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Masking tape, prosthetic limbs, airplane parts, instantly foaming hand soap ... product development engineers are behind countless items that have changed our lives in ways large and small. Some new products come and go, but others quickly become indispensable (imagine life without Post-it notes, Sippy cups or artery stents, to name just a few examples).
Pursuing a career in the field means committing to a challenging course of study in science or engineering. At the undergraduate level, most students major in chemical, mechanical, industrial or electrical engineering. Some also major in a scientific area such as physics. As in many other engineering specialties, a four-year degree is adequate preparation for most jobs.
Those who aspire to teaching, research or upper-management positions, however, may want to consider an advanced degree. They can seek master's degrees in chemical, mechanical or some other appropriate engineering specialty, or take advantage of one of the programs geared specifically toward product development engineering.
Some well-known programs include the Master of Science in Product Development Engineering offered by The University of Southern California, through the Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering Department and the Daniel J. Epstein Industrial and Systems Engineering Department. Carnegie Mellon University offers a Master of Product Development degree jointly through its Department of Mechanical Engineering, School of Design and Tepper School of Business.
Even before graduation, engineers should gain as much real-world experience as possible, and internships are a good first step. Then they can hit the job market armed with a professional track record and a recommendation or two.
The type of work they seek will depend on their area of academic expertise and whether they prefer to specialize or generalize. Some product development engineers work for companies that produce particular types of products (medical devices, packaging or manufacturing equipment, for example). Others work for engineering firms that develop a wide range of products for many different clients.
They'll likely work as part of a team that will guide the new product through several stage of development. First, of course, is coming up with an idea. Sometimes product development engineers are responsible for conceiving of new products, and in other cases management or a client has a product in mind, and needs engineers to figure out how to produce it. The engineers consider materials, functionality, cost, technical specifications and market competition, among other factors, and lay out a plan for the product's creation.
The next step often involves exploring the best way to make the product, by researching technologies that might be useful or conducting experiments to show that materials will hold up under duress. Product development engineers may use computer-assisted design to produce a virtual model during this stage. Once the research is accomplished, they produce models and prototypes that can be tested and refined. When the model is as close to perfect as it can get, engineers are largely responsible for creating detailed instructions for manufacturers.
Coming up with useful, stylish and innovative products, on time and on budget, is a challenging line of work. But it can offer creative satisfaction -- and a very good living. According to CBSalary.com, the national average salary for product development engineers is $94,119, with the 25th percentile at $65,700 and the 75th percentile at $120,852.
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