Meet Brian, mechanical engineer (acoustics)

Photo Courtesy of Brian

Photos in this post courtesy of Brian

Drumroll please……here is our first cool job interview, with the amazing and awesome Brian. Thanks to Brian for being my guinea pig!! We had a really great talk after the interview about how he derived his own predictive modelling equations for a tricky problem at work. Great stuff. Hope you guys and gals love Brian’s point of view as much as me!

I am having technical difficulty getting our video transferred to youtube (call me the SEMinista, because technology isn’t my thing today), but here is a link to the google plus post if you prefer to watch the video.

STEMinista: Brian is an acoustic engineer, and he’s going to talk to us a little bit about his job today – it’s really cool! First of all Brian, can you tell everyone about your job?

Brian: I am a noise and vibration engineer. I work for Ford Motor Company and I do noise and vibration on engines. I’m responsible for the development of the noise and vibration package for the engine: making sure the engine is quiet enough, has a good sound quality, and doesn’t have anything that makes it sound broken to the customer. It allows us to develop a way to make the customer happy with the product in the end.

So much awesome and so many brains in this picture!  Brian, my sister, and Brian's  wife (my other sis!) at her grad school commencement.

So much awesome in this picture! Brian, my sister, and Brian’s wife (my other sis!) at her grad school commencement.

STEMinista: So, what defines a “good” sound quality?

Brian: It depends on the product. A Mustang (sports car) and an F-150 (pickup truck) have different expectations. Your mustang can be a little louder and have a little bit more rumbling noise than your truck. If your’re putting an engine in a luxury vehicle, then you have to consider that luxury buyers want silent. They don’t want it to sound good, they want quiet, quiet quiet. So it’s different depending on what you’re putting the engine into. Usually, what we’re going for is an engine that doesn’t make any abnormal noises (ticks, whines, etc) that you can hear over the normal engine noise.

STEMinista: What type of educational background do you need to become an acoustic engineer?

Brian: I have a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering with a minor in acoustics. Most people in my field have a master’s degree in acoustics but you don’t need one to pursue this job.

STEMinista: How is the acoustics you do in cars related to the acoustics that everybody thinks about in music?

Brian: Mine is a little different because I work only on engines. I look for structure-born noise, and not air-borne noise. A lot of what I do is structure born transfer functions: noise that transfers through the engine block and then radiates. So we work on improving the radiation noise from those components and trying to produce an engine that makes less noise to begin with.

STEMinista: What is your average day like?

Brian: I try to setup projects. I try to make sure the engines I’m working on are coming in, making sure that everything gets there on time, and that the project continues on time. But that’s just a bookkeeping standard.

What I do from an engineering standpoint is processing data. We collect data in a dyno facility and we get the raw vibrations from the engine and the sound coming off the engine. We process it and compare it to different targets and make sure we’re meeting our targets. If we don’t meet our targets, we try to figure out what the cause is. So if you have some whining noise or a very large noise you want to figure out why at 3000 RPM the engine gets louder, I would spend time analyzing the data and looking for which components of the engine are contributing to that type of noise.

STEMinista: This is cool – so we should talk about it. Can you explain what a dyno is?

Brian: Dyno is short for dynamometer. Basically it’s a big electric motor that can hold an engine at a steady speed or a steady load. So you apply basically what’s a gas pedal and the dyno will hold the engine spinning at a constant speed, and then you can control what RPM and what load you’re at more precisely. NVH dynos are very cool. They have big cones that come off the wall {edit: to absorb sound} so it’s very quiet in those test cells.

Confession, I borrowed this picture from Roush.  See it for yourself here

Confession, I borrowed this picture from Roush. See it for yourself here

STEMinista: What made you decide to pursue this field?

Brian: For engineering – I was in the third grade I decided I wanted to be an inventor. I was told that “an inventor” is not really a career – an inventor is an engineer. I said “ok, then I want to be an engineer”. So in third grade, I decided I wanted to be an engineer and I wanted to be an engineer all through school.

I went to Kettering University for my undergraduate degree, and they have a co-op program. I got my first job and it was in noise and vibration on vehicles. I worked on different vehicles and thought it was interesting. It wasn’t something I was imagining when I was going into engineering. While I was going to school I thought I would get some more education on what causes acoustic behaviors, so I got an acoustics minor with my mechanical engineering degree.

STEMinista: Would you say you’ve always had a love of cars too?

