Emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and sustainable energy are reshaping how we live, work and interact with the planet. In this rapidly changing landscape, mechanical engineering plays a crucial role in developing and integrating these exciting innovations into our daily lives. Experts in this field use their knowledge of mechanical systems to design and build machines, engines and other tools.1
According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the demand for mechanical engineers will increase by 10% between 2022 and 2032.1 This article examines how mechanical engineers contribute to developing robotics, smart manufacturing and other emerging technologies.
Overview of Emerging Technologies
The phrase 'emerging technologies' refers to cutting-edge advancements in the early stages of development. Businesses and universities often dedicate many resources—such as funding for research, equipment and staff—to these innovations, which can then advance at an accelerated pace. They can transform industries and society by introducing more efficient processes and products.2
Recent examples, including artificial intelligence, flexible batteries and sustainable fuel, are revolutionizing our world: how humans generate ideas, power devices, travel and more. However, they also lead to new challenges, such as ethical dilemmas and public resistance to change.3
The Role of Mechanical Engineers in Emerging Technologies
Mechanical engineering experts have broad skill sets, enabling them to drive progress in many sectors. They analyze complex problems and use engineering principles and tools such as computer-aided design to develop creative solutions: longer-lasting batteries, innovative medical devices and power-producing machines, among many others. They also test emerging technologies and optimize the performance of new tools and mechanisms.1
These professionals frequently collaborate with experts in other disciplines. Multidisciplinary projects can lead to exciting new developments that require knowledge from several areas. For example, as reported in Forbes, mechanical engineers have already collaborated with experts in epidemiology and global health to solve sanitation problems.4 They also work with researchers in the automobile industry to create more aerodynamic cars and work in partnership with construction professionals to create more efficient heating and cooling systems.1
Robotics and Automation
Mechanical engineers play a pivotal role in the design process and maintenance of robotic systems. They integrate hardware with actuators, sensors and other critical components. One such pursuit involves building robots with sensors that detect light and activate specific behaviors, like adjusting position to avoid sunlight.1
Many industries rely on new and ongoing development in robotics and automation. During and since the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, hotels and hospitals have used sanitation robotics to disinfect rooms. One model—a disinfection robot controlled with a laptop or tablet—uses an electrostatically charged nozzle to spray positively charged chemicals onto negatively charged surfaces for highly effective cleaning. Its six-axis arm gives it a longer reach than other robots, so it can spray areas thought to be unreachable as well as high-touch surfaces such as light switches and doorknobs.5
Similarly, prompted by mounting pressure and growing demand for contact-free delivery of food and other items, care facilities and delivery services employed (and continue to use) robots to transport food, medication, infectious samples for testing, documents and other items to patients, medical professionals and customers in the general public.5
Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning
In a 2023 article for the Plant Engineering website, product engineer Shreedhar Murthy Hebbur Subbaraju wrote, “In mechanical engineering, the use of artificial intelligence (AI) to automate routine tasks, optimize and streamline processes and improve quality control and testing precision is on the rise … When used correctly, AI can free engineers from menial work, allowing them to focus on alternative design and other more complex and interesting tasks. The use of AI also opens the door for engineering innovations, such as the development of smart and autonomous systems.”6
AI and machine learning (ML)—that is, training computers to learn from data to make predictions or decisions without being specifically programmed—have become deeply entwined with mechanical engineering. For example:7
- Using data from sensors, machines and other sources, predictive maintenance of mechanical equipment uses machine learning algorithms to detect and predict potential failures in mechanical systems before they occur
- AI and ML are crucial in the operation of autonomous vehicles (self-driving cars), helping them to navigate the environment while detecting obstacles, recognizing traffic signals, anticipating possible hazards and reducing fuel use by taking the most efficient routes
- In this age of big data, the racing world can look to AI, ML and mechanical engineering to analyze data from past races in order to improve vehicle designs and automate production of new models
It seems nearly impossible to overstate the importance of mechanical engineers in the development of sustainable energy. Consider their tremendous contributions in these areas:8
Photovoltaic (PV) systems convert sunlight into electricity. Engineers are involved in the design and integration of solar panels, intent on improving their energy conversion efficiency, durability and cost-effectiveness. Further, they:
- Develop advanced tracking systems that maximize the panels’ exposure to sunlight
- Optimize heat dissipation mechanisms to prevent overheating
- Explore innovative materials for improved solar cell performance
- Contribute to the development of solar thermal systems that harness solar energy for heating and cooling applications
Geothermal energy systems use the Earth's natural heat for electricity generation and heating. Mechanical engineers design and optimize geothermal heat pumps, power plants and other heat extraction technologies. They improve the efficiency of heat exchangers, drilling techniques and fluid circulation systems, which helps ensure optimal energy transfer and system performance.
Mechanical engineers design efficient hydroelectric power turbines and generators that convert the kinetic energy of flowing water into electricity. They work to make the turbines efficient and reliable and to minimize their environmental impacts. They’re also vital to the design and construction of dams, penstocks and other infrastructure components needed for harnessing hydropower.
