Mechanical engineering: What are we in for?

Current technologies are vastly different than the technologies in place when most mechanical engineers started.

By J. Patrick Banse, PE, LEED AP, Smith Seckman Reid Inc., Houston December 6, 2010

When mechanical engineers are in school, few of them know exactly where their degree might take them. I was one of those engineers. Being exposed to many aspects of this fascinating engineering program, I was awed by the range of career choices—steam and power generation, automotive design, structures. However, only a few courses—thermodynamics, fluid dynamics, and heat transfer—prepared me for the area I ended up in, partially by choice but mostly by having mentors that instilled a passion in me that continues to guide me more than 35 years after graduation. The area of mechanical engineering I ended up in was HVAC, plumbing, and fire protection design in buildings, specifically healthcare, but that was after a few years of preliminaries and, as I found out, nothing like I learned in school.

Current technologies are vastly different than the technologies used when I started. Computers, computer programs, the Internet with online information, equipment calculation and selection programs, 2- and 3-D CADD drafting, and building information modeling (BIM) are all tools to help mechanical engineers do their jobs. However, unless you know how the data are developed, what the database looks like, what it is made of, and how it generates results based on an engineer’s input, one cannot be sure that the output is correct, much less close to what the answer should be.

Looking at a single computer-generated selection, for example, can distort your view of the family of curves of pumps and fans so often necessary in making a final selection. But then again, with an engineer’s “feel” and gut instinct developed through years of experience and mentoring, the process becomes clearer and more accurate.


From a consulting engineer’s perspective, the documents we produce and the ability to modify or update and change them has changed dramatically over the last 20 years, while the tools and processes we use continue to evolve and change. With certainty, just as the integration of project team members, the way information is delivered and shared, our implementation processes, and our ability to use the information must continue to change and evolve with technology. What must remain constant, though, is our understanding of what the data means, how it is used, and how our systems deliver the desired results to meet the design intent in building or process needs. Our roles may also change, and we must be able to change along with them just as the way we do business continues to change and adjust to the economy and the way our products are delivered. Sometimes this is called survival. But it can also be called being at the front of the market we serve.

CAD programs and BIM are supposedly making our design and construction lives easier by creating ways to design, lay out, and allow multidiscipline coordination in 3-D. This design method allows the team to see how components and systems interface with each other in actual size and location, thus potentially eliminating conflicts and allowing contractors to do their field coordination and installation more efficiently, which in theory may reduce construction time, all of which benefits the owner.

It won’t be long before accurate equipment databases with power and heat load requirements are integrated with BIM and HVAC load calculation programs. Energy modeling programs along with U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services and designated ASHRAE standards and codes will edit a heat load on a space-by-space basis, choose the worst case, and indicate that in the output while sizing the ductwork for the space.

We all look for ways to save time, work smarter, and become more productive when at work. Computers have increased our ability to process, store, document, send, and receive information. Continual enhancements and updates of software and CAD programs can sometimes speed up this process by removing steps that get us to the result we are looking for, giving the overall impression that it takes less time and effort to produce our product. The machines that do the work certainly perform faster than those of old, but does anyone remember one of the first fax machines where you wrapped the sheet of paper around a cylinder and three minutes later the first sheet was sent and you were ready for page two? A true marvel at that time, but our time was spent waiting for it to go through and then with the follow-up phone call to ensure it was delivered and still readable.

The part of the process that has not changed much, though, is the human time element—time to plan, design, lay out, calculate, and select systems and components that make up our design and convey design intent. Engineers, by law, must place foremost the safety, health, and welfare of the public. Creating shortcuts to speed the process is a worthwhile endeavor, but no steps that put the public or our employer at risk can be omitted.  While BIM software programs, along with collision detection software such as NavisWorks can identify interferences, it won’t fix them. It takes the designer and the engineer to think through the interference and decide on the appropriate resolution to deliver an overall better product. Educating ourselves on technology and its use makes us better engineers and teachers. It allows us to educate our clients and others we work with as well to make our work and projects more complete.

