Sometimes I think mechanical engineers are the Rodney Dangerfields of engineering.

Take, as a case in point, my friend Kathy. She knows I’m a degreed mechanical engineer and that I’ve survived my share of programming and CAD classes. She also knows I routinely use PCs at work and home. So when the hard drive on her new computer went haywire, did she call me? Of course not, she instinctively turned to our mutual friend and software guru, Bob. Instead, Kathy calls me when she needs “high-tech” advice such as where to get a new muffler for her car.

And her reaction is nothing out of the ordinary. EEs get credit for breakthroughs like cell phones and microwave ovens, the aerospace folks for rovers tramping around Mars. Software engineers are in such high demand that one Silicon Valley company added a third shift just so a programmer could work alone — naked!

Maybe MEs don’t get much recognition because we tend to work fully clothed. Or maybe it’s the general perception that not much is going on when it comes to mechanical engineering. Shafts, gears, and bearings? That was old news 50 years ago. The real action is in electronics and software.

Fortunately, plenty of companies don’t buy into the notion that mechanical technology is out of date. Most mechanical components and systems are better today than a generation ago because most mechanical engineers are eager to take advantage of the latest analysis software, advanced materials and coatings, or the newest mechatronic trends. That is why cars routinely go 100,000 miles, run 98% cleaner than 1970’s autos, have double the gas mileage and are safer, too.

Other mechanical engineers are breaking completely new ground. Take, for instance, Active Control eXperts in Cambridge, Mass. Started by some MIT researchers above a Radio Shack in Boston, the company is growing at an exponential rate by reinventing vibration-control technology. The key? They’re using piezoceramic materials as vibration dampers.

Briefly, piezos harness vibration by converting motion into electricity and heat. In contrast to traditional rubber or foam dampers, piezos can be more easily tuned to the exact frequency that needs damping, have a much wider temperature range, last longer, and provide all this in a more compact package. They’ve already been put to work in skis, snowboards, industrial valves, and fighter aircraft with outstanding results.

ACX emphasizes that they’re not trying to replace conventional vibration dampers, they’re solving previously unsolvable problems and, in the process, paving the way for vastly superior products that blow away the competition.

“Piezo technology allows engineers to do completely new things,” says Adam Bogue, ACX’s VP of marketing. He cites K2, the ski manufacturer, as a case in point. Designers used to tweak ski performance by adjusting shape or stiffness. Now they put piezos inside skis and precisely control vibration, too — tuning response to skill level, snow conditions, and so on. It adds a whole new dimension to design.

The skis are more fun, easier to control, and they’ve won raves from beginners and pros alike, adds Bogue. “First year production turned out to be triple what was forecast,” he says, and K2’s U.S. market share for highend skis rocketed from about 11⁄2% to over 30% in three years.

Bogue envisions piezos soon being used on autos, aircraft, computers, and even household appliances as more and more industries recognize this as a way to raise everyday products to a new heights.

He says the biggest problem they now face is convincing people that this new technology actually works. Try to explain that a piece of ceramic can eliminate vibration from a system, says Bogue, and most engineers think you’re kidding. Conventional passive-damping technology has been around a long time and, for the most part, is pretty well understood, he explains. “Piezos aren’t even recognized as an option.”

Part of his job is to break that mindset and educate people as to its capabilities, as well as put this fundamental technology at the design engineers’ fingertips. Maybe part of our job is to not act so surprised the next time we see a mechanical-engineering breakthrough. They are being made all the time.

© 2010 Penton Media, Inc.