It might be easy to envision a basic image of mechanical engineering, but what do mechanical engineers actually do on a daily basis? What kind of tools and skills do they use in the field? Not knowing these practical details can potentially lead to confusion and frustration down the line.
This article sought out mechanical engineering experts talk about the ins and outs of their work. The goal was to give prospective engineering students a clearer picture of what they might be expected to do in the field, and what kind of skills they should bring to the table.
Three experts, Paul Kabengela, Ph.D and faculty member at the Electronic Computer Programming University in Virginia; Katrina Prutzman, assistant director of product operations at Urban Green Energy and Greg Harper, vice president of industrial products at Charles Aris, Inc., provided their insights.
What are the daily responsibilities of a mechanical engineer?
Dr. Kabengela, citing O*NET OnLine, called out some key responsibilities to the field:
- Interpret engineering sketches, specifications, or drawings
- Assists engineers in the design, development, testing, or manufacturing of industrial machinery, consumer products, or other equipment
- Design specialized or customized equipment, machines, or structures
- Prepare specifications, designs, or sketches for machines, components, or systems related to the generation, transmission, or use of mechanical or fluid energy
- Provide technical support to other employees regarding mechanical design, fabrication, testing, or documentation
- Inspect and test mechanical equipment, conduct failure analyses, document results and recommend corrective actions
In contrast, Prutzman said the responsibilities of mechanical engineers depend on their area of focus. "Mechanical engineers are trained in many technical skills, but the common and overarching thread is problem solving," she said.
Katrina Prutzman, Assistant Director of Product Operations, Urban Green Energy
"In a product development field it may be strength analysis of a component or design of a new part. In manufacturing, it could be designing the layout of a new manufacturing process, or improving an existing process to reduce defective parts. In operations, it is analysis of a process - collecting information on the time and flow of each part - and identifying ways to make it more efficient. Each of these typically involve working with other people throughout the organization, and may also involve hands on testing of new concepts or prototypes."
Are there any continuing education requirements for mechanical engineers?
One of the fundamental steps to pursuing engineering is obtaining a Professional Engineering (PE) license. According to the National Society of Professional Engineers in order to obtain this license there are several steps candidates need to complete:
- Earn a four-year college degree in engineering
- Work under the supervision of a professional engineer for a minimum of four years
- Pass both the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam and the Principles of Practice of Engineering exam, both administered by state engineering licensure boards
The FE exam, offered by the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying, is an introductory licensure test, designed to be taken as either a recent engineering grad or as a student who's coming close to graduation. The Principles of Practice of Engineering, or Professional Engineering (PE) exam, is an eight-hour test on a specific discipline of engineering.
Prutzman called out the importance of special training in addition to PE licensure, particularly for structural design work. "For engineers that are doing structural design, a Professional Engineering (PE) license and training may be required. Continuing education is necessary to maintain this license."
Greg Harper, Vice President of Industrial Products, Charles Aris, Inc.
"Depending on the position continued education is critical, i.e. a mechanical engineer doing design work will need to stay abreast of modeling or thermodynamic software. A maintenance and reliability engineer will want to increase their knowledge with regards to vibration analysis or thermo imaging."
Katrina Prutzman, Assistant Director of Product Operations, Urban Green Energy
"For me, when I decided I wanted to be in the Renewable Energy space, I went back to school to study sustainability management in order to be better prepared to enter this rapidly changing field. This was not necessary, but opened up opportunities and connections for me that I wouldn't have had otherwise."
What are some related careers for people with mechanical engineering degrees?
Mechanical engineers have a number of related careers they can pursue. Manufacturing and oil-and-gas extraction are both identified by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics as areas where mechanical engineers are expected to be in demand.
Between the three experts the general consensus on related industries included:
- Defense research
- Consumer product development
- Biomedical device design
- Sourcing and procurement operations for a hospital
- Energy and sustainability
What are some soft skills someone would need to be a successful mechanical engineer?
One common theme in regards to soft skills was the ability to combine abilities like complex problem solving, persistence and critical thinking with team-oriented skills like active listening and general interpersonal relations. This combination is, according to Harper, important for the process of training new talent.
Harper emphasized two soft skills he thought were "critical in the industry today: mentoring and coaching. Many engineers have tremendous technical skills but lack the soft skills to train and develop others."
Kabengela and Prutzman were in virtual lockstep with their responses. They mentioned a number of soft skills that could help future mechanical engineers:
- Interpersonal relations
- Active listening
- Active learning
- Critical and creative thinking
Prutzman also pointed out the need to be able to traverse the cultural differences between engineering culture and corporate culture.
"The manufacturing environment is a different world from the corporate office, where activities are fast-paced and problems or improvements have an almost immediate effect on an employee's daily work. Being able to listen and demonstrate understanding of these challenges and cultural differences goes a long way in building trust and making progress," she said.
What are a few things about mechanical engineering careers people may not know about?
While attending college students have the opportunity to choose from different courses to take in order to fulfill educational requirements. While there are some restrictions, there is also the freedom to craft a path through college that may be a bit different from others. Engineering, while specialized, has a degree of academic variety that might not be evident at first glance.
"I think the biggest thing people might not know is how interdisciplinary the field is, and how many opportunities that provides," Prutzman said. "With a broad background in static structures, dynamic machines, energy, chemistry, electronics and analysis, there are many ways to combine these skills into a career that fits any engineer's interests."
Another thing that can be easy to overlook is the different types of related job roles and how they fit into the workflow of an engineering project. Dr. Kabengela mentioned the role mechanical engineering technologists, a specialized mechanical engineering role, play in the field.
Paul Kabengela, Ph.D, Electronic Computer Programming University
"A mechanical engineering technologist is the middle-man between the engineer and the technician. He participates in the design process with the engineer and then builds and tests the product along with the technician."
Interview with Paul Kabengela, Ph.D and faculty member at the Electronic Computer Programming University in Virginia, conducted by Jamar Ramos, May 30, 2014
Interview with Katrina Prutzman, assistant director of product operations at Urban Green Energy, conducted by Jamar Ramos, May 29, 2014
Interview with Greg Harper, vice president of industrial products at Charles Aris, Inc., conducted by Jamar Ramos, May 21, 2014
"Mechanical Engineers," U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, June 27, 2014, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/architecture-and-engineering/mechanical-engineers.htm#tab-6
"What is a PE," National Society of Professional Engineers, 2014, http://www.nspe.org/resources/licensure/what-pe
"17-3029.07 - Mechanical Engineering Technologists," O*NET OnLine, July 2, 2014, http://www.onetonline.org/link/details/17-3029.07