Engineers today need to be able to handle the unexpected, have the ability to unleash their design creativity, wear several hats and navigate an increasing amount of design outsourcing.
That's just a few of the conclusions from Design News' 2007 salary survey based on responses from 1,225 engineers.
As for the money, engineers earned an average of $78,000 this year, a $5,000 increase over last year's average of $73,000. And in line with last year, the average salary level increase was 3 percent.
But the growing trend toward outsourcing is this year's news. Some 78 percent of companies are farming out aspects of their design work and, of those, an average of 9 percent of the company's design work is being outsourced. In 2006, the average amount of design work outsourced was 7 percent.
“We outsource entire projects these days,” says Gary Thut, a senior mechanical engineer for Pepperl+Fuchs Inc. “In the past we only outsourced specialized portions of a design, or none at all. I see this trend continuing. It seems that companies want to be very lean these days and are using their manpower in ways that are different than in the past.”
Mechanical design leads the outsourcing trend with 37 percent responding they find outside folks to do that type of work. After that, it's 29 percent CAD; 26 percent Board-Level Design; 23 percent Test & Measurement; 22 percent Circuit Design; 21 percent Systems Design and 17 percent Applications Engineering. The remaining 18 percent fall into the category of “Other,” which includes Structural, Opto-Mechanical and Packaging, according to the survey.
Scott Frederick, an application engineer for Kerk Motion Products, says his company currently provides design and drawings to locations overseas — China specifically. “(Providing designs to companies overseas) is something relatively new within the last six to nine months. All for a new product design,” he says.
Kerk sends component drawings to China and has a manufacturer there build it, according to Frederick. “We do all the final assembly here in the states,” he says.
For example, Kerk's business development manager, located in China, has taken some components within its product designs and looked for manufacturing companies in China to make the specific components. Once the components are manufactured, they are sent to the Hollis, NH, facility, where they build the complete product.
“Some of the components we've sent over to China to manufacture are the motor specifications as well as the internal nut. Once these components are manufactured in China they get sent back to us here in Hollis and we do the final assembly and testing,” Frederick says.
He says the percentage of overall design outsourced to China is 1 percent, but anticipates this will increase as the product gains momentum.
Outsourcing hasn't affected Frederick's job all that much because Kerk still does the design and allows a company overseas only to manufacture the component, he says. Kerk, which was established in 1976 to provide components to motion control customers, claims to be the industry's largest exclusive manufacturer of non-ball screw assemblies.
Walter Tincher is an associate manufacturing engineer — automation for Zevex International, which makes enternal nutrition delivery devices. Tincher says outsourcing in his company is rarely done. As a rule, design work is done in-house with assistance and consulting from an outside source as required, usually by an expert in the field being covered.
Zevex mainly designs in-house due to its relatively large research and design department, but does outsource by hiring contractors to come in and help with gaps.
“Even with so many people dedicated to designing, we still have gaps in our collective knowledge, at which point we use experts to verify our design ideas or design it
outright for us,” Tincher says. “If we 'outsource' it is usually done in the form of a consulting contractor, who in essence becomes part of the company.”
Tincher doesn't anticipate more outsourcing by his company, although he expects outsourcing to increase within the engineering field.
Tom Frangresh, a senior mechanical design engineer for Nanochip Inc., says, due to the leading-edge technology work his company is doing, he can't be specific about outsourcing, other than to say “significant chunks of the development process have been outsourced.”
A More Diversified and Challenging Workload
Like last year, the topic of a more diversified and challenging workload is also an issue.
Forty-four percent of those surveyed say they are working on more disciplines than they were a year ago. Forty-nine percent are working on the same number and only 6 percent are working on fewer.
Over the next five years, engineers participating in the survey say they anticipate a more diversified workload and more emphasis on design work. For some, the move toward diversifying their jobs has already begun. They are working in more areas than they did a year ago and need to have a very varied skill set to get ahead. Project management skills, computer skills, communication/presentation skills, team-building skills, marketing/sales skills and finance/accounting skills are the majority of the aptitudes engineers surveyed said they need to get ahead in their profession.
The Changing Role of the Design Engineer
And the role of the design engineer continues to change.
Tincher says the biggest change in his role is the anticipation he will be taking on more responsibilities across a broader range of projects and putting more emphasis on design work for his company's in-house automation department.
Pepperl+Fuch's Thut agrees.
“I work as a mechanical engineer, but a good portion of my job entails printed circuit layout, documentation and non-engineering functions,” Thut says. He believes the transformation to a more diversified workload has in part already occurred and continues to evolve as time goes on.
Frederick says engineers' roles at Kerk are focusing more on the customer as the company adds more value-added solutions to its current product offering. To avoid becoming a commodity manufacturer, Kerk now takes an engineered system- solution approach. “By offering this value we, as the application engineers, will be more involved from the customer design side earlier in the process, as well as establishing design consulting within our design engineering group.”
Sixty-five percent of those responding to the survey say being able to be creative and innovative in their role is very important. With more global competition, current design projects are requiring today's design engineers to be more creative and innovative than they were a year ago.
The stakes are high. Unless engineers are creative and innovative, they risk being replaced. “Companies also realize this and assist our efforts with new and improved design tools,” Thut says.
“In motion and control manufacturing, for example,” Frederick says, “last year at MDM (Medical Design & Manufacturing) there were a total of eight motion
manufacturers displaying and this year, 15. Out of those 15, three were brand-new companies.”
Sixty-five percent of those surveyed say the ability to be creative and innovative in their role as a design engineer is very important; 19 percent say somewhat important; important, 11 percent; not very important, 5 percent and not important at all, 1 percent.
“Having the ability to create innovative products is a key process within an organization for sure,” says Frederick. “To gain a competitive edge requires some innovative thinking and looking at these challenges in an out-of-the-box type of approach to provide a product that will allow for greater market share.”
For Thut, innovation and creativity have always been of major importance to the engineering field.
“I believe that each design must force our creative powers and incorporate some new innovation,” he says. “Without the constant pressure to push innovation, we
do not improve in our jobs and will be left in the rumble of progress.”
Focusing on core products is another key consideration in supporting engineers' efforts to be innovative and creative.
“Our company has allowed us to use second- and third-channel suppliers so we can purchase an (off-the-shelf) component for our system instead of always designing something (from scratch),” Frederick says. “This allows for our design group to do what is best and that is creating motion control products.”
Companies now lend more support to their engineers and assist them with many transitions. Going from pencil and paper to 2D CAD and 3D solid modeling, better and faster computers, larger monitors and more time to experiment and learn is important, according to Thut.
“Although the time-to-market window has shortened, the ability to design the better mousetrap has been aided by my technology, and the progressive companies that embrace it and welcome change,” he says.