Technically, mechanical engineering is the application of the principles and problem-solving techniques of engineering from design to manufacturing to the marketplace for any object. Mechanical engineers analyze their work using the principles of motion, energy, and force—ensuring that designs function safely, efficiently, and reliably, all at a competitive cost.
Mechanical engineers make a difference. That’s because mechanical engineering careers center on creating technologies to meet human needs. Virtually every product or service in modern life has probably been touched in some way by a mechanical engineer to help humankind.
This includes solving today’s problems and creating future solutions in health care, energy, transportation, world hunger, space exploration, climate change, and more.
Being ingrained in many challenges and innovations across many fields means a mechanical engineering education is versatile. To meet this broad demand, mechanical engineers may design a component, a machine, a system, or a process. This ranges from the macro to the micro, from the largest systems like cars and satellites to the smallest components like sensors and switches. Anything that needs to be manufactured—indeed, anything with moving parts—needs the expertise of a mechanical engineer.
What do mechanical engineers do?
Mechanical engineering combines creativity, knowledge and analytical tools to complete the difficult task of shaping an idea into reality.
This transformation happens at the personal scale, affecting human lives on a level we can reach out and touch like robotic prostheses. It happens on the local scale, affecting people in community-level spaces, like with agile interconnected microgrids. And it happens on bigger scales, like with advanced power systems, through engineering that operates nationwide or across the globe.
Mechanical engineers have an enormous range of opportunity and their education mirrors this breadth of subjects. Students concentrate on one area while strengthening analytical and problem-solving skills applicable to any engineering situation.
Technology itself has also shaped how mechanical engineers work and the suite of tools has grown quite powerful in recent decades. Computer-aided engineering (CAE) is an umbrella term that covers everything from typical CAD techniques to computer-aided manufacturing to computer-aided engineering, involving finite element analysis (FEA) and computational fluid dynamics (CFD). These tools and others have further broadened the horizons of mechanical engineering.
What careers are there in mechanical engineering?
Society depends on mechanical engineering. The need for this expertise is great in so many fields, and as such, there is no real limit for the freshly minted mechanical engineer. Jobs are always in demand, particularly in the automotive, aerospace, electronics, biotechnology, and energy industries.
Here are a handful of mechanical engineering fields.
In statics, research focuses on how forces are transmitted to and throughout a structure. Once a system is in motion, mechanical engineers look at dynamics, or what velocities, accelerations and resulting forces come into play. Kinematics then examines how a mechanism behaves as it moves through its range of motion.
Materials science delves into determining the best materials for different applications. A part of that is materials strength—testing support loads, stiffness, brittleness and other properties—which is essential for many construction, automobile, and medical materials.
How energy gets converted into useful power is the heart of thermodynamics, as well as determining what energy is lost in the process. One specific kind of energy, heat transfer, is crucial in many applications and requires gathering and analyzing temperature data and distributions.
Fluid mechanics, which also has a variety of applications, looks at many properties including pressure drops from fluid flow and aerodynamic drag forces.
Manufacturing is an important step in mechanical engineering. Within the field, researchers investigate the best processes to make manufacturing more efficient. Laboratory methods focus on improving how to measure both thermal and mechanical engineering products and processes. Likewise, machine design develops equipment-scale processes while electrical engineering focuses on circuitry. All this equipment produces vibrations, another field of mechanical engineering, in which researchers’ study how to predict and control vibrations.
Engineering economics makes mechanical designs relevant and usable in the real world by estimating manufacturing and life cycle costs of materials, designs, and other engineered products.
The future of mechanical engineering
Breakthroughs in materials and analytical tools have opened new frontiers for mechanical engineers. Nanotechnology, biotechnology, composites, computational fluid dynamics (CFD), and acoustical engineering have all expanded the mechanical engineering toolbox.
Nanotechnology allows for the engineering of materials on the smallest of scales. With the ability to design and manufacture down to the elemental level, the possibilities for objects grows immensely. Composites are another area where the manipulation of materials allows for new manufacturing opportunities. By combining materials with different characteristics in innovative ways, the best of each material can be employed and new solutions found. CFD gives mechanical engineers the opportunity to study complex fluid flows analyzed with algorithms. This allows for the modeling of situations that would previously have been impossible. Acoustical engineering examines vibration and sound, providing the opportunity to reduce noise in devices and increase efficiency in everything from biotechnology to architecture.
Careers in Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering range over a broad scope. Mechanical and manufacturing engineers research, design, build, test, maintain and improve all manner of things. These include power plants, renewable energy systems and electrical generators, robots, computer systems and aircraft engines and cars.
In recent times, mechanical and manufacturing engineers have had to adapt to the changing needs of the technology era. Now they design bionic limbs and prosthetic joints, develop high performance composite materials and work on more flexible manufacturing processes. As technology demands it, these engineers respond with an ingenious invention or more efficient process.
To be a successful mechanical engineer, some of the most important skills you can develop are:
Problem-solving: essential to solve all the complex puzzles that stand between you and the perfect mechanical product/device/system
Creativity: the only way to come up with innovative solutions, see what others do not, and create something from nothing
Communication: needed to work with your team, and even more important when explaining clients and users how to use your product or solutions
Teamwork: mechanical engineers often work in groups, which helps them brainstorm ideas, compare suggestions, and find the right answer to a given challenge or task
Math skills: solving mechanical engineering problems most often requires the use of mathematical principles, like Calculus or Statistics
Whoever you are and whatever you choose to do, your forming years are important. This applies to you too, aspiring mechanical engineer! The more cultures and people you get to know, the more you learn about different ways to find solutions to problems.