December 2011 - Issue #14
New engineers solve 21st century problems
Story by Mandy Thoo
- Increasing competition for consumer markets and society’s need for sustainable, socially responsible products require a new breed of engineer.
- An innovative course at Swinburne is producing product design engineers to answer these needs for Australian industry.
Today’s world has no shortage of challenges for manufacturers and society: increasing global competition, rising costs, depletion of natural resources and other overarching economic, environmental and social issues.
Recognising the need for skills to help manufacturers respond to these challenges, Swinburne University of Technology is training a new style of engineer.
Graduates of the university’s Product Design Engineering (PDE) program combine engineering science and industrial design to approach projects from a manufacturing perspective with a humanitarian, society‑centred focus on the environment and user needs.
Ian de Vere, education researcher and Swinburne’s program coordinator for both industrial design and product design engineering, says many of today’s challenges do not have pre-existing solutions. “Research has shown that these often ill-defined problems cannot be solved by solely applying the techniques of science and engineering, but require a completely new approach.
“The 21st century product design engineer has to adopt creativity, problem-solving and independent critical-thinking skills to their work. Instead of focusing on just the mechanical aspects, design solutions have to be sustainable, user-centred, responsible and appropriate.”
The Swinburne approach is to instil sustainable and user-focused design as a philosophy among aspiring product design engineers.
Each year, students are required to apply their creative skills to develop products that address social needs, alternative technologies, energy consumption, waste minimisation and improve the lives of those who are socio-economically disadvantaged.
Mr de Vere says a typical challenge may require students to assist people living in remote areas of a developing country who must transport water from a distant source. “Real-world problems have no preset solution. Design responses could range from a simple hand-propelled roller product to infrastructure, but we expect original, innovative solutions.”
With access to the latest technology, including rapid prototyping machines, a 3D projection system, robotic laser scanning and laser cutting, as well as a traditional workshop, students develop diverse creative product solutions. These include new medical equipment, agricultural tools, assistive technologies for people with disabilities and vehicles or facilities that run on renewable fuels.
Bridging the divide between cultures
The program also aims to equip aspiring design engineers to be valuable contributors in today’s multidisciplinary product development teams, says Associate Professor Soullis Tavrou, the program’s leader.
“Two critical aspects of creating a product are functionality and design, which means that the two fields should be interdependent,” Associate Professor Tavrou says. “However, engineers or designers sometimes lack knowledge about what is involved in each other’s work, and it creates a gap.
“This can result in lengthy back-and-forth discussions in the product development process which, at the competitive pace of today’s market, is not ideal.”
By delivering the core knowledge of both mechanical engineering and design, the Swinburne PDE program equips graduates with a more holistic approach.
Students are trained to apply engineering science in the context of a design problem, which puts their engineering and manufacturing skills to the test.
“It means, for example, they can choose the most appropriate materials and design for existing or more efficient manufacturing and assembly processes,” Associate Professor Tavrou says.
“They learn to build and test throughout their degree, which follows the scientific process of experimentation, where rigorous trials are essential.”
Mr de Vere says that, while unique in Australia, the concept of this program is widespread and well received in the UK and Western Europe.
“In spite of diminishing natural resources, there will always be the need for newer and improved product solutions,” he says. “The key is for design engineers to have sustainability, human sensitivity and social responsibility as their agendas.”