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Engineering Project Engineer to Design Engineer

  • Thread starter MacLaddy
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MacLaddy

Gold Member
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I’m wondering what skills are needed to go from being a project engineer (in the construction industry) to that of a mechanical design engineer? More specifically, what exactly is an employer looking for when they hire a design engineer?

We all know that any good engineer should have great interpersonal and communication skills. They should excel at working in teams and all that other fluffy stuff. But that isn’t what I’m looking for with this question. I am hoping to understand more of the specific nuances needed for this type of work. I'm also an ME, so I've got that part covered.

Example Scenario:
I’m asked for a hinge design. With my limited experience, I would carry out the following.
First, I would first get to know the owner and the space requirements for the hinge.
I would examine all the forces on the hinge, degrees of freedom, etc.
I would examine the amount of use, daily cycling, and possible failure modes.
I would look at their budget and recommend a design based on their needs (GD&T) and available materials/manufacturing techniques.
Once all of this data gathering is complete, I would design* the hinge in a CAD package (Inventor, Fusion, or Solidworks) and send for feedback. Probably to the owner and the manufacturing engineer or machinist.

What am I missing? What are the little (but important) things a design engineer does that aren’t listed in the description? Does a typical engineering firm expect their new-hire to sit down and create flawless designs with minimal revision, or is there a substantial learning curve with the unknown nuances I’m referring to?
And...last but not least, has my time as a project engineer hurt my chances for this career path?

I appreciate the feedback.
Mac

*In reality, I would probably find a hinge in McMaster-Carr that would work for the purpose. But I think you get the point.
 

berkeman

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Since I'm an EE, I'm of limited help. But from working with our MEs, I'd say these are important:
  • Good at freehand sketching of ideas, both when working on your own and when working/brainstorming with a group
  • Good at 3-D CAD (whichever package is being used at the employer you are interviewing with)
  • Knowledgeable about 3D printing prototypes (limitations, methods, costs, etc.)
  • Able to come up with creative proposals for handling challenging designs
  • Good at working with other areas of the company to look for synergies between the ME design and other aspects of the design
To expand on that last bullet a bit... We used to have a division that designs and builds high-volume electricity meters, using some of our baseline powerline communication technology. I was talking with one of the MEs a couple years ago, and he showed me how they had used 3D CAD, 3D printing, and PCB physical modeling software to integrate the plastic meter case with the PCB to make it all work together better.

There are "creepage" and "clearance" electrical specifications that have to be met in AC Mains circuit board designs that make the PCBs bigger than you would like (so more expensive, and makes the meter bigger than you would like). By designing the plastic case to include tabs that stick through the PCB (lining up PCB holes and plastic enclosure tabs), the physical dimensions of the PCB and meter could be significantly reduced. That really showed a great synergy between the EE and ME designs, with tangible benefits.

BTW, the 3D printing capability entered into this project because it took them several iterations of the case design and the PCB design to get everything right and minimized. Great stuff.

Good luck! :smile:
 

russ_watters

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I’m wondering what skills are needed to go from being a project engineer (in the construction industry) to that of a mechanical design engineer? More specifically, what exactly is an employer looking for when they hire a design engineer?
I'm a mechanical engineer in the construction industry and I don't see that there is a distinction between the two titles. We call ours "project engineers", but the key word in the first sentence of the description is "design".....and you didn't actually describe two different things. Are you looking to change industries or is there something else I'm missing here? The most basic advice on this I can give is pretty straightforward: identify the job you want to get from the job listing and read the requirements right off the listing!
 

jrmichler

Science Advisor
889
793
I have worked for two different companies that did a lot of new machine design. In that environment, a design engineer is given a well defined task. (S)he then works up a concept design, then designs the individual parts to make it work. The design engineer may be assisted by one or more designers to help design the individual parts.

A project engineer is given the task of designing an entire machine, a task that typically will have several design engineers assigned. The project engineer persuades the marketing people to clarify the product specification, makes sure that the design engineers are all pulling in the same direction, settles disputes about cost vs performance vs schedule delays, helps solve technical problems that stump the design engineers, persuades management to assign enough people to do the job, and explains to management why a test failed / schedule delays / cost overruns / etc.

