For the Love of Legos…An Engineering Story.

Scott Volchko, PE

Introduction– Who I really am

I’ll admit it upfront, I am close to the stereotypical engineer. The quiet, introvert type whose mind is always wandering, but how did I become a STEM kid? I still kind of wonder today. I don’t remember the day I decided to become a mechanical engineer, but I’ve always been fascinated by what I’ll call machines, my generic term for anything with moving parts.

I am the son of an elementary teacher and a systems analyst, but I think I have to go back one more generation to really find out where the engineer inside me came from. Although my grandparents were retired from the time I can remember, both my grandfathers were builders. My maternal grandfather was a welder and my paternal grandfather was a machinist and machine assembler. Both of them taught me from a young age how to use tools, make repairs from whatever was available and take care of your machines… most notably boats, cars, and yard equipment.

As I was growing up, much to my dad’s dismay, if there was something to take apart, I took it apart. Sometimes the machines went back together, but most of the time there was carnage. When I wasn’t destroying things, Legos were my media to build, take apart and build again. Since I’ve always liked cars, I usually built cars and garages for my cars. I was probably about 12 years old when I decided to build a Lego truck and mount a C6 Estes model rocket motor in the bed. Let’s just say I should have used the Kragel.

As a grown engineer, I still love machines and building. I have restored cars, worked on boats, started tinkering with wood working, and most importantly still buy cool Lego sets wondering why they have an age range and not just a minimum age. Can you ever be too old to play with Legos?

Materials and Methods– How I got here

My first formal dive into the science world came as a member of my high school Science Olympiad team. The two years I competed in the Science Olympiad were also the first two years that my high school participated. To say we were not prepared would be an understatement, but everyone on the team learned a lot. We had prepared for some of the competitions and walked blind into others doing our best. Since I went to a smaller high school, the only AP class I took was calculus. We had two other AP classes, but what STEM kid wants to take AP english or history?

Just before my search for colleges started I bought a 1968 Chevrolet Camaro project car and started tinkering. As I previously mentioned, I don’t remember when I decided to become a mechanical engineer, but I was always working to figure out how parts were made and what the engineer had in mind 30 years before when the car was designed. Over time I just decided I wanted to design cars and mechanical engineering seemed like the profession to get me there.

My college search took me around the Midwest to a few Big Ten schools, Notre Dame University, Case Western Reserve University, and Kettering University. Finally, I narrowed down my decision to Case or Penn State and chose Case for its small size and location. My opinion of the most important thing you can do as an undergraduate is get involved in extra-curricular activities you are passionate about. My activity was Formula SAE and much like Science Olympiad, we were building a new program from the ground up. We took two years to build one car, but learned a ton and finished all events in the competition. I stayed at Case for a fifth year and earned a MSME degree, researching with NASA on space micro-propulsion devices.

Results– What I do now

Well this is simple, I am a Mechanical Engineer! My first job out of college was obtained through the Formula SAE program. I was hired to work at a large automotive OEM as an automotive designer then went on to a small to medium sized materials company as both a product and a process designer. As an automotive designer, I was responsible for design of parts or complete systems for automotive fuel systems. As a designer the slate is often clean and ready for innovation. As an automotive designer, I received six design patents, most of which are driving around on highways around the globe.

My current role as Manager of New Product and Process Development for a small materials company gives me the opportunity to both design products and then be part of the production process, helping define manufacturing processes as required.

 

Discussion– What truly is a Mechanical Engineer

In my opinion the definition of engineer or the field of engineering, regardless of the specialty, is a problem solver. Education in engineering is all about learning the tools to solve problems. Every engineer takes courses in other engineering disciplines to get a basic understanding of each field, just enough to be dangerous.

So what is a mechanical engineer? Mechanical engineering is probably the broadest field in engineering. A lot of engineering disciplines are really specialized versions of mechanical engineering. Within the broad scope of mechanical engineering there is also product engineering, process engineering and test engineering. Think about the objects you interact with every day in life starting with your toothbrush, the water faucet, the floors you walk on the shoes you wear, and the car you ride in or drive. Mechanical engineers had a hand in all of those objects at least in the background making sure these objects were designed right, performed their desired function correctly and that there was an efficient manufacturing process to make the products.

The final component and often overlooked part of an engineering education is the business component. In every business there will be pressure from accounting and finance to reduce expenses and pressure from sales to reduce price and increase quality. As a mechanical engineer, it’s always best to go into a design, test, or process development with an idea of a budget in mind and only deviate from the budget if you feel there is a safety problem or the product will not meet the customers needs.

 

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