Mechanical Engineers — What Skills Are Important to your Success?

Actalent article containing advice as shared by professional mechanical engineers in online discussion.

To get a sense of the evolving state of mechanical engineering, we checked in on social media forums and subreddits where mechanical engineers (ME) discuss and debate “what’s in your toolbox?”

How Important Are Programming Skills for Mechanical Engineering?

Rich discussions are often sparked by posts from aspiring engineers like this: “…as a mechanical engineer, how important is it to have programming skills?”

One poster suggested, “I would take some classes [in programming] just to be safe and well-rounded,” while another advised, “Programming and automation are the way of the future. We mechanical engineers won’t be replaced by artificial intelligence in the near future, but the tools you use will be programmable.”

Regarding tools of choice, one poster noted “A lot of MEs get by with Excel for calculations, but it's really limiting compared to writing a quick script to do calculations. I could calculate everything I need by hand, or in Excel, but my ability to iterate the design and try out ideas would be very limited. Instead, I've written a little Python script that can tell me everything I need about a bunch of possible designs at once and plot the results for easy comparison. The end result will be much better than I could have done without a little programming.”

Excel or Programming? Depends on Your Environment

Many mechanical engineers are expanding their skills beyond Excel, with their new tools of choice including Python, MATLAB, Visual Basic for Applications and C/C++.

As one poster explained “I do finite element analysis (FEA) for a living, including a lot of post-processing. Lots and lots of fatigue calculations based on stresses extracted from FEA models. Most of it is done in Excel, but when I need something more complex, either linear algebra, optimization or complex queries, I load up Python and go at it.”

Another poster shared, “…I first learned a bit of embedded development with C as an undergrad. I've used that during and after my master’s to do some robot-programming, and also to speed up some calculations.”

We loved this insightful observation from another poster who suggested the key to choosing the right tools was knowing your audience and environment. The writer added, “If you are an engineer, working for an engineer, surrounded by engineers, I agree with you — use the advanced tools. But, if you work in manufacturing and report to operations people, and work with quality and production employees, then the benefits of working in a system that everybody is fluent in, like Excel, trumps the benefits of a ‘real‘ engineering tool like MATLAB.”

Platform Thinking

One discussion was sparked by a user wondering whether anyone knew of an open-source platform similar to the Arduino community for the mechanical engineering world.

One user suggested, “See if a 3D printer helps you prototype fast to validate a concept. It's easy to use, if you already know computer-aided design, and not expensive.”

A final piece of advice came from one veteran engineer that suggested, “I would start by grabbing a cheap junkyard motor and pulling it apart. Then try and put it back together. It’s much safer/less messy than pulling apart pneumatics…”

Meet the Mechatronics Engineers

One aspiring engineer posted to a subreddit saying their “interests ranged from machines, electronics, engines, power, electricity to mathematics, physics and programming,” and wondered what sort of engineering career they should pursue.

A forum member responded that “mechatronic engineering is almost exactly what you are describing, but there aren't a ton of accredited 4-year degree programs out there. If you can't get into one of those then I would say [pursue a] mechanical and electrical engineering double major, and do a bunch of programming projects on your own time.”

Another poster added, “Pretty much any company that designs anything will take an ME, and you'll have plenty of exposure to electronics and programming if you want it. A mechanical engineer with a little bit of experience wiring up some power supplies and sensors, and knows some Python or C#, is a force to be reckoned with.”

Our dip into the world of mechanical engineers “talking shop” online confirms what we’ve known for some time: engineers are a passionate, insightful and supportive group. These are the same engineers — mechanical and otherwise — that Actalent has been helping grow their careers since our inception.