Mechanical engineers design and develop wind turbines, the windmill-like towers that have become symbols of renewable energy. They work to enhance the turbines’ efficiency, reliability and durability. They use advanced computational modeling, aerodynamic analysis and material science to optimize the shape, size and materials used in turbine blades, maximizing energy conversion and keeping maintenance needs to a minimum.
In order to integrate renewable energy sources into the electrical grid, we need effective energy storage systems that address intermittency and meet changing demands. Mechanical engineers develop advanced energy storage technologies including batteries, compressed air energy storage (CAES) and flywheels. They work to enhance these storage systems’ energy density, efficiency and lifespans, enabling seamless integration and optimizing energy utilization.
Biomedical Engineering and Medical Devices
Mechanical engineers collaborate with healthcare professionals to develop better medical devices and prosthetics. For instance, in 2023, a team of engineers at Stanford University developed an electric “skin” that detects sensations like pressure and warmth; it can be used on prosthetic limbs to help patients interact with their environment more intuitively.9
Engineers can also apply mechanical principles to improve the efficiency of healthcare systems and procedures. Tools such as surgical robots improve patient outcomes by using complex mechanical operations to perform tasks like removing kidney stones.10 These creations help alleviate the staffing shortage many hospitals face today.
Smart Manufacturing and Industry 4.0
Engineers can combine mechanical components and innovations such as AI to implement smart manufacturing systems. Known as Industry 4.0, this combination automates manufacturing tasks to optimize operations and boost productivity.10
Mechanical engineers also streamline manufacturing processes by integrating tools that help plants customize products and detect errors in machinery and software. These tools include:11
- Data analytics: The use of statistical methods and software to collect and analyze information, such as customer feedback and machine output, to make informed decisions
- The Internet of Things: Physical objects such as actuators and control systems are linked in the cloud to help with predictive maintenance, error detection and other processes
- Sensors: Smart devices that collect environmental data, such as humidity and temperature, from machines to help staff monitor their performance
Challenges for Engineers in Regard to Emerging Technologies
Although they can revolutionize society and improve many aspects of daily life, from driving to receiving medical care, some emerging technologies also raise ethical and professional challenges.
The development of technology often outpaces the creation of governmental rules and regulations. As a result, mechanical engineers must rely on their own judgment to make ethical decisions when designing, developing, testing and licensing new products.12
The American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) Code of Ethics guides professionals as they forge the future of engineering. Principles in this code include:13
- Making decisions benefiting the health and safety of the public
- Respecting intellectual property and privacy rights
- Prioritizing sustainable development
- Not exceeding areas of competence
Continuous Learning and Adaptability
The ASME Code of Ethics also requires members to expand their knowledge continuously throughout their careers.13 Lifelong learning enables engineers to adapt to new approaches, industries and tools. It also helps them sharpen their skills and encounter new perspectives.14
Mechanical engineers can stay up to date with emerging technologies and industry trends by joining professional organizations and attending industry events. They can also network with people from other disciplines to gain new knowledge and skills.14
Collaboration and Teamwork
Creating complex products such as surgical robots requires knowledge and methods from multiple fields. As a result, mechanical engineers often work with professionals from diverse backgrounds and disciplines to design cutting-edge tools and accomplish shared goals. Such multidisciplinary collaboration requires strong soft skills such as communication, leadership and time management.15
Innovation for the Future of Mechanical Engineering
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- Retrieved on September 11, 2023, from bls.gov/ooh/architecture-and-engineering/mechanical-engineers.htm#tab
- Retrieved on September 11, 2023, from files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1220161.pdf
- Retrieved on September 11, 2023, from www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_Top_10_Emerging_Technologies_of_2023.pdf
- Retrieved on September 11, 2023, from forbes.com/sites/madhukarpai/2022/05/22/engineers-are-unsung-heroes-of-global-health/
- Retrieved on September 11, 2023, from cambridge.org/core/journals/disaster-medicine-and-public-health-preparedness/article/applications-of-robotics-artificial-intelligence-and-digital-technologies-during-covid19-a-review/
- Retrieved on September 11, 2023, from plantengineering.com/articles/how-to-use-artificial-intelligence-a-guide-for-mechanical-engineers/
- Retrieved on September 11, 2023, from skill-lync.com/blogs/technical-blogs/design-applications-of-machine-learning-and-ai-in-mechanical-engineering
- Retrieved on September 11, 2023, from linkedin.com/pulse/role-mechanical-engineering-renewable-energy-technologies-raghul-m/
- Retrieved on September 11, 2023, from asme.org/topics-resources/content/electronic-skin-sends-sensations-to-the-brain
- Retrieved on September 11, 2023, from asme.org/topics-resources/content/7-medical-robots-that-may-save-your-life
- Retrieved on September 11, 2023, from sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2666188820300162
- Retrieved on September 11, 2023, from asme.org/topics-resources/content/7-concerns-regarding-ethics-and-safety-in-engineering
- Retrieved on September 11, 2023, from asme.org/getmedia/3e165b2b-f7e7-4106-a772-5f0586d2268e/p-15-7-ethics.pdf
- Retrieved on September 11, 2023, from asme.org/topics-resources/content/the-power-of-lifelong-learning-for-mechanical-engineers
- Retrieved on September 11, 2023, from asme.org/topics-resources/content/multidisciplinary-skills-make-strong-leaders