Engineering... the Future

One of the aspects of the off-highway industry that is readily apparent is the enthusiasm of those who have made it their career. Whether it's designing and building a machine to harvest grain, move dirt, or cut down trees, there is a certain excitement that is evident by those who are happy to, simply put, build big cool machines with big cool engines. In many cases these engineers are completing the circle by taking part in the development of machines they once used on the farm or designing full-sized versions of the machines they once used in the sandbox. As every industry looks for ways to ensure its continued success and growth by attracting the brightest young participants, communicating the benefits of a career choice has become more important than ever. Fortunately for off-highway engineering, help has already arrived.

Life imitates art

Derived from the Latin ingenium, "engineering" means something like brilliant idea or flash of genius. The word "ingenuity" shares the same Latin ancestor.

And it's this ingenuity that producers of television shows like "BattleBots", "Monster Garage" and "Junkyard Wars" are hoping to capitalize on. But these TV shows, in addition to providing entertainment, also serve to bring engineering principles to the mainstream viewing audience.

"Junkyard Wars", a British television series, which aired on The Learning Channel in the United States is an example of how these shows employ and highlight classic engineering concepts.

On the show, two teams are competing against each other to build a machine out of parts scavenged from a junk yard. Team members don't know what they are supposed to build until the morning of the show and once they find out, they only have 10 hours to build it.

While we haven't quite gotten to the point where off-highway equipment development cycles have shrunk to 10 hours in today's fast-paced, first-to-market environment, it sometimes might seem like it. Being able to quickly develop and bring products to market is one of the keys to success in today's global economy.

And this means being able to shift directions quickly when things aren't working out as planned. This concept becomes greatly magnified when working against a 10-hour countdown.

Greg Long, a member of the successful Long Brothers Team, which appeared on four episodes of "Junkyard Wars", makes his living as a manufacturing engineering consultant. He can draw many parallels from his experiences on the show to what he sees on a daily basis in an engineering environment.

As he describes, on the show, once they were given their assignment, the production company had a general direction they wanted the teams to take, but they weren't locked into a particular design. For instance, when the Long Brothers team built an off-road buggy, the show wanted the vehicle to be light and be powered by a small engine, but they weren't locked in to a particular design.

"I would say that parallels with a project proposal and project timelines that you get from sales and marketing. Projects aren't starting out with a totally clean sheet of paper," says Long.

Once the assignment was given, they had to relatively quickly pick a design direction and start building.

"With only 10 hours you really don't have the luxury to work on 12 different options. You can get a lot of input, you can do some brainstorming, but eventually you need to say 'this is what we are going to do'."

Long sees this same scenario played out on a regular basis in the companies that he works with. "I've worked with a lot of engineering groups that have really struggled to get beyond that step. They get into the 'what ifs', and eventually end up with a project that is over budget and time frames that are twice as long as what sales and marketing wanted, and no one is happy."

Once you've decided on a direction and actually started building something on the show, Long says, you have to be able to change directions quickly if your plan doesn't seem to be working.

"I've seen other teams on the show just head down a wrong path and spend so much energy saying it has to work or they will trick themselves into saying we don't have time to do anything different, so we don't have any choice but to make this work.

And the same thing will happen in an engineering environment. Normally, the most time is chewed up not making the decision. If the decision to go to Plan B is made immediately, you will actually spend less time and end up with a better product than if you continue down a bad path and just try to make it work," says Long.

It isn't feasible to plan for every possible development scenario. "You can't spend a whole heck of a lot of time worrying about what Plan B is going to be until you get there," says Long.

"My personal view in working with engineering groups is that normally you can solve the problems that come up a lot quicker than you can plan for every possible problem at the outset. Because you probably are going to spend a lot of time trying to eliminate problems that you are never going to experience."

Hands On Experience

In today's fast-paced business environment, it is now more important than ever that new hires be able to hit the ground running. While cooperative education and internship programs at prominent engineering schools have been commonplace for several decades, the recent economic downturn has forced many companies to cut back on co-op sponsorships.

While there are a variety of programs available for students to receive hands-on experience in the field of engineering, the co-op is unique because of its length. Co-op programs last anywhere from 8 to 12 months, and during that time they are actually hired by their sponsor company as full-time employees.

