MDIF#11: Thorough Mechanical Engineering Knowledge Needed for Orthopedics

Lance Terrill,B.S., M.S.E, Lead PD Engineer at Osteomed LP

“In the orthopedic industry, a profound knowledge of mechanics, an ability to make solid, creative designs and perform mechanical testing are key. I have concerns with many of the BME entry-level job candidates that I have met, even some of those that are mechanical track. They simply don’t have the level of mechanical skills or design training that their MechE counterparts do. I can teach physiology to an engineer in a matter of months. I can’t teach them 2 upperclassman years of mechanical competency that they should have. Of course, I’m sure that this varies quite a bit between engineering programs. But I want professors and students to know that I’m not sure that we’re not losing core competencies by trying to have an undergraduate BME be an expert at tissue (chemical) engineering, EE, and MechE simultaneously. Often one (or more) of the disciplines suffers.”

Inadequate depth of knowledge in a core engineering discipline is a theme that has been repeated at regular intervals in the MDIF series.  The fact that it continues to come up some 40 years after the formal inception of the biomedical engineering field is an indication of the how well the biomedical engineering programs are listening to their industry counterparts.  It is an issue that has hampered B.S. Biomedical Engineers for many years.

I am not as sanguine that a traditionally trained engineer can learn and internalize the biological implications of each design choice they make in a few months.  However, the basics needed to design standard orthopedic appliances and hardware certainly can be learned.  Unfortunately basic knowledge often misses subtleties that make the difference between a successful design and a failure.

Any advances made beyond current knowledge in an engineering field requires a deeper understanding that only comes with a thorough knowledge of each interacting constituent of a design or serendipity.  Serendipity aside, it is at the leading edge where the biomedical engineer with a strong mechanical engineering core can make a telling impact in orthopedics.

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