Mechanical engineering is a discipline that applies the principles of engineering, physics, and materials science to the design, analysis, manufacturing, and maintenance of mechanical systems. It is an extremely broad discipline due to the need to design and manufacture everything from tiny parts and devices like nano-scale robots and inkjet printer nozzles to large systems like spacecraft and industrial machines.
A successful mechanical engineer must have a solid understanding of many fundamental concepts including mechanics, electricity, kinematics, thermodynamics, structural analysis, and materials science, among others. Mechanical engineers will use their understanding of these concepts to design, analyze, and produce every imaginable product and system, from robots to medical devices to aircraft to common household items.
In addition to a solid base in fundamental engineering concepts, a mechanical engineer must become familiar with a number of tools and methods including CAD (computer-aided design) programs and engineering analysis software, and become familiar with various manufacturing processes and industry- and product-specific knowledge.
A mechanical engineering career typically starts at the university undergraduate level. There are now hundreds of accredited universities around the world that offer various levels of Mechanical Engineering education and degrees. Although the structure of the degrees may vary by country, typically a Bachelor of Science or Bachelor of Engineering degree is awarded upon successful completion of the first 4-5 years of study.
To achieve a Bachelor’s degree, a young engineer must typically learn and demonstrate the principles of engineering and a variety of other fundamental skills and topics. Often, the student must also complete an internship or work for a specified time in industry in addition to the academic requirements.
An undergraduate student in Mechanical Engineer will study the following core engineering principles and skills, in addition to general education requirements that may be part of their university’s program:
- Fundamental physical sciences (physics, chemistry)
- Mathematics (calculus, differential equations)
- Dynamics and kinematics
- Fluid mechanics
- Materials science
- Machine design
- Product design and engineering design theory
- Vibration and control theory
- Pneumatics and hydraulics
- Robotics and mechatronics
- Basic computer programming
- Measurement and instrumentation
- Drafting and electronic CAD
In addition to Bachelor’s degrees, mechanical engineers can also work towards Master’s degrees (typically another 1-2 years of study) and Doctorate degrees (also known as PhDs) in Engineering. Moving up the academic ladder, typically a student’s focus will narrow from general engineering principles to more specialized areas. PhD programs typically focus on research in developing technologies or engineering methods. An engineer with a PhD can work for a university as a professor or researcher, but may also find work in industry as an expert for a specific technical application.
Mechanical Engineering Professional Licenses
It is common for an engineer to seek professional certification. This requires several years of experience, and the engineer must pass a difficult test. Once the requirements are fulfilled, they receive official certification as a PE, or Professional Engineer (in the US) or a Chartered Engineer (in the UK).
Certain functions can only be performed by a licensed engineer, such as the design and approval of chemical plants and other high-risk engineering tasks. In addition, many industries have their own certifications and industry requirements.
Modern engineers must master and use a range of technology and tools. The following are some of the most common.
CAD (Computer Aided Design: Rather than drafting by hand, modern engineers use 2D and 3D CAD programs to build digital models of parts, create engineering drawings, and perform complex analysis of parts and assemblies. Some of the most common are AutoCAD, Solidworks, and Pro Engineer.
FEA (Finite Element Analysis): This software allows engineers to analyze designs quickly under a variety of conditions. FEA software breaks complex designs into small components which can each be evaluated. For example, an engineer can run an FEA simulation of a machine and see where each component will bend or break under a range of conditions.
CAM (Computer Aided Manufacturing): CAM software allows engineers to control and optimize manufacturing machines and processes directly from 2D or 3D CAD models. CAM software is commonly used for machining of parts, molds, and tooling.
CFD (Computational Fluid Dynamics): This is another sub-group of engineering analysis software that allows an engineer to analyze a system containing liquids or gases, and evaluate the performance of the system with digital simplified models.
Mechanical Engineering Specialties
Mechanical Engineering is very broad, so an engineer will typically focus on one or more sub-disciplines…
Design and Drafting: Design and Drafting Engineers focus on creating the 2D and 3D CAD models required for engineering analysis and manufacturing. They will use their engineering skillset to design parts and systems that meet engineering requirements while being easy to manufacture.
Robotics and Mechatronics: The use of robots is increasing in many industries, and engineers are needed to design, program and implement them. Mechatronics is the combination of electronics and mechanics. Engineers in both robotics and mechatronics must have a strong foundation in electrical engineering, programming, electric motors, servos, and kinematics.
Structural Analysis: Structural analysis and engineering is the sub-discipline that focuses on preventing and analyzing structure failures of components. A Structural engineer must have a strong background in materials science and the various failure modes for different materials.
Thermodynamics: Thermo Engineers study energy transformation within a system. This can include fluid dynamics, heat transfer, combustion, refrigeration, or any number of thermodynamic principles.
Mechanics: Engineers use mechanics to analyze systems and components to understand forces, stresses, deflection, failure, and other phenomena. Typically this involves the use of FEA or other analysis software, and is important for the design and evaluation of any product or system that will be subject to mechanical forces.
Manufacturing: Manufacturing Engineers design and implement processes for producing parts and products. This normally requires a strong knowledge of CAD and CAM, statistical process control, and manufacturing process knowledge.
Mechanical Engineering is a huge discipline, with lots of areas of specialization and industry-specific sub-disciplines. A good engineer will have to learn and use a large variety of engineering tools that are common to every industry, and apply them in a range of industries. Behind any product or system, from your laptop to the clothes you’re wearing to the plane flying over your house, there is a team of Mechanical Engineers working to design and produce the things we need and improve our lives.