• Melissa Whiteside

4 Engineering Contributions to the Modern World

When many of us think of engineering, pictures of large factories or advanced robotic arms come to mind. That's part of the industry to be sure, but it turns out that engineering is more diverse than that — and has been around longer, too.

Those familiar with history know that they don't have to look far to see the products of engineering stamped on our society. The ancient Egyptians used their knowledge of leverage and quarrying to construct the Great Pyramids, while the Romans built aqueducts across their land to transport the water needed to sustain their empire. Even with the monumental achievements engineering brought in ancient times, society as a whole remained agrarian until the mid–18th century, until the Industrial Revolution took our world from one that relied chiefly on farming to one dominated by manufacturing and machines. Since that time, we've progressed further into a digital era where electronics and data rule the day but remain underpinned by other forms of engineering.

With much of our lives influenced by engineering, the question isn't if we're affected by engineering, but which disciplines have the most significant impact on our lives today. With so many to choose from, it will be hard not to leave some out, but we think these four are particularly transformative in lending a higher quality of life. Here's a case study of each to show you what we mean.

Engineering Contribution 1: Biomedical

Any time technology syncs with biology to improve modern medicine, the result can't help but be transformative. That is precisely what biomedical engineering is; mechanical and electrical engineering applied toward solving problems faced by the medical community. Examples include the use of piezoelectric sensors developed by NASA which were later used for building a better pacemaker and prosthetics that more closely simulate organic human motion. [1] More recently, advancements in biomedical engineering are aiding in the fight against the current global pandemic.

Case Study: Covid and Cleaners

As a recent issue of ASME's Mechanical Engineering Magazine reports, several robotics manufacturers have developed automated sterilizing robots for hospitals, and as Covid-19 emerged, heightened demand for these units came with it. [2] Understanding how best to kill this newfound virus is still a work in progress. However, there is one well-known technique that utilizes robotics - UV disinfecting. Similar to the automated vacuums found in many consumers' homes, these robots could sterilize entire surgical rooms within 15–20 minutes by exposing each surface to concentrated UV light. Through the use of robotics developed by biomedical engineers, both patient and provider are protected from the spread of a deadly virus.

Engineering Contribution 2: Transportation

If you're travelling by some other means than horseback, you have engineering to thank. Finding a better way to move appears to be built into the human psyche, and though the means of getting around look different today than in antiquity, the drive for efficient mobility remains the same. The speed of horses and buggies was lapped by the internal combustion engine (ICE) in 1876, and while humans have never looked back in their travel range, the environmental impact of our vehicles has left us seeking a still more efficient means of transit. Once again, engineering is paving a new way forward, this time through energy storage.

Case Study: Battery Tech

First designed in 1884, the electric vehicle (EV) dates back much further than many realize. The poor energy density and technological restraints of batteries then allowed the internal combustion engine to take hold of the market, and although it hasn't let go since, developments in battery technology have now enabled electric cars to compete. Today's EVs and plug-in hybrids use Lithium-ion technology that is more suited to automotive technology than the Ni-Cad components that preceded them, and enough improvements have been made that these cars can compete with their carbon-intensive counterparts.

As vital as the development of EV/hybrid technology is to reducing carbon emissions and finding a better means of motion, the switch to electric transportation is not without its drawbacks. As thermodynamics expert and ASME fellow Efstathios Michaelides explains, the real benefit of EV tech in reducing carbon emissions is dependent upon the source of power generation — and finding cleaner energy solutions upstream will require still more engineering innovation. [3]

Engineering Contribution 3: Electricity

As vital as efficient transportation is to our modern world, electricity is an even greater necessity. The idea of getting around on horses and buggies is foreign enough, but where would you be if everything that required a power source stopped working? With the lights out, internet connection off, and no HVAC to warm you, life without power would immediately revert to the early 19th century — and many would not survive.

We have Nikola Tesla to thank for the AC power generation system we use to light up our world today, but as much as our current electrical grid has revolutionized society as we know it, the demands of our ever-growing economy require a rethinking of how power moves, and where it comes from. Coupled with disturbing trends in global climate change caused mainly by electricity generation, and the need for a power systems revolution becomes apparent.

Case Study: Reducing Carbon Emissions

Understanding the need for cleaner energy sources, Canada has responded by drastically increasing its net renewable electricity production. From 2005–2018, solar and wind energy experienced a rise in output from 17 to 3,796 GWh and 1,552 to 32,855 GWh, respectively, and 82% of the nation's total electrical consumption came from non–GHG emitting sources as of 2018. [4]

As beneficial to the environment as this commitment to renewable energy is, the problem of power consumption remains. Globally, 60% of all electricity is consumed by buildings, many of which are passive power consumers, using electricity without delivering any information back to the grid as to when or how power was required. [5] The result is a lopsided power distribution curve that requires disproportionate electrical production during peak hours and leaves excess power unused at night. Add to that the wasted energy incurred by heat losses and operational inefficiency, and the result is that we need more than clean energy — we need a smarter way to use it. Thankfully, engineering provides that too.

Engineering Contribution 4: Energy Efficiency

There are currently 7.8 billion people globally, and that number is expected to rise to 9.7 billion by 2050. Of these, 85% now have access to electricity, and the other 15% would benefit significantly from it. [5] The result of an increasingly crowded world is that fossil fuels are likely to be consumed more rapidly than ever, and the development of renewable energy sources will not suffice to cover rising power demands. Because of that, energy will have to be consumed on an as-needed basis, with an unprecedented premium placed on efficient power usage.

Case Study: Sustainability

With more than half of all electricity being consumed by buildings, the battleground for energy efficiency is likely to be at most offices and complexes. Sustainable building practices can offset the rise in global power demand by reducing net power usage through a wide range of energy efficiency practices. The flagship program for development and certification of sustainability standards is the US Green Building Code, which adheres to LEED policies. Measures that can be taken to improve energy efficiency and make buildings more sustainable can range from installing LED lights that turn off when no one is in the room to designing a manufacturing facility with a combined heat and power cycle (CHP) to provide electrical power and process heat simultaneously.

One sustainability success story is that of Prairie Architects Inc in Manitoba, Canada, where programmable LED fixtures, variable refrigeration flow (VRF) HVAC systems, and heat recovery zones throughout the office resulted in a 40.9% reduction in net power consumption — and subsequent savings in operational costs. [6]

Switch Engineering: The Sustainable Building Experts

By now we've seen that engineering isn't just a matter of software and equations — it's about advancing society and improving quality of life for all. At Switch Engineering, we think through the consequences of our designs for our customers, end-users, and the environment from start to finish, making sustainability the core of who we are. We don't cut corners, and we're about more than reducing upfront costs. Our designs are holistically efficient and optimized to achieve our clients' goals while driving technology forward because that's what quality engineering is. If that's the kind of engineering you'd like on your side, contact us today.


1. NASA Technology Transfer Program

2. ASME Mechanical Engineering Magazine Select Articles: "Cleaning With UV Light"

3. ASME Mechanical Engineering Magazine Select Articles: "Taking the Measure of Electric Vehicles"

4. Natural Resources of Canada: "Energy and Greenhouse Gas Emissions (GHGs)"

5. ASHRAE: "Building our New Energy Future"

6. US Green Building Code

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