What is Mechanical Engineering?
The mechanical engineer has been called the general practitioner and the jack-of-all trades among engineering professions. This is because the profession requires education and skills that span a broad range of technical, social, environmental, and economic problems. In general, however, the mechanical engineer is concerned with controlling the principles of motion, energy, and force through mechanical solutions.
A mechanical engineer designs the tools and processes used for satisfying the needs of society through a combination of material, human, and economic resources. She might work on electric generators, internal combustion engines, steam and gas turbines, and other power-generating machines. She might also develop machines such as refrigeration and air-conditioning equipment, power tools, and other power-using machines.
What Do Mechanical Engineers Do?
The diverse mechanical engineering field can be divided in a variety of ways in terms of job functions. Some of the most common functions relate to these areas of technology, but not all do. Among these fields are:
- Product Design -- developing products ranging from biomedical devices to gasoline-powered engines. A mechanical engineer designs anything that uses mechanical motion.
- Research and Development -- discovering new solutions to human needs or improving older methods.
- Manufacturing -- developing the machines that process materials into products. Designing and building machines and systems of machines that improve operating efficiency is of prime importance.
- Systems management -- overseeing operations of a large system, such as a power plant, as well as supervising the people who work there.
- Energy -- planning how energy is generated, stored, and moved. Industries that produce and deliver electrical power, such as natural gas, oil and alternative energy, employ mechanical engineers to develop more fuel-efficient cars, motors, and appliances.
- Marketing -- determining the need for a new or modified product, and calculating product availability, market size, cost structure, profitability, specifications, and distribution channels.
In most of these fields, the mechanical engineer is concerned with heat utilization or machine design--in other words, harnessing or creating energy. Heat utilization techniques are applied in boilers, air conditioners, and refrigeration units. Machine design is more focused on hardware, including automobile engines, computers, and washing machines.
Mechanical engineers are constantly being asked to make decisions. The size, shape, and material of every part of every mechanical product created must be decided by a mechanical engineer. They also have to determine the best and most efficient ways to manufacture the products. Often those decisions are made in conjunction with other types of engineers. Some of the decisions they make can mean the difference between life and death: the safety features of automobiles, for example, are the responsibility of mechanical engineers.
Trends in Mechanical Engineering Careers
Emerging fields like biotechnology, materials science, and nano-technology are expected to create new job opportunities for mechanical engineers; the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts an increase of nearly 10,000 mechanical engineering jobs by 2016.
In particular, medical biotechnology is gaining more attention from mechanical engineers who specialize in design mechanics. This area involves the design of artificial limbs and organs. Mechanical engineers must work along with medical doctors to develop these products that will withstand stress and yet be compatible with the human body.
A degree in mechanical engineering often can be applied to other engineering degree specialties, such as manufacturing engineering or aerospace engineering. In addition to those increased job opportunities, many openings will result from the natural replacement of workers who transfer to other occupations or retire.
Career Education in Mechanical Engineering
Engineers must combine a good understanding of science, mathematics, and computers with a good knowledge of current technology. At the high school level, the emphasis is on mathematics. Two years of algebra plus courses in geometry and trigonometry generally are required.
In addition to the sciences and math, engineers need good communication skills, so don't neglect the liberal arts and humanities. In addition, remember that many of the large industrial firms that employ mechanical engineers are multinational. That means a second language can be extremely valuable.
At the university level, mechanical engineering majors can expect to learn advanced mathematics, calculus, chemistry, and physics. After some of these core courses, mechanical engineering majors take specialized courses in:
- Fluid dynamics
- Materials science
- Manufacturing processes
- Thermodynamics and heat transfer
- Environmental science
They will also take advanced computer classes that deal with design.
A typical Bachelor of Science in mechanical engineering will require communications classes (composition, technical writing), humanities (history language, political science), basic science (chemistry, physics), business (accounting, marketing), mathematics, and basic engineering and computer skills. Usually the core mechanical engineering classes (fluid mechanics, engineering design, heat transfer) begin in the sophomore year.
Evaluate your potential future as a mechanical engineering major by asking yourself these questions:
- How are your grades in math and science? If you struggle, choose another specialty. If you do well and ask for more, mechanical engineering might be the right choice.
- Do you have a curiosity about how things work? Have you found yourself taking things apart and putting them back together? This is a natural attribute of the mechanical engineer.
- If you live to discover new or better ways to do things, you are definitely on the right track.
- Are computer games, mazes, and jigsaw puzzles fun for you? What could be better than doing work you enjoy?
- Do people turn to you for advice or trust your decisions? That means you think clearly and have demonstrated decision-making abilities in the past. It is an important requirement for a mechanical engineer.
Planning for a Career in Mechanical Engineering
Look for a university that has been accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology. While it is possible to work as a mechanical engineer with other engineering degrees, the accreditation is strongly recommended.
