Don’t worry about losing your job to robots just yet. The specific tasks of a design engineer will only transform with AI, not be eliminated. What AI and ultimately, generative design, will do to mechanical design is revolutionize just what is possible in our industry. The future is bright for the mechanical designer.

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