The Death March of Mechanical Engineering

Friday, July 25, 2014

A few months back, I had the opportunity to visit the Computer History Museum in the middle of Silicon Valley. Oddly enough, the highlight of my visit was.....a very mechanical contraption. 

The Babbage Difference Engine 2 at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California

Pictured above is the Babbage Difference Engine 2 designed by the 'father of the Computer', Charles Babbage in the 1850s and built by the guys at the London Science Museum in 1990s. This was what a calculator looked like, once upon a time. Powered by a human rotating the handle on the right, this machine performed calculations through a movement of gears and screws and levers and printed the output on a tray of plaster of paris or paper. You should see it in action here (fast forward to 1:12). Now compare this to your modern calculator. Sure our devices are smaller and far more versatile and convenient. But in sheer elegance and beauty? I doubt it.

As a Mechanical Engineer, I increasingly feel like I'm a part of an endangered species of practitioners of a dying art. Everywhere I see, our turf seems to be under a siege by the ever-growing army of Bits and Bytes. 

Take for example the automobile. For the past century, the automobile has been the flagship domain of mechanical engineers. Its what we are synonymous with. A car is brilliance in motion- where a series of explosions in a bunch of cylinders, happening thousands of times every second and an arms distance away from its driver at that, is converted to flawless and controlled motion. On its way the energy goes through a multitude of systems that work in perfect unison for extended periods of time. 

By contrast, a modern Tesla Model S supercar has a battery pack which powers a single water-melon sized motor linked directly to its wheels. Engineering wise, its brilliant. Mechanical Engineering wise, its a huge loss of accumulated knowledge and craftsmanship. But for the good of the environment and the human race at large, electric car is our future.

Then comes the modern watch. Watch making has been long considered an art by itself, inspiring fierce pride and prestige amongst its artists. The sheer no of things that have been achieved in watches purely using gears, levers and springs are mind-boggling. But this ubiquitous piece of mechanical dance gracing everyone's hands is soon gonna make way for another screen in our lives, doing things we never knew we needed (Do we?). These new watches will do far more. And the ubiquitous mechanical watch is gonna go higher up on the ladder of exclusivity and privilege.

This move is happening everywhere. The Gramophone and the cassette players of yore are now the iPods of today with no moving parts. Our hard disks are now SSDs. Heck, even the once-unlimited no of Phone form factors have now been reduced to identical looking slabs of screens. So much of Mechanical engineering syllabus today involves coding and Computer aided tools.

To be fair, Mechanical engineers still have a huge role to play in modern society. It takes mechanical engineers to make all those computers and their PCBs. Every time an iPhone gets smaller, its a triumph of mechanical engineering that figured out how to make things smaller than they already are. You still need mechanical engineers to make everything around you. But the inspirational nature of our work is on the decline. The movement of engines, the complexity under a car's hood...all have the power to inspire new generations to make things. How many kids you know give a thought to the process that must've gone into making your phone?

Its not only the field thats undergoing change, its the Mechanical Engineers themselves too. All around the world, the discrepancy between the incomes of the Computer engineers and everyone else is only increasing. And for good reasons. For most industries so far, the price of the product has always been linked with the amount spent in making it. This is especially true for most mechanical products. Every extra dime spent on an employee had to be recovered from the consumer of the final product. This is not true for the new internet economy. For companies like Facebook, Google, Twitter and the army of Start-ups working on the 'Next Big Thing', the final product often does not even have a price. This decoupling of investment in employees from price of the product allows these next gen companies to pamper their employees in ways Mechanical engg companies just cant afford to. The result is a mass exodus of students from traditional branches to the software industry.

Its a confusing time to be alive as a Mechanical Engineer AND a technology lover. As a specie, we are achieving amazing levels of automation and interconnectedness, doing things that would be considered nothing less than Magic half a century ago. And I love being a witness to this transformation. But this progress is also disrupting a lot in its wake and Mechanical Engineering is one such sacrifice at the altar of progress. I'm not sure if there's anything we can do about this, or even if we should. Our tools are a means of a better life, not an end unto themselves. Its illogical to expect people to give up practicality for the sake of beauty. But as someone who treats engineering as an art as much as a science, I sure will miss our machines.