Written By Dave Martin
  • 9/12/2019
  • Read Time : 3 min

Surprising Skills Needed for a Mechanical Engineering Career

Stock photo: Man at chalkboard covered in statistical graphs.

If you asked people what skills are needed for an engineering career, most would probably respond with “math and science.” That’s largely true, but which math and science skills? Are calculus and physics enough to carry you through your whole career?

After a couple decades as an engineer, I’ve realized that there are some critical skills that engineers need that aren’t so obvious, and often not covered in our basic schooling. Let’s take a look at some of these and why you need them.

Analytics and Statistics

In college my buddy Joe was a management major who wanted to work in baseball. He had to take a lot of math classes, especially statistics, and it’s served him well. In the Moneyball era, baseball has become dominated by Sabermetrics – the application of statistical analysis and methods to baseball records – and it has revolutionized scouting and player selection.

As a mechanical engineering major, I wasn’t required to take a statistics class, but we covered statistical process control (SPC) as part of manufacturing quality.

However, I’ve found that engineering decisions are often business decisions. People at Amazon are fond of saying “Amazon is a data-driven company,” and it’s true. If you propose a solution for a problem, you will often get challenged to show the data that supports the choice and the trade study that compares your solution to alternatives. I’ve used statistics more than I expected as part of data analysis, trade studies, and generation of key performance indicators (KPIs) to measure the health of processes.

Joe, by the way, is now the Assistant General Manager of a major league baseball team and the reason I haven’t had to buy a baseball ticket in over 20 years.

Programming and Algorithms

As a mechanical engineer I never expected to write algorithms and programs; that’s always felt more like computer science. Surprisingly, I end up writing quite a few programs to parse the data I’ve collected to identify trends and form conclusions.

Often when you’ve collected data, it’s not enough to calculate the mean, standard deviation, confidence interval, variance, and so on. In addition to looping through large sums of data, you want to analyze the relationship between multiple factors. This involves evaluating conditionals while processing the data or parsing a large dataset into additional vectors and matrices that you will evaluate separately.

The term algorithm can sound daunting initially, but it simply means defining a logical process for solving a problem. Product development is at its core an algorithm.

Communication and Presentation

I started out my career as a structural analyst where I performed a lot of finite element analysis (FEA). One of the most common outputs from FEA are color contour plots that look like heat maps, going from blue to red, with red indicating peak values.

One of my biggest mistakes was presenting results where I didn’t normalize the values – in other words, scale them to the material yield strength or design limits. I would show the actual values for displacement, stress, temperature, and so on. The audience would see red and immediately think there was a failure.

Section of a simulation study.
Is red always a failure?

That made me realize that it doesn’t matter how good your results are if you can’t convince your customer of your intended conclusion. Sometimes good “viewgraph engineering” is the difference between making the right or wrong engineering or business decision.

Here’s how you can use your tools to become better at communication and presentation:

  • If you’re using engineering calculation software, you will want to master the various graphing and chart tools for creating 2D and 3D plots of your results.
  • If you’re using a computer aided design (CAD) package, learn how to use the tools for:
    • Rendering to create photorealistic images.
    • Mechanisms to simulate the motion and reaction of components.
    • Animation for creating movies of your product. A picture is worth ten thousand words – and a moving picture even more so.

Next Steps

Much of mechanical engineering education and training is based around design, simulation, and manufacturing, but the business side of product development involves skills based around decision making and management. If you want to develop your proficiency in these areas, the capabilities exist in your CAD tools and engineering math software like PTC Mathcad – explore them!

Download PTC Mathcad Express free


About the Author

Dave Martin is a former Creo, Windchill, and Mathcad instructor and consultant. After leaving PTC, he was the Creo specialist for Amazon; and a mechanical engineer, Creo administrator, and Windchill administrator for Amazon Prime Air. He holds a degree in Mechanical Engineering from MIT and currently works as an avionics engineer for Blue Origin. 

Martin is the author of the books Design Intent in Creo Parametric and Top Down Design in Creo Parametric--both available at www.amazon.com. He can be reached at dmartin@creowindchill.com.

Surprising Skills Needed for a Mechanical Engineering Career
Calculus and physics aren't the only skills you need to carry you through your mechanical engineering career. Here are four essential skills that that come in handy - and might surprise you.