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Mechanically Inclined: Mechanical Design

Fall 2012

Mechanically Inclined

Mechanical designers use creativity to find solutions.

Sporting goods, electronics, automotive equipment, kitchen appliances, and lawn mowers just scratch the surface of products that we encounter every day. Diverse in their composition and consumer markets, all of these products share one commonality: At some point in the manufacturing process, they were all made with the skill of a mechanical designer.

“Mechanical designers play a vital role in the production of almost everything manufactured today,” states Jeff Laurich, an instructor in Fox Valley Technical College’s Mechanical Design Technology program. “If it’s manufactured, a mechanical designer probably played a role in the process. Look at a smart phone, for example. Mechanical designers don’t do the electronics work on the phone, but they work with electrical engineers to design the cover that fits on the back to hold the battery.”

The main role of a mechanical designer is to find the best way to make a product or a part work effectively or fit precisely into a given application. This process leaves a lot of room for innovation. “The idea of finding the best solution to a problem makes this career fascinating,” states second-year student Jacob Woelfel of Menasha. “My instructors encourage creativity, and they want you to look at things from different viewpoints and figure out different solutions.”

In the Design of Tooling class, for example, students are assigned a problem to solve as part of a project. “You have a great deal of independence,” says the 22 year-old Woelfel. “If your first idea doesn’t work, you keep at it until you come up with something that does. You learn from being hands-on and from your mistakes. Your instructor and classmates are always there to work with you too.”

Students work with the latest technology, including various solid modeling software and 3D printing. The final class project requires student teams to design a product. “They create the 3D design, determine the parts, calculate the cost, figure out how to manufacture it, and then present their idea to the class,” says Laurich. “They can actually build the product with rapid prototyping technology, utilizing a 3D printer that melts plastic into an actual three-dimensional part or product.”

Woelfel has also used his capabilities on the 3D rapid prototyping equipment to solve problems in his own area of interest. “I’m into model trains, and it’s almost impossible to replace accessories for some of the classic Lionel Train sets,” he explains. “So, I simply drew them up and made them to scale. I’m always coming up with new things I want to do.”

Both Woelfel and Laurich agree that the coolest thing about mechanical design is coming up with a solution and then seeing it produced. “It’s great when you walk into a store and see your ideas as part of a product,” recalls Laurich.

The broad need for mechanical design skills makes it an active field with increasing demand and outstanding career potential. “Virtually all of our graduates land jobs and remain in the industry,” says Laurich. In addition, according to FVTC’s latest Graduate Employment Research Report, the average salary for 2011 mechanical design graduates was nearly $38,000 a year. That salary jumps to an average of more than $48,000 for graduates after five years.

The FVTC Mechanical Design Technology program has daytime, weekend, and evening courses to meet the needs of students. “I went to a four-year school first, and I really wasn’t happy there,” notes Woelfel. “I wanted smaller classes, better teachers, and hands-on learning – all of which I get at Fox Valley Tech at a much lower price. I wish I had gone here first.”

To attract more interest in mechanical design, a new class is in the works. “Mechanical design instructor Craig Black, Fab Lab Manager Steve Gallagher, and I are working together to set up electric guitar building classes,” Laurich says. “It is the result of a partnership with Purdue University. We will utilize the Fab Lab’s resources to teach STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) skills by constructing solid body electric guitars.”

100% Job Placement

All 20 graduates of FVTC’s Mechanical Design Technology program from the class of 2011 landed jobs. These professionals are not only designing products and parts, but they also play a role in designing the equipment used to manufacture them.

In the workplace, they hold such titles as:
  • Mechanical engineer or designer
  • Product engineer or designer
  • Manufacturing engineer
  • CAD operator
  • CAD drafter or detailer
  • CAD design specialist
  • Drafter or detailer

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