The specific duties vary between companies. And this:
The most basic advice on this I can give is pretty straightforward: identify the job you want to get from the job listing and read the requirements right off the listing!
 

berkeman

Mentor
55,707
5,790
The project engineer persuades the marketing people to clarify the product specification
Yup! :smile:
 

MacLaddy

Gold Member
286
8
Since I'm an EE, I'm of limited help. But from working with our MEs, I'd say these are important:
  • Good at freehand sketching of ideas, both when working on your own and when working/brainstorming with a group
  • Good at 3-D CAD (whichever package is being used at the employer you are interviewing with)
  • Knowledgeable about 3D printing prototypes (limitations, methods, costs, etc.)
  • Able to come up with creative proposals for handling challenging designs
  • Good at working with other areas of the company to look for synergies between the ME design and other aspects of the design
To expand on that last bullet a bit... We used to have a division that designs and builds high-volume electricity meters, using some of our baseline powerline communication technology. I was talking with one of the MEs a couple years ago, and he showed me how they had used 3D CAD, 3D printing, and PCB physical modeling software to integrate the plastic meter case with the PCB to make it all work together better.

There are "creepage" and "clearance" electrical specifications that have to be met in AC Mains circuit board designs that make the PCBs bigger than you would like (so more expensive, and makes the meter bigger than you would like). By designing the plastic case to include tabs that stick through the PCB (lining up PCB holes and plastic enclosure tabs), the physical dimensions of the PCB and meter could be significantly reduced. That really showed a great synergy between the EE and ME designs, with tangible benefits.

BTW, the 3D printing capability entered into this project because it took them several iterations of the case design and the PCB design to get everything right and minimized. Great stuff.

Good luck! :smile:
Thank you, berkeman. You mentioned a few bullet points that will be very useful. I'm a 3-D Printing enthusiast, so I'll keep that in mind as something I may want to expand on. Maybe I'll make a binder and start documenting my projects and thought processes.
Also, you shouldn't sell yourself short. Even EE's can have great ideas once in a while. :-p

I'm a mechanical engineer in the construction industry and I don't see that there is a distinction between the two titles. We call ours "project engineers", but the key word in the first sentence of the description is "design".....and you didn't actually describe two different things. Are you looking to change industries or is there something else I'm missing here?
I wanted to make the distinction between a project engineer in construction (as I know you are familiar with) and a project engineer for design. The latter tends to come up through the ranks with a lot of first hand design knowledge, which I don't have. I don't want to give the impression that I know what I'm talking about in this alternate universe, which I am considering a move towards. I'm not actually looking for a position yet, so seeking the opinion of PF professionals seemed more prudent than reading the classifieds.

I have worked for two different companies that did a lot of new machine design. In that environment, a design engineer is given a well defined task. (S)he then works up a concept design, then designs the individual parts to make it work. The design engineer may be assisted by one or more designers to help design the individual parts.

A project engineer is given the task of designing an entire machine, a task that typically will have several design engineers assigned. The project engineer persuades the marketing people to clarify the product specification, makes sure that the design engineers are all pulling in the same direction, settles disputes about cost vs performance vs schedule delays, helps solve technical problems that stump the design engineers, persuades management to assign enough people to do the job, and explains to management why a test failed / schedule delays / cost overruns / etc.
This is more along the lines of what I was thinking. I don't believe I could jump right into a project engineer position for design, as I don't have that experience or framework. I would likely need to start out as a simple and lowly design engineer that focuses on the "well defined task," as you say. Can you elaborate on those tasks? I can't imagine it is just working with CAD software all day.

Thanks everyone for the input. I've learned that nothing in engineering is quite as it seems before you get into it. I want to learn more about the different paths that may be available to me and go from there.
 

MacLaddy

Gold Member
286
8
The most basic advice on this I can give is pretty straightforward: identify the job you want to get from the job listing and read the requirements right off the listing!
I feel like I need to address this comment a little more directly. Have you read engineering job requirements lately? Most of the time they are completely convoluted, and they frequently contradict themselves. The first line will read, "Looking for an Entry Level Design Engineer for...." and then six lines down it will read "The candidate MUST have at least 12 years of direct design experience with egg shell reconstruction and CFD mastery for Humpty Dumpty's yolk flow."

I could be wrong, but I don't think Engineers write the job postings for Engineers...
 

russ_watters

Mentor
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I wanted to make the distinction between a project engineer in construction (as I know you are familiar with) and a project engineer for design.
But, design of what? Since engineers don't actually build things, in my industry and I would expect most industries that's a distinction without a difference. I feel like maybe you have a specific non-construction industry in mind and also maybe a hierarchy that has a different definition. That said, I didn't answer this directly in your OP:
Does a typical engineering firm expect their new-hire to sit down and create flawless designs with minimal revision, or is there a substantial learning curve with the unknown nuances I’m referring to?
In any job, anywhere, ever, your level of responsibility is commensurate with your level of knowledge and experience (otherwise the company is doing something wrong). If you are a junior engineer of whatever specific title, you will almost certainly be working for a more senior engineer who holds all of the actual responsibility for your work and part of their job is to mentor you. One caveat: the smaller the company or department, the thinner the org chart and therefore oversight. In my very first job I was the fourth employee and second engineer (including the owner) in a tiny engineering company. So right out of the gate I was taking on project management responsibility. But even still, I was learning HVAC engineering (I didn't even take the HVAC course in college) from a non-degreed designer in addition to the owner/senior engineer.

