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Five Emerging Technology Trends for Mechanical Engineers

Aug. 14, 2023
The American Society of Mechanical Engineers has identified key technology trends transforming the field of engineering.

At a Glance:

  • ASME is taking a role in promoting small modular reactors and hydrogen fuel. 
  • Additive manufacturing may have future applications in pressure technology.
  • Engineers also need to pay attention to AI and the mechanical properties of tissues.

It isn’t just scientists who are developing tomorrow’s technology. Engineers, especially mechanical engineers, are tasked with taking clever ideas out of the research labs and making them work. That’s why groups such as the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) are following emerging technology trends as closely as anyone.  

Every mechanical engineer knows about the contributions to technology made by ASME. The society’s origins date back to the steam era, when poorly constructed boilers led to a series of deadly accidents.

But ASME’s army of members and volunteers is constantly identifying new technologies and looking for ways in which it can work to improve them in terms of safety, efficiency, sustainability and benefit for humanity. In decades past, the society has shaped the development of new technologies as varied as high-speed elevators, jet engines and nuclear power. 

A commitment to working on the cutting edge of technology means continually monitoring the technology landscape—not only looking for innovations in areas where it already has a strong presence, but also uncovering technologies that are ascending the development curve and need guidance to help them achieve a place in mainstream industry.

As part of that monitoring, ASME’s Strategy Office has examined a vast array of emerging technologies to see which ones might have the biggest impact on the engineering profession, and which could most benefit from the Society’s focus. Following are five emerging technologies that ASME has identified as worth following.

1. Small Modular Reactors 

Nuclear power is a well-established technology, but there is widespread interest in the industry in developing a new generation of small-scale reactors that could be built in factories and shipped to wherever they are needed. It’s a clean energy technology with a lot of promise, since the reactor modules—which are slated to produce between 70 and 200 MW of electricity each—could be added faster and more flexibly than conventional nuclear power stations that usually come in one size: extra-large.

While SMRs are an emerging energy technology, they share enough similarities to conventional nuclear reactors that many of ASME’s industry-leading standards and decades of expertise should apply. 

“Water-cooled SMR designs share enough technology with conventional light water reactors that they can take advantage of proven technologies to accelerate their moves from demonstration through regulatory approval to commercialization,” said John Grimes, a senior manager for emerging technologies in ASME’s Strategy Office. 

Other SMR designs, which may not be water-cooled, will need early and frequent sharing of design and testing information with the regulatory agencies, Grimes said.

ASME has also created venues, such as this year’s Conference for Advanced Reactor Deployment, where engineers and executives working on SMRs can connect with utility, regulatory and financial leaders to discover opportunities in reactor development and the nuclear supply chain.

2. Hydrogen 

Hydrogen is the simplest atom, but it’s promise as an energy storage and carrier medium is complex. It has the potential to be used as a fuel with very little pollution produced at the point of application, but the traditional (and cheapest) means to produce hydrogen has involved the steam reformation of coal and natural gas, with carbon dioxide as a byproduct.

However, over the past decade there’s been a growing effort to find cost-effective ways to produce hydrogen without carbon emissions, either by following pathways that don’t involve carbon at all—such as electrolysis using wind, solar or nuclear power—or by capturing the carbon dioxide byproduct and either locking it in geologic storage or using it as a raw material for industrial processes.

“ASME has identified clean hydrogen as an emerging technology to pursue,” Grimes said. “We’re already active in all areas, whether it’s the generation, storage, transportation or end use of clean hydrogen.” 

ASME has been working with industry leaders in hydrogen technologies such as electrolyzers, pipelines and gas turbines, and the society offers a variety of products and courses. It has also focused attention on such challenges as embrittlement, which occurs when hydrogen atoms embed themselves within the structure of steel equipment such as pipelines, decreasing its ductility and increasing the chances of fracture.

3. Tissue Properties

While we think of the human body as the province of medicine, not engineering, device and implant manufacturers need to model how their products will work within an envelope of flesh and bone. Understanding the mechanical properties of these tissues is critical, which makes the emerging technology of comprehensive tissue properties database one in which ASME has a longstanding interest.

“The virtual validation and virtual testing of the medical devices will save costs and provide faster solutions to patients,” said Israr Kabir, a senior manager of emerging technologies in ASME’s Strategy Office. “ASME is working to develop standards for virtual testing models, basically taking a whole suite of different tissues within the human body and building characteristics of these tissues so you know the acceptable limits of mechanical performance.”

Grimes said it may sound odd that ASME is involved in this sort of work, but similar work has deep roots within the organization. 

“We have a long history with steel properties,” he said, pointing to Section II of ASME’s landmark Boiler and Pressure Vessel Code. Characterizing the various properties of tissues will similarly create a standard that can help biomedical device and implant manufacturers improve their products.

4. Generative Artificial Intelligence

The past year or two has seen the popular emergence of generative AI in the media, with ChatGPT and Midjourney showing how machine learning models can be used to generate useful text and images. While that’s been fun, the real impact of generative AI has yet to be felt in engineering. 

It is an emerging technology that bears watching, but engineers must be mindful of AI’s current limitations. 

One possible outcome, Kabir said, is not a general AI but something built specifically for a particular industrial domain. Such a system would not be intended to replace engineers but would instead extend and expand their ability to generate new designs faster than before. 

“It would be about augmenting engineers to do their jobs much faster, but with better efficiency and less waste—sort of the core of engineering in industry,” Kabir said. 

He brought up the concept of a co-pilot that would assist engineers. Such an AI might be given a design brief and quickly return a variety of options from which to select. 

“Every industry is looking at domain-specific models that layer in specific data sets so you can have unique, really focused insights that these general models are not capable of,” Kabir said.

Even with those AI-generated insights, the human component of engineering will remain the crucial factor for safety and quality.

READ MORE: How to Implement AI in Fluid Power Applications

5. Additive Manufacturing

Additive manufacturing, or AM, is not new and not even advanced in many cases—hobbyist 3D printers are available that cost less than $200. But the technology is still evolving and finding uses in new, often-critical use cases. Aerospace companies are looking to additive manufacturing as a means to produce low-volume parts on a just-in-time basis, and other industries are beginning to explore the technology. 

One arena that is on the ASME radar is using additive manufacturing to build pressure vessels. “There’s more and more work being done to use additive manufacturing in either replacing, repairing or producing components for pressure equipment,” Grimes said. 

One recent demonstration of this concept was the launch of the Terran 1 rocket by Relativity Space. The rocket was almost entirely made up of 3D-printed components, including the engines.

“Maybe that’s the future of manufacturing pressure vessels for space,” Grimes said. 

“But it goes back to fundamental, reoccurring engineering constraints,” he continued, “such as the cost, how quickly you can get something done, meeting performance requirements. Just like any emerging technology, it only becomes a successful solution if it can meet those constraints.”

READ MORE: Additive Manufacturing Brings Opportunities to Improve Component Design and Production

This article was written and contributed by Jeffrey Winters, editor in chief of ASME’s Mechanical Engineering magazine and a 30-year veteran of science and technology journalism. Learn more about these emerging technologies and others through involvement with ASME, which provides access to a community of engaged professionals, technical divisions that disseminate the latest developments and a wealth of member’s-only benefits. 

This article originally appeared in Machine Design, an Endeavor Business Media Partner site.

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