Allow me to gush for a minute. Last week a rep came to visit me from a company called SolidConcepts. They are an industry-leading rapid prototyping company capable of producing...well just about anything. In the past they've made silicon-molded parts for me, and I wanted them to come meet with me and my boss to discuss a working relationship here at my new company. The rep outlined what they can make: high-quantity injection molded parts, low-quantity silicon molded parts, SLA parts (that is, parts made on a 3D printer) and now they can even print metal parts that are impossible to machine. Oh, and they've just rolled out a 3D printer that makes PEEK parts. If you are a mechanical engineer worth your salt you just spit your coffee all over the monitor. PEEK is the holy grail plastic: inert, strong, machinable, corrosion-resistant. It's also expensive as hell. Which is why the ability to print it is amazing; no longer do you have to machine tons of scrap away to get your final product.
Anyway, the point is that with companies like SolidConcepts playing subcontractor for an engineer, the creative juices can flow like never before. "Design for machinability" suddenly takes a backseat to "design for function" and "design for aesthetic."
The question mechanical engineers used to ask themselves constantly was "can this part be molded or machined?" Now the young engineer's answer is "who gives a shit?"
The ability to make any part that is any shape made out of any material isn't the only reason its a great time to be an engineer. In the last 24 hours I've seen these articles:
10 Billion Earth-like Planets May Exist
Nuclear Fusion Now Seen As A Real Possibility
A True Bionic Limb Remains Far Out Of Reach
For A New Generation of Power Plants, A New Emission Rule From The E.P.A.
Forget Tracer Bullets - NASA Now Has Tracer Rockets
Man With No Pulse: How Turbines Can Replace The Heart
If you'll forgive the inherent egotism, its apparent to me that at no other time in human history was there the width and breadth of technological challenges for engineers to tackle. We still get to design buildings and cars and trains and bridges and airplanes and roads like we always have. But now we also get to tackle space travel systems, bionic limbs, replacement body parts, fusion power plants, and a host of others not listed. You can build an entire working computer for $35 bucks now. Smartphones have something in them called a SOC, System On a Chip. An SOC, if you'll forgive the oversimplification, is an entire computer in one single little microchip. My 1995 Dell desktop computer was about 2 cubic feet and had less power than this 1 cm x 1 cm microchip.
I can now build devices in 3D on my computer, the subject it to stress and strain simulations which are cheap, fast, and reliable. I can have my computer analyze my system as I'm building it, finding points where parts are too snugly fit, and parts where they aren't snug enough. When I have finished my work for the day, I can upload everything to "the cloud" so that any other engineer at my company can also work on that project...literally anywhere.
And yet, engineering remains one of the high-salary jobs in this world that defies robots. There's simply no effective way to input "what you want in your device" into a computer and have it design it. There's no way of saying "I need a circuitboard that does X" and a computer will draw it and route the traces and select the chips. These things require the blend of creativity and knowledge that computers simply cannot currently produce. While computers have in fact become an absolutely essential tool for all engineers, they show no sign of supplanting us. Subsequently, right now we live in the Golden Age where we are required, by industry demand, to use all the latest tech and software, but have zero fear of being made obsolete by that tech.
And as I alluded to, engineering jobs remain in high-demand and that is reflected in our salary. A newbie, fresh out of college, is pretty much guaranteed 40-50k even here in the low-cost-of-living Midwest. If the engineer has any ambition at all, they get a master's or an MBA and within 10 years are living comfortably with a salary above six figures. It's no surprise that of the happiest 20 jobs in America, 6 are engineering jobs.
I suppose its possible that a horde of people will move into engineering and flood the market, in the same way that lawyers got flooded. But with all due respect to lawyers...getting an engineering degree isn't like getting a poli-sci degree. I defy anyone to prove me wrong. Engineering programs have high transfer-out rates as they spend their first two years trying to break us, and only after 30-50% of students have transferred to something more manageable, like marketing or business, do they start teaching us the meat and potatoes. There's a small group of people who got an engineering degree, then a law degree, and these people are known as "really successful IP attorneys." But I digress. The point is that engineering is a tough field - tough enough to keep the purely-money-driven hordes at bay.
One last thought. It's possible in 25 years my daughter (who God willing will choose electrical or computer engineering) will write about how she lives in the greatest time in human history to be an engineer. I will not argue with her. The truth is that engineers have the job of taking the latest technology and science and turning it into practical application. This is why engineers now are so lucky. We have so much more tech and science to apply than our engineer ancestors did. In another 25 years, most of the technology I use today will be comically obsolete. And the volume of knowledge will be orders of magnitude larger. As such, every day is a brighter day for an engineer. I literally wake up most mornings and wonder excitedly what new tech will be announced, and hope that it's something I can use.