Recent Innovations in Mechanical Engineering
Mechanical engineering is a dynamic field of engineering that has actively contributed to the development of technological advancements in a range of industries, including manufacturing, medicine, mining, transportation, and construction. Historically some of the greatest achievements by people working in the field were the printing press, piston steam engine, steam locomotive and electric motor.
In recent years mechanical engineers have continued to push the boundaries of what was believed to be possible, striving to solve problems effectively and improve existing solutions. From 3D printing to green energy solutions and nanotechnology, here’s six areas where there have been recent innovations by mechanical engineers.
More formally known as additive manufacturing, 3D printing is the automatic creation of physical objects, layer by layer, based on a digital model that is input into the system by the user.
In the past, one of the more common methods used to create three-dimensional models was subtractive manufacturing. During the subtractive manufacturing process, material is removed bit by bit from a solid piece eventually creating the desired shape. 3D printing is the opposite. By adding sections layer by layer 3D printing builds the design from nothing, using a process that allows for the creation of more intricate and complex geometries that weren’t necessarily possible to produce previously.
Early 3D printers used resin and different plastics to form the layers. Over time, engineers have developed new technologies that allow for a wider range of raw materials to be used including metal, carbon fibre and even wood-based filaments.
Today 3D printing is used in a range of contexts including aviation, automotive manufacturing, education, medicine, and construction. In future we may see further development in the types of filaments available, as well as larger printers and cheaper costs. The production of housing via this method may also become more feasible, with not-for-profit New Story and tech startup ICON teaming up to build a 650-square-foot house complete with bedrooms, bathroom, and entertaining spaces. It cost just $10,000 and took under 24 hours to print.
In recent times sustainability and green manufacturing has become increasingly important in industry. When it comes to harnessing renewable energy sources, mechanical engineers play a pivotal role in creating new technologies to do this while also striving to improve the efficiency of existing solutions and systems.
As well as the original rigid solar panels, newer solar panels have been developed that are flexible, semi-flexible or can be walked on by the average human. The photovoltaic cells are becoming more efficient, which in turn means more power can be generated by a smaller array in comparison to the performance of older panels.
Wind turbines are becoming more powerful in part due to bigger blades and taller towers which increase the output capacity. Engineers are working on making the designs more modular, so the turbines are easier and faster to build and install onsite, and ways to recycle worn out components are being developed.
Other sources of renewable energy mechanical engineers are involved in include geothermal energy, hydroelectricity, and wave energy generators. They also contribute to developing innovation and increasingly efficient energy storage systems, such as the Tesla Powerwall or Generac PWRcell.
Keeping with a sustainability theme, there has been a push in recent years towards developing fully electric vehicles including passenger cars, mining trucks, motorcycles, and cargo transportation vehicles.
Throughout the design process mechanical engineers have been at the forefront of the development of electric vehicles, working on projects like developing high-capacity batteries, designing regenerative braking systems and implementing advanced sensor technologies such as collision avoidance.
At the same time as electric vehicles are being developed some companies have chosen to work on the autonomous capabilities of their vehicles as well. Using a range of technologies including radar, sensors and cameras, engineers are helping to develop vehicles capable of safely and effectively transporting humans around without significant input from a driver.
Robotics and Automation
Robotics is all about designing, building, and improving robots. It’s easy to let your imagination run with this one but putting sci-fi fantasy aside, robots are being developed by mechanical engineers all over the world with a range of different goals and purposes in mind. There are robots being created to work alongside humans, exoskeletons designed to help the disabled or enhance soldier capabilities, and robotic aids being used by a range of professionals, including surgeons.
One industry that has been changed by the development of robotics is the manufacturing industry. The introduction of robotic machines helped streamline factory lines and increase production due to automation.
If you're unfamiliar with it, automation is the use of technology, equipment, or systems to complete activities with little or no human interaction required. It can range from simple machines completing basic and repetitive tasks, to high power artificial intelligence. Some of the current developments in automation are the integration of additive manufacturing methods, the evolution of artificial intelligence to support efficient manufacturing and distribution, dark factories that have the capability to run with little to no human intervention, and predictive maintenance schedules.
Similar to the robotics theme, AI is discussed across many applications. It is certainly disruptive across mechanical engineering. The are multiple case studies where scientists have successfully used AI to aid engineering turbomachinery, improve design automation, create heat exchange devices and solve hydrodynamics issues. It also helps in the design and production of engines, gears and bearings.
In the marine engineering sector, AI has aided electrical power and propulsion, voyage planning, reducing fuel consumption and autonomous shipping. In many cases, even today, machines can find solutions in a way that is much faster than humans can solve. In fact, some are predicting that AI will transform mechanical, marine and ocean science.
Nanotechnology has captured human imagination for a little while now, especially in comics and children's television shows. In reality, it is a field that has come quite far in a relatively short time, and this is something mechanical engineers can partially claim credit for.
In recent times there have been a range of breakthroughs in nanotechnology and miniaturisation. Nanoscale sensors, miniature mechanical devices and medical treatments are all areas that have benefitted from having mechanical engineers involved.
Moving forward, these engineers will continue looking for solutions and improvements in a wide range of industries including medicine, manufacturing, disaster relief and agriculture. A few areas where significant development is occurring are the creation of carbon nanomaterials, development in anti-counterfeiting nano systems and environmental nano treatments.
Another area of development which once seemed like science fiction, mechanical engineers have worked with a range of healthcare professionals to create innovative biomechanical products and medical equipment. There are devices that help to monitor patients' vitals and condition, alleviate or lessen the symptoms of an illness, increase quality of life following surgery or an accident, and replace or assist organs that are failing or compromised.
Patients requiring prosthetics now have more options than ever, with many innovations being made thanks to mechanical engineers. Powered prosthetics now have specially developed technologies including myoelectric sensors, integration of the prosthetic with the patient's bone structure and targeted muscle reinnervation. Athletic prosthetics have been addressed through the engineering design process multiple times to find and perfect the optimal design. Other prosthetics are designed to look as realistic as possible, combining mechanical engineering with artistic design.