Mechanical Engineering in the Age of Industry 4.0: Why It’s Still a Great Career Choice

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Even 20 years into the 21st century, most parents in India would like to see their children become engineers or doctors. Never mind that the world has evolved so much more and there are a plethora of professions to choose from, these two professions remain the hot favourites even today. Is this a new phenomenon? For how long have Indian children aspired to become engineers? After engineering education began to become popular in the 1950s and later, and as India aspired to become a developing nation with special thrust on manufacturing in the 1970s and 1980s, the trend started of students opting for mechanical and electrical engineering. Later on, computer and electronics engineering became very popular.

What is mechanical engineering? It is a branch that applies the principles of engineering into the design, analysis, manufacturing, and maintenance of machines and mechanical production techniques.

Why study mechanical engineering? No doubt, computer engineering continues to be the hot favourite with options to move into software development, AI, machine learning and data sciences. But as these fields get saturated with people from a non-engineering background, industries will require engineers with core knowledge of their field and additional expertise in software tools. Among those fields will be mechanical engineering. Many jobs will depend on mechanical engineers. The emergence of electric vehicles, renewable energy sources, biomedical equipment, smart and connected devices, bio-engineering, and 3D printing will create a strong demand for mechanical engineers with software knowledge. Mechanical engineers are a rare breed of engineers who are expected to be experts at mechanical properties of matter, physics, computer simulations, drafting, mathematics, knowledge of structures. You have seen the tall skyscrapers all around the world – they require top-class mechanical engineers. You have seen rocket launch pads – you need mechanical engineers to design those. Automobiles, metro stations, trains, aircraft, aerobridges, engine design, name any structure and you can be sure there is a team of world-class engineers. Yes, even the Taj Mahal and Qutub Minar would have involved mechanical engineers.

Mechanical systems are no longer isolated. So one part of your vehicle will communicate with another part to give optimum results. Also, manufacturing companies can adapt to design and manufacture products that may not be there in the core business. For example, recently, the government of India has asked all automakers to utilise their manufacturing facilities to produce ventilators and other medical gear required to fight the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19). Mahindra & Mahindra (M&M) and Tata Motors are planning to ramp up ventilator manufacturing. In the United States, Ford Motors has started working with 3M and General Electric to manufacture respirators and ventilators.

The digitization of manufacturing has led to a new term being coined – Industry 4.0. This is the fourth revolution in manufacturing. The first industrial revolution was the use of steam power, the second revolution was the use of assembly lines for mass production by using electricity, the third industrial revolution as the use of computers and automation and the fourth industrial revolution is using computers to enhance manufacturing with smart and autonomous systems which are fueled by data and machine learning. Computers and mechanical systems are interconnected and can take decisions without human intervention.

Mechanical engineers with background in software will be in demand for the following reasons:

  • Autonomous equipment and vehicles: use of mechanical engineering, GPS, smart batteries to designing autonomous vehicles. The most popular example is of course, the Tesla car.
  • Robots: Robots are now among the primary ‘workers’ in manufacturing industry. This was once possible only for large enterprises with equally large budgets. But now autonomous robots are more affordable and available to manufacturers of every size. Robots are being used to pick products at a warehouse to getting them ready to ship. They reduce costs and allow better use of floor space for the online retailer. Robots are also being used at airports for luggage movement.
  • Use Data From Connected Machines: Data-connected machines and onboard sensors collect a tremendous volume of data that can inform the maintenance department of performance issues, and analyze that data to identify patterns and provide insights to optimize operations quickly and efficiently.
  • Internet of Things and Cloud Computing: IoT, or the Internet Of Things, is a key component of Industry 4.0. Connected devices are a major characteristic of IoT. How are devices connected? Devices are connected because they can share data through the use of internet protocols, and cloud computing. This helps in internal operations. Since data is stored on the cloud, equipment and operations can be optimized by using the insights of other organisations using the same equipment. Smaller organisations can access this technology to improve their own products.
  • 3D printing: 3D printing is also called additive technology. The past decade has seen tremendous improvements in this technology and it has progressed from being used (primarily) for prototyping to actual production.

Mechanical engineering is a core branch of engineering and most engineering colleges offer this subject. Some of the topmost institutes offering mechanical engineering at undergraduate level (BE or BTech) are the IITs, BITS Pilani, National Institute of Technology (NITs), Birla Institute of Technology, Thapar University, VJTI Mumbai, College of Engineering Pune, Vellore Institute of Technology, S. P. College of Engineering Mumbai, Manipal Institute of Technology, and many more. Almost all engineering colleges will offer a degree in mechanical engineering.

What can you learn on your own to start with? Many courses are free on Udemy, Udacity, and YouTube. Pick up some basic courses on robotics, IoT, Matlab, numerical analysis, Computer-Aided Engineering (CAE), Computer-Aided Design (CAD), Computer-Aided Manufacturing (CAM), mechatronics, applied thermodynamics, and Finite Element Analysis. This will give you a feel of the subjects that you will be studying and you can decide if you have an aptitude for this branch.

Job opportunities in mechanical engineering include the manufacturing industry, automobile industry, aerospace, and maintenance. Mechanical engineers are at the forefront of developing new technologies for many industries like transport, construction, robotics, and healthcare. No wonder, this branch along with electrical engineering has been called the “evergreen branch of engineering”.

Related Article:

‘Why are students choosing Computer Science, IT over other engineering branches?’

Engg not just about computer science and IT. Can we stop this mad rush? – by Prof V Ramgopal Rao

Mechatronics Engineering

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