This format provides a number of benefits for both the student and the employing company.

For students, nothing is more important than the opportunity to be able to apply some of the theory they have been learning in school.

"While students are here they are studying theory, but application is really a crucial component to the education process," says John Archambault, director of cooperative education and internship at the for the University of Wisconsin-Madison's College of Engineering.

It also gives students a real chance to "try out" a particular discipline or area of engineering before they seek full-time employment.

"There are so many different aspects to engineering. By co-oping, students are able to do something short term so they can decide if manufacturing or quality control or design are areas that they want to go into at the full-time level," says Loni Pringnitz, manager of cooperative education and internship programs at Iowa State University's College of Engineering.

In addition to simply gaining experience, co-oping also gives students the opportunity to try a company on for size to see if it is a good fit for them if they were to consider full-time employment.

But co-op programs benefit the sponsoring company, as well. Agricultural equipment giant John Deere has been sponsoring co-ops and internships since the 1960s.

"It gives us the opportunity to really see what a student can do and watch a student develop," says Lynn Toney, student project administrator for engineering and marketing at Deere & Co., Moline, IL.

But beyond that, co-op students typically also provide valuable resources for the company. "For some companies it's a matter of being able to accomplish projects that they don't have the engineering staff for. We have students who have been given some extremely significant projects with their organization that would have not been addressed because they just weren't priorities for the organization as a whole," says Archambault.

While co-op students are typically hired as full- time employees by the sponsoring companies, they retain full-time student status at their university for insurance and student loan deferral purposes. According to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, average salary for a mechanical engineering student co-op is $2,604 per month.

Sponsoring a student is a significant time commitment for the company. But if companies incorporate students into existing teams, training and mentoring doesn't typically disrupt normal work flow.

"We try to treat all of our student co-ops as regular employees," says Toney. "So their supervisor or manager would have the same time invested as he or she would with any other employee. And a lot of our work at John Deere is team based, so when our co-ops come in they are incorporated into a team with other engineers. So they have other engineers, besides their supervisor, to ask questions of."

Toney also offers some valuable advice for companies considering co-op sponsorship: Co-oping is a big investment for both student and employer. Make sure to give the student valuable work. That work should be challenging and developmental for the student as well as being work that is needed within your company. Co-ops have to be a situation where both sides benefit.

Start Them Young

The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) has introduced a program to help chart the careers of aspiring engineers and help expose grade school students to the importance of math and science. Called PowerTrack, the program incorporates new and existing products, services and programs. It can be a part of K-12, college, transitioning to first job, the under-35 engineer, and beyond.

"PowerTrack is a way of marketing many things we already do as well as some new programs," says Robert Chalker, director of sales and marketing, SAE Intl., Warrendale, PA. One addition is Career Center, which debuted at SAE's Commercial Vehicle Engineering Congress, Oct. 26-28, in Rosemont, IL. The Career Center helped students find a job and offered resume critiquing.

SAE's PowerTrack starts in grade school with the "A World in Motion" program (AWIM), where grades 4-9 are where the initial focus lies. Statistics show this is when many students begin to lose an interest in math and sciences. The program, while it will hopefully get youngsters excited about engineering (and SAE), has a broader goal of showing that those two often reviled subjects actually have a place in the world.

And hopefully dispel some of their misconceptions about engineering. "Many see it as old-fashioned and drab, stuck at a desk pouring over drawings," says Chalker. "That's farthest thing from the truth. Engineering can be very exciting."

In AWIM, students use engineering methodology to design and build items such as a toy car or airplane. In the process they'll solve various problems and present their product to the class.

Financed through the SAE Foundation, AWIM kits are sent to teachers at no cost. During the course, an engineer will talk with the class. With field trips a thing of the past at many schools, the opportunity to have a speaker in the classroom has been one of the program's biggest selling points.

Participation has been strongest in the Midwest, and an initiative has recently begun to grow AWIM in the southeastern states where math and science scores have historically been low. Since the AWIM program was instituted in 1990, 20,788 schools throughout the country have participated, exposing more than 2 million students to the engineering profession.

Eventually the students will be able to apply their skills to real engine-powered machines at the college level, through SAE's Collegiate Design Series. As a college freshman, the student will have his or her first opportunity to become an SAE member.