What Does a Mechanical Engineer Do?

Peter Hasenkamp
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Ever wonder what happened to Kevin McCallister from Home Alone?

I have a theory: He’s now a mechanical engineer.

I mean, think about it—all of those insane Rube Goldberg defenses he created to stop the Wet Bandits. They were definitely signs.

Peter Hasenkamp would know. While other kids played with action figures, he collected wires and switches from the neighborhood phone control boxes. Peter was always interested in the way things worked, so it’s no surprise that he eventually found himself in the engineering department with Ford Motor Company.

Now as the Director of Vehicle Purchasing of Tesla Motors, he still uses his background as a mechanical engineer to make better decisions to help his team.

We asked Peter to tell us a little about his experiences as a mechanical engineer and what he recommends for students interested in this field.

Where did you go to school and what did you major in?

Dartmouth College, cum laude, with High Honors in Engineering Sciences, 1998

Thayer School of Engineering, Master of Engineering Management, 1999

Did you always know that you wanted to go into mechanical engineering?

I was always interested in how things worked ever since I was a small child. My parents tell stories of me taking things apart, collecting bits of wire and switches from the neighborhood phone control boxes, and building various creations with them, as well as constructing elaborate Lego structures and mechanisms.

In high school I pursued various science classes and enjoyed physics the most, but when I got to college I quickly discovered that I enjoyed the practical application of math and physics more than the theoretical side, so I naturally pursued Engineering.

I found the classes and problems intriguing and enjoyed immersing myself in the machine shop, learning how to use various mills, lathes, CNCs and rapid prototyping equipment.

The most valuable experience I had was joining the Formula SAE (Society of Automotive Engineering) team—this was a chance to work on various automotive designs, construct parts for a fun application on a race car, and actually have to put the designs to a true test in competition.

More than any other class or experience, Formula SAE gave me the best preparation for a professional Engineering career—I was forced to do a design project within a specific timeline that could not be extended, had to consider cost factors in the design, saw real-world usage of my creation, and learned to handle field failures, redesigns, etc.

What was your job search process like after college?

For me this was fairly easy. I interned with Ford while in grad school, enjoyed the experience, and received an offer for full-time employment after graduating. While I still went to many job fairs and considered other companies, I was always primarily interested in the automotive sector, so I accepted the full-time position with Ford after graduation.

What was your title at Ford and how did your role function in the company?

I was with Ford in the Product Development organization for ten years. The first two years I spent in a rotational program doing everything from business strategy to marketing to Engineering. After that, I spent the next six years as a Design and Release Engineer, splitting time between Chassis Systems and Body Structures. In this role I was directly responsible for the design of automotive components, both that Ford produced in house (like hoods, doors, and other sheet metal) and parts that were produced by suppliers (like suspension components).

Job Duties:

  • Learn the core specifications and requirements that Ford had for these components

  • Work with suppliers on the designs

  • Work with suppliers on the manufacturability considerations of these parts

  • Produce and test prototypes

  • Manage the product introduction for the parts at Ford’s factories

During my last two years at Ford I was an Engineering Program Manager. I oversaw a group of about 18 Engineers that were responsible for managing the overall designs, timeline, and cost for bringing the Fiesta vehicle to the North American market.

What was a typical day like in the product/engineering department at Ford?

I would typically get in fairly early (7:30ish) and spend some quiet time reviewing design details on my parts. I’d meet with Computer-aided Engineers or Computer-aided Design Engineers to review progress on design developments and go over any issues with the parts and brainstorm solutions and next steps.

The rest of the morning and day were usually a combination of meetings with other teams to work on plans for prototype builds, cost management, or functional interface meetings. In functional interface meetings, engineers from different systems discussed vehicle-wide requirements that required each group to make design changes to support another group’s requirements. Depending on the phase of the program, I might also spend afternoons with suppliers or tool makers reviewing part development timelines or first parts of tools for quality and test performance.

What were your favorite parts of the job? What were the challenges?

It was always most satisfying to see products I created driving on the road and knowing I had created solid, reliable parts that would meet a customer’s needs and provide them with a useful product to help them in their daily lives. It was also particularly rewarding when a part I designed passed all testing the first time around—knowing that I had successfully developed a design on paper that also met all physical requirements and that I had anticipated all possible problems (certainly this did not happen 100% of the time!).

The biggest challenges or frustrations were probably all related to the administrative side of the business when Engineering was required to manage numerous databases of information, many of which duplicated data and all of which consumed a great deal of time away from the detailed technical work. It is a necessary part of the work, but the best companies streamline this as much as possible or provide supporting teams to handle the bulk of this work.

How does your background in engineering relate to your current role with Tesla Motors?

Having a strong technical background and experience with the product development process is absolutely fundamental to the work I do now. In managing the purchasing portion of Tesla’s business, my job is to find good supplier partners for Engineering who have the technical knowledge and quality of manufacturing operations to produce the world-class designs our Engineers create.

Having worked in Engineering, I am a better judge of a supplier’s capabilities and can also suggest solutions to Engineers when they are struggling with a problem with suppliers. My knowledge of manufacturing costs, different approaches to tooling parts, etc. allows me to often guide Engineering toward more cost-effective design executions and better manage our budgets and timelines.

What advice do you have for students/recent graduates who are interested in pursuing a career in mechanical engineering?

Find a product you are passionate about and a company with an enthusiastic team. Engineering can be a demanding and detailed business and your career will consume a vast amount of your life, so it is essential that you enjoy what you do and surround yourself with people who share that enthusiasm. 

I think it is also very beneficial if you can find a company that offers a rotational program or some flexibility to try different departments so you can get a broader view of the business the first few years after graduation—this can greatly help you determine what type of work you find interesting and also give you perspective on different functions within a company and how they work so you can better interface with them.

What skills or characteristics make someone a successful mechanical engineer?

Naturally you must be analytical, strong in math, and be a detailed, organized person. I think it also helps to be a pragmatist—the Physicist can always create a design on paper that is absolutely perfect, but the Engineer must translate that into a physical creation that is possible to manufacture, complete in time, and within the budget given. It’s up to the Engineer to be able to trade off design requirements for practical considerations.

To be successful an Engineer must also first and foremost take pride in his or her work—there is a great deal of sloppy Engineering in the world and this undermines the profession and can put people at risk. An Engineer must have the internal pride and strength to know when a demand cannot be met without compromising the integrity of the design and must stand behind his or her work.

Homework time! Peter mentions that one of the most valuable parts of his education was joining the Formula SAE team. Find out if your school has one or a similar type of on-campus group that will allow you to get hands-on experience. He also talks about how helpful it was to participate in Ford’s rotational program. That’s a great question to keep in mind when speaking to recruiters at career fairs or researching companies you might like to work for; find out if there’s a similar program you can participate in.

P.S. Peter mentions the importance of enjoying the environment and people you’re working with. This is what we call the “company culture.” To learn a little more about identifying a company’s culture, check out this post.

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