While looking at the job market for mechanical engineers during my senior year, I often lamented that nobody did cool purely mechanical things anymore. Back in the day, my complaint went, mechanical engineers came up with brilliantly clever things like Reuleaux mechanisms and farther back in time, world changing things like clocks and trebuchets. Now, mechanical engineers, rather than building the exciting thing, design the box that holds the box that routes the wires that run the subsystem of the exciting thing. (Admittedly, 2010 was an especially abysmal year for mechanical engineering job prospects in general.)
To me it seemed like all the impactful projects were pure software – simply leveraging computers teach some old hardware new tricks. Self-driving cars come to mind as something that I would have pulled up as an example.
Thinking about my previous mindset today, I realize how naïve it was. Purely mechanical projects are clever, but not optimal – it’s basically doing it the long, hard, expensive way just so you can say you did. However, pure software is similarly limited.
In the past few years, I’ve had to learn to use a lot of old hardware for jobs that weren’t in mind when it was built. What I had missed as an undergrad (well, one thing of many) was that a new configuration of old hardware for a new purpose is just as novel as a clever mechanism designed from scratch. Thus, I was totally wrong about self-driving cars. The trick is the hybridization of innovations from both soft and hard fronts – new software running on new hardware configurations.
“But Ben, that’s just robotics.” Yeah ok, it took me a long time to come around to it.
I’m especially excited about the possibilities of the two-prong approach to space – with the absurd computing power now available to us (even while running redundant programs to mitigate radiation) new spacecraft hardware can perform many tasks that were unthinkable years ago. In short, space + robotics = possibility ++, even for manned space exploration!
The slight incoherency of this post brought to you by 3 hours of sleep and the letter T for travel.