The QA/QC process is a human element where a fresh set of eyes looks at the project, determines what is there and whether it works, but also sees what may be missing from the documents that is needed to fulfill the design intent or make it constructible. For example, steam piping may be shown, sized, properly trapped, and connected from the source to the equipment and look like it is complete. But did the documents actually show a means for expansion? Did they show anchors, guides, and whether it could be built, or is more information needed to properly construct without further revisions or delays? A seasoned reviewer with adequate review time who can find and identify such issues is a critical part of every successful project.

The tools available to the engineer are important to every project in order to produce work consistently, uniformly, and quickly. However, humans must think, design, review and convey design intent, and ensure that the finished product represents what is needed to be successful.

Engineers’ continuing challenges come from keeping up with energy-efficient products; emerging system technologies; space, heat, and ventilation loads; 24/7 cooling; and wireless and paperless reporting and filing systems. Perhaps one good thing about the paper-to-digital transition is that as the old paper documents are destroyed or converted, the buildings may become empty enough to house new data centers. (One can wish.)

Codes and standards

As part of an engineer’s duty to protect the public safety, health, and welfare, he must comply with applicable codes as those codes relate to the issues at hand. Keeping up with the latest version is always a good idea, but keeping up with the latest adopted version is a better idea, although it can be a trying experience at times. Code review and research should be like washing one’s hands (early and often) but many times ends up like polishing your shoes—you get to it when it’s absolutely necessary and not a moment sooner. This approach sometimes requires document changes, additions, and reorganization that affect other team members’ ability to produce their work in a timely and efficient manner.

Establishing a relationship with code reviewers, enforcers, and inspectors is very helpful during design, plan review, and construction. Learning the issues, the potential pitfalls, and occupancy/acceptance characteristics dear to the hearts of the code officials can make for a smooth and flawless finish. In other words, an engineer can be in control of the outcome with proper planning and purpose. To do business as usual in an economic slowdown and tough business times is asking for trouble. The more proactive one is, the better the outcome. The challenge is keeping up with the code changes. Optimally the changes to codes are presented in code seminars by experts who not only know what the words are, but what they mean and the reasoning behind them. Of course these seminars cost money, and tight budgets may not allow for engineers to attend. Webinars and podcasts are another less costly way to attend sessions and hear of code updates.

Another approach is to be the champion for your firm. Take the initiative. Review, research, and present. The more you get into an issue, the better you understand it and the better you are at being able to teach others about it. After all, sharing knowledge is part of a mechanical engineer’s responsibility.

Codes and standards are numerous. Many standards are referenced and therefore adopted within codes, such as ASTM A53 and A106 regarding pipe fabrication, ASHRAE/ANSI 90.1 regarding energy efficiency, and ASHRAE Standards 170 and 62.1 regarding minimum ventilation standards. Most codes identify minimum requirements to be met, which sometimes add cost and seem restrictive.

Why are codes and standards so important, and why do engineers need to know them and produce code-compliant documents? The answer is because adhering to codes is our job and our professional responsibility. How we approach code research can affect the outcomes. Are codes necessary evils, a restriction to our creative genius, or are they an enhancement to making our project sustainable and allow us to exceed code minimum standards through innovation and consensus-generating approaches to meet the code intent as well as the letter of the code? Knowing your code officials and developing that relationship will go a long way toward success.

A couple of examples that I have found that can cause confusion in HVAC system design are rated wall designations and fire and smoke damper requirements. The International Building Code lists definitions and specific requirements for placement of fire barriers, fire partitions, smoke barriers, and smoke partitions. These can be a constant source of challenges for designers. Are dampers required? Are smoke detectors required? Where? What is their function and operation? Do fully ducted systems make a difference? Discussions with code officials and the architect can clear up the project requirements and allow the design to proceed to minimize the number of dampers, construction cost, and the need for continual damper maintenance.