Brian: I love cars, yes. That drove me to be in the automotive industry, but there are many other industries you can be in for this type of work. Everything makes noise, everything vibrates.

STEMinista: That’s a good point – what other fields do NVH?

Brian: If you think of a Harley motorcycle, it has an NVH (noise, vibration, and harshness) and a distinct sound. Their NVH team is very large and they are looking for a sound that sounds distinctly like a Harley. When they develop a new engine, it has to sound like a Harley. They work very hard at getting the vibration and the noise that come off of the bike correct so it sounds like a Harley.

But – you can also do venthilation systems. You don’t want them to be too noisy, so you work with acoustic designers to be sure you get a nice flow and you aren’t whistling.

I’ve talked to people who have done work on computer hard drives, which is interesting because sometimes they can be very loud, and then people think their computer is going to break so you want to make sure everything is ok from that standpoint.

Also, you can design rooms. There’s a lot of work that goes into designing a theater so that everyone can hear what’s going on and not have the person on stage getting an echo. So acoustics is important from that standpoint as well.

There are a lot of other fields out there. Caterpillar does a lot of vibration and noise measurements for regulation purposes.

Waterskiing - one of Brian's favorite hobbies

Waterskiing – one of Brian’s favorite hobbies

STEMinista: Wow, that makes sense! So if you like any of those things, acoustics could be a good field for you. What are your long-term career goals?

Brian: I haven’t really thought about it. I really like noise and vibration work and I’ve done it since I graduated from Kettering in 2008. It’s a really interesting field because you’re always finding a new problem and working at trying to figure out what the cause is and working to come up with better ideas to solve it.

STEMinista: Would you say that you use STEM on a daily basis?

Brian: Yes – I definitely do! I use a lot of math in my job. Sometimes I physically do the math because I need to understand how the process is working. Most of the time I have software that will do harder integrations and derivations for me. On a daily basis, though, I do integrations, derivations, pressure summations and things like that.

It’s a lot of math and it gets messy. When it gets too complicated, you start talking to the person sitting next to you, and you might say “Here’s what I did. Does this make sense to you?” They might say “Yeah, that seems like a reasonable calculation” so that you can make the data tell a story that you’re able to hear.

STEMinista: Do you use computer software to solve some of those or do you do it all by hand?

Brian: Some people like to do it by hand, but I personally like to use computer programs because they’re usually better at it than I am, and they’re faster than I am. Most of what I do is with a computer, but it’s nice to know the background of how it works.

STEMinista: What would you say are the best parts of your job?

I like when you finish a product, and it gets out the door, and you start getting feedback from customers. When you’ve worked on a noise problem, and you look at reviews, and there are no comments coming back about concerns that you’ve managed to fix through development.

STEMinista: Do you ever get positive comments?

Brian: Very rarely do you get positive comments. What you’re looking for is if you did a good job, you get no comments, and if you did a bad job you get lots of comments. You have to budget also cost-wise. We’re heavily driven by cost. I can’t fix every problem, but I can fix the ones that are most concerning.

STEMinista: What type of hours do you work?

Brian: I work between 40 and 50 hours a week generally. In order to keep a schedule in automotive there are a lot of hard deadlines. If you’re coming up you can work quite a bit more hours. After that deadline passes and you’ve finished, then your hours will be scaled back down to 40 hours.

STEMinista: Does that leave you time to have a life and hobbies outside your job?

I have lots of hobbies and like to do lots of different things. I can get home and go water skiing after work. I go water skiing before work. I go mountain biking on the weekends. I go snow skiing during the week after work and on the weekends. I have enough time and enough of an income that I can enjoy all of those things I like.

Ski trip out west.  Brian (far left) with friends and family.

Ski trip out west. Brian (far left) with friends and family.

STEMinista: Do you get vacation time too where you can go and enjoy those things?

Brian: Yes, you usually start off with two weeks. I have three now. And automotive has lots of paid holidays too.

STEMinsita: For the last question, what advice would you give to someone who’s considering doing acoustic work or acoustic engineering?

Brian: It’s a lot of fun. You get to look at a lot of different problems that most people don’t ever even consider. You get to do a lot of problem solving to figure out what things are, how they work, why they’re making noise, and how to fix them. It’s really hands-on to figure out what’s going on and you get to learn about a lot of things really in depth. It’s very fun!

That’s it for now, all.  Do you have further questions for Brian?  Send them on over to me, and I can make sure they get answered for you!

–the STEMinista

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