The field of mechanical engineering has changed greatly since Chris Hetzer graduated from the Milwaukee School of Engineering back in the 1980s. Nonetheless, he says there’s no better time than now to be an engineering graduate.

How has mechanical engineering changed?

While the job has always been demanding, the next generation of engineers is being asked to wear many hats, expand their skills, and become proficient in other disciplines that traditionally have fallen outside the scope of engineering. 

In the past, students pursuing, for example, a mechanical or electrical degree would focus most of their attention on that specific field of study. But that’s starting to change as postsecondary institutions are tailoring their programs to better reflect the skills industry now requires of their engineers. As a result, engineering students are exposed to a more-multifaceted curriculum.

Any specific examples?

One area of study that’s gaining popularity is mechatronics engineering. Although it’s relatively new, education in mechatronics is a result of the changing landscape that engineers are facing in the workforce due to rapid advances in technology.

Mechatronics focuses on the design and production of automated equipment and combines mechanical, electrical, computer, and control engineering as well as related fields such as optomechanics, fluid dynamics, robotics, and others. The advantage of studying this career field is that students gain hands-on experience in several engineering disciplines such as fluid power, electric circuit design, and manufacturing of mechanical parts. 

Do employers value these skills?

This type of expertise is in high demand. To see how mechatronics is applied on the job, one need look no further than our company. Gilman Precision manufactures custom slides and spindles for a variety of industries. For some of our belt-driven spindles, for instance, customers are asking for higher speeds. So now we’re designing and building motors right into the spindles to meet these demands.

But to do that, our engineers need to have a better understanding of the electrical side of the project; that is, how the spindle’s mechanical structure and layout best accommodate the motor, and how the combination affects the overall design.

In addition, customers want statistics, data, and analysis on spindle performance so our engineers need to have a thorough understanding of feedback devices, encoders, electrical sensors, bearing-temperature measurement, and so on — all components that fall a bit outside of the established mechanical-engineering field. Even vibration analysis borrows heavily from principles of electrical engineering. Studying mechatronics helps fill in these gaps, and giving student engineers exposure to these areas helps them be successful down the road.

So can fresh grads “hit the ground running”?

Partially. Academia is expanding the number of mechatronic-focused programs. Employers need to do their part in grooming the engineers of tomorrow, and a great way to do that is through a mentoring program. Earning a four-year degree is an essential building block to launching one’s engineering career, but on-the-job training is often the best way for people to learn their trade.

Companies should ensure every engineering position has a detailed description that lists all the tasks, duties, functions, and responsibilities expected of that job. A well-written document outlines everything a person needs to know to do the job correctly. For newly hired engineers fresh out of school, the job description helps identify areas where they are proficient and those where they need additional instruction. Based on that, a suitable training program can be developed.       

To facilitate training, new hires should be paired with seasoned engineers. Mentoring helps new hires learn exactly what’s expected of them, and what it takes to do their specific job at the company. Working together, they can establish training goals and benchmarks to guide them through the areas identified on the job description. We’ve used this process for a number of years, and it’s worked well for us.

Any other advice?

It is incumbent upon all of us to continue to be advocates for engineering careers while also promoting the educational pillars of high-school mathematics and science, when kids are thinking about college and their future career path. No doubt the profession continues to evolve and adapt to meet the needs of industry. But for those who embrace challenges, engineering is a great profession and can be very rewarding.