My current company doesn't have any junior/middle mechanical engineering positions open right now, so here's a job description from a competitor:

Mechanical Engineer II [note, neither "project" nor "design" in the title]
The Mechanical Engineer assists with planning, designing and directing engineering projects within the business unit. The Mechanical Engineer II may oversee aspects of the HVAC/Utilities design process, assist with specialized designs and work on several concurrent projects within the Pharmaceutical, Biotech, Life Sciences or Laboratory industries. Job Duties and Responsibilities: Prepare design computations...

Requirements: At least 5 years of proven mechanical design experience...
[note: both the words "project" and "design" in the description]
 

MacLaddy

Gold Member
286
8
But, design of what? Since engineers don't actually build things, in my industry and I would expect most industries that's a distinction without a difference. I feel like maybe you have a specific non-construction industry in mind and also maybe a hierarchy that has a different definition. That said, I didn't answer this directly in your OP:

In any job, anywhere, ever, your level of responsibility is commensurate with your level of knowledge and experience (otherwise the company is doing something wrong). If you are a junior engineer of whatever specific title, you will almost certainly be working for a more senior engineer who holds all of the actual responsibility for your work and part of their job is to mentor you. One caveat: the smaller the company or department, the thinner the org chart and therefore oversight. In my very first job I was the fourth employee and second engineer (including the owner) in a tiny engineering company. So right out of the gate I was taking on project management responsibility. But even still, I was learning HVAC engineering (I didn't even take the HVAC course in college) from a non-degreed designer in addition to the owner/senior engineer.

My current company doesn't have any junior/middle mechanical engineering positions open right now, so here's a job description from a competitor:

Mechanical Engineer II [note, neither "project" nor "design" in the title]
The Mechanical Engineer assists with planning, designing and directing engineering projects within the business unit. The Mechanical Engineer II may oversee aspects of the HVAC/Utilities design process, assist with specialized designs and work on several concurrent projects within the Pharmaceutical, Biotech, Life Sciences or Laboratory industries. Job Duties and Responsibilities: Prepare design computations...

Requirements: At least 5 years of proven mechanical design experience...
[note: both the words "project" and "design" in the description]
Ahh, yes. I see your point. The fact I missed that twice is a bit embarrassing. I am speaking of Machine Design. Odd that I wouldn't consider MEP Design, as I'm indirectly involved with that daily. I feel pretty confident in what I would need to move into the MEP design field.

My apologies. Machine design is what I meant.
 

russ_watters

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Ahh, yes. I see your point... I am speaking of Machine Design. Odd that I wouldn't consider MEP Design, as I'm indirectly involved with that daily. I feel pretty confident in what I would need to move into the MEP design field.

My apologies. Machine design is what I meant.
No prob - I thought you might be, given the example you provided....

I feel like you may be overly concerned with the potential lack of a safety net. Don't be. While it is true that there are a lot of jobs for small manufacturing companies with tiny engineering departments (where you would take on a broader role), you won't be completely without supervision and the upside is you can rapidly shine, unlike being a grunt in a large organization, where nobody will ever notice you - for good or bad. It's definitely better for your career to have a higher responsibility job at a smaller company than a lower responsibility job at a larger company.

And again, searching-out specific jobs turns up a lot of useful results:

Assist in the development of new product design and redesign of existing products.
  • Collaborate with marketing to understand expectations.
  • Clarify aesthetic values and trends for product categories.
  • Identify and test new materials and technologies.
  • Provide drawings and specifications for new products.
  • Develop prototypes and work directly with 3rd party development organizations.
  • Participate in design team meetings.
  • Modify designs to point of commercialization.
  • Assist in development of product training for sales and customer engagement.
1. Bachelor’s degree in Industrial Design or Engineering required.

2. 1 – 3 years design experience, preferably in medical products.

3. Excellent communication skills (written/oral) with proven capability using software platforms such as Auto Cad, Adobe Creative Suite, Key Shot, and more.

The industrial engineering degree requirement for this particular job may be the biggest hurdle, but with today's low unemployment rate, I suspect there's flexibility in that. This strikes me as a realistic lateral move (perhaps even below your level....just a guess though based on your join date).
 

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