Being clear on wall types and legend is a must early in a project to first understand what is required and then discuss it with the code official so there is a documented agreement as to what is required. Involving all team members as well as the owner’s commissioning agent can speed the process and make for a successful project. Face-to-face meetings beat e-mail for making sure team members all have the same understanding.

The work-life balance

Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Go to work, do your job, go home to your family and/or your “away from work” life. No worries. But wait, am I really going to finish that task on time? Yes, I did volunteer to take over a few of my coworkers’ tasks while they are on vacation, and yes, I did want to attend that seminar after work to gain some professional development hours to keep up my level of competency as required by many licensing boards. Movie? Basketball game? Sure, why not? Sleep—maybe I’ll postpone that. Sound familiar?

Our lives have become busier thanks to technology, ease of travel, and more choices of things to do. It seems that like our possessions, which expand to fit the available storage space, our lives have become filled with more things and more tasks because our calendar says we have 30 minutes with “nothing scheduled.” Maybe on days when nothing is scheduled, do not try to fill in the slot with something. It is OK to just do “nothing.” Like the old joke goes, one man asked another what he was going to do today. The second man replied, “Nothing.” The first man said, “I thought you did that yesterday.” Man two said “Yes, but I wasn’t finished.”

Many firms actively preach quality of life to their employees and try to balance internal workloads to allow their employees time to have a personal life. But some of these same firms also preach high utilization and no overtime (and no overtime pay), and keeping expenses to a minimum. Economic times are tough and we must spread the work around. The balance then requires cooperative effort and open communication between the employees and leadership. Engineers like to be in control of their work lives so their tasks can be properly planned and the information shared. We don’t always have that luxury anymore. Flexibility is key, as is getting used to where your cheese moved, and not necessarily who moved it.

Survival in 2011 may depend upon your passion, your intensity, and your desire and ability to balance your work and personal life. Become a champion and inspire others to do the same. Challenge, be creative, be client- and customer-oriented and focused. Boost your team, recharge, take time for you. As David Sellers wrote in an article I read last year (see December 2009), rediscover the joy in engineering.

Find a mentor, someone who can share experiences and aspects of engineering that will encourage you and help guide your development. Learn whatever you can, and be open-minded about your tasks to allow other viewpoints and opinions into your career path. Try different aspects of engineering. Is dealing with people while sharing project information something that is fun as well as challenging, or is the technical side where the fun is? I was fortunate in having a mentor who showed me the passionate side of consulting engineering, what is important in being a good, well-rounded mechanical engineer. He also reinforced in me that work is not all there is, and I admit it was difficult to follow this logic at times. Friends, family, and hobbies are essential to recharging and renewing your interest in your engineering life.

We have a responsibility to our profession, our employers, our fellow employees, and to ourselves. We have a lot in our bucket at times, and it seems we are capable of understanding not only our own discipline, but others as well as we are often called to do. To be well-versed and complete engineers, it is incumbent upon us to continually expand our understanding and knowledge base. There are three areas of our profession that come into our lives daily: leadership, followership, and stewardship. Some of us are leaders, some of us are followers, and finding our niche is sometimes difficult. However, we are all required to be good stewards of the environment, our resources, our time, talent, and finances.

There are many books written about leadership, but an article written by Alden Solovy in 2005 identified five common themes to the art of followership that have stuck with me: self-management, communication, teamwork, personal development, and commitment. The themes lend themselves to having organizational success in any endeavor, sometimes in spite of leadership roles. However, leadership must be aware and cognizant of this practice lest employees be treated like commodities. Regardless of which area you choose or end up in, you must take your role seriously and maintain your credibility and integrity, your honesty and your courage.

– Banse has more than 35 years of experience in the consulting engineering field with the past 30 years in healthcare design and engineering. He is a member of Consulting-Specifying Engineer’s Editorial Advisory Board.