After starting coursework in mechanical engineering, it is beneficial to have an internship or summer engineering job. These help you learn the "real world" of engineering and offer an opportunity to apply all the theories and principles taught in class. An internship can also help you determine your professional likes and dislikes, your strengths and weaknesses.
Internship programs are a required part of some curricula, but for many others it is optional. Don't waste this valuable opportunity. Take advantage of a chance to learn outside the classroom, even if it is for low -- or no -- pay. Many corporations have semester-length programs posted with the university's mechanical engineering department or with the school's career center. Sometimes students can approach potential future employers with original internship proposals.
Degree Programs in Mechanical Engineering
A college degree at the bachelor level is enough to earn a quality, well-paid job in mechanical engineering, but many students enter master's or doctoral programs to study laboratory research and computational analysis. Online degree programs in mechanical engineering have become more common in the industry, as working professionals seek to improve their skills without stepping off the career track by leaving the workforce for two years.
Mechanical engineers often continue their education throughout their careers, because technology changes rapidly. Many of the skills and methodologies a student learned in college will become obsolete after only a few years. It is not necessary to earn an advanced degree, however. Continuing education for engineers, online or on the job, is an increasingly popular way to stay abreast of the latest trends and technological advances.
What can you do with a Major in Mechanical Engineering?
Practically every company that designs and produces a product employs a mechanical engineer. But mechanical engineers can also be found in research labs, the military, government, and in other professions such as medicine, law or teaching.
Most mechanical engineering jobs require design experience. When for a new or improved product is needed, companies call upon mechanical engineers to do the job. Engineers have to push beyond the limits of their previous work and use innovative technology to meet project requirements successfully.
A second major area of employment for mechanical engineers is manufacturing. Manufacturing jobs cover nearly everything involved in developing a product, from selecting the appropriate materials to choosing the correct machinery to manufacture the product. Most mechanical engineers in this industry work for equipment manufacturers, aerospace companies, utilities, material processing plants, transportation companies, and petroleum companies. They also work with small firms, consulting practices, universities, and government research labs.
Specific assignments might involve research and development, design of equipment or systems, supervision of production, plant engineering, administration, sales engineering, the testing and evaluation of machines and entire plants. Some mechanical engineering titles and their functions include:
- Automotive engineer: Mechanical engineers design many car parts for the automobile industry. As an automotive engineer, you could solve transportation and safety problems by creating better and more efficient engines or by developing improved safety features
- Biomedical engineer: Mechanical engineers work with a variety of medical professionals to design mobility aids, prosthetics, and artificial organs.
- Consulting: Once mechanical engineers have gained significant on-the-job experience and developed a high level of expertise, they might choose to work for themselves as consultants or independent contractors. Here they can work on projects of their choosing for clients they respect. The consulting field offers opportunities in large and small engineering service firms and in private practice.
- Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) engineer: In this field, engineers design refrigeration systems for making frozen foods, or air-conditioning and heating systems for businesses and industrial buildings, residential homes, autos, hospitals, and schools.
- Nuclear engineer: The design of nuclear power plants requires the services of a mechanical engineer. The engineer must understand the fundamentals of nuclear design, know how to operate the plant efficiently, and evaluate the environmental factors associated with nuclear plants.
- Robotics engineer: A mechanical engineer may design machines that build other machines. For instance, a robotics engineer may be involved with creating the devices that are used in assembling automobiles. Engineers are concerned with the robot's structure, its joint mechanisms, bearings, and heat transfer characteristics.
- Teaching: A desire to help mold the next generation of engineers motivates some mechanical engineers to move into academic careers. Engineers in colleges oversee research activities, manage laboratories, and mentor students. They also write and publish books and technical papers about mechanical engineering.
Other mechanical engineering job titles include:
- Acoustics engineer
- Design engineer
- Energy conservation engineer
- Engineer, power generation
- Fluid mechanics engineer
- Mechanical maintenance engineer
- Piping engineer
- Thermal design engineer
- Tool engineer
Certification, Licensure and Associations
The Fundamentals of Engineering exam, also known as the FE exam, measures the minimum competency required to enter an engineering profession. Many engineering schools allow students to take the exam after graduation. The National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying administers the test. Many jurisdictions use a student's education and experience as a prerequisite to apply for the FE exam. Enrolled students should contact their state board to determine exact qualifications.
After passing the FE exam, you are considered an engineer in training. You must then serve an apprenticeship to qualify for the Professional Engineer (PE) exam. Certification comes once the PE exam is successfully completed.
Engineers must be licensed in each state in which they practice. The use of uniform exam standards generally ensures that licenses can be obtained without taking an exam for each state. However, fees likely will be charged for each license. It is best to check with each state's licensing board to determine exact requirements.
For additional information
For general information about mechanical engineers or information about careers, training, and education, check these sites.
- American Society of Mechanical Engineers
- American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers
- Society of Automotive Engineering