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What is a Mechanical Engineer and What Do They Do?

   

What is Mechanical Engineering?

Mechanical engineering is a branch of engineering concerned with designing, producing and operating machinery, ranging from ranging from relatively simple items to more complex machinery and even entire facilities and plants.

What is a Mechanical Engineer?

Mechanical engineers work to design, develop, build, and test all sorts of mechanical devices, tools, engines and machines. The work of mechanical engineers can take items right through the product lifecycle, from initial design and development through to installation, testing and maintenance.

Working in industries including aerospace, automotive, biotechnology, construction, computing, electronics, manufacturing, medical and more, mechanical engineers can be found developing everything from engine parts, to wind or gas turbines and fuel cells, robots, tools, and more.

One of the most diverse of all of the engineering disciplines, mechanical engineering came to the fore during the Industrial Revolution in the 18th Century in Europe, but its roots can be traced across the world over thousands of years.

Contents

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What does a Mechanical Engineer do?

Working in one of the broadest engineering fields, mechanical engineers design, analyse, test, develop and oversee the manufacture of power-producing machines like electric generators, engines, and turbines, as well as machines that use power, such as air-conditioning and refrigeration units, material handling systems such as conveyors, and more.

As modern professional engineers, mechanical engineers use computer systems to test designs and run virtual simulations to determine how a machine will work or integrate with connected systems, as well as computer aided design (CAD) and computer aided manufacturing (CAM) programs. Mechanical engineers also need to understand dynamics, mechanics, thermodynamics, structural analysis and electricity.

Mechanical engineering often overlaps into other engineering disciplines, including civil, chemical, industrial, and electrical engineering.

While the exact parameters of the role will change depending on where you work, a mechanical engineer will typically do tasks like:

  • Analysing problems and mechanical device failures to find a cause and solution
  • Designing or redesigning/adapting mechanical devices
  • Develop and test mechanical prototypes, changing designs based on testing results
  • Oversee manufacturing processes

This work will typically require an understanding of mechanical physics, forces, rotation, vibrations, and velocity.

Where do they Work?

Mechanical engineers work in a range of different places, according to the industry they are working in. Employment opportunities can be found almost anywhere that innovation is taking place, including within industries like aerospace, automotive, chemical, construction, consumer goods, defence, electronics, marine, metals and materials, pharmaceutical, rail, and utilities.

Mechanical engineers are also employed to work in a non-engineering capacity, both within engineering and elsewhere. These might include teaching, management, technical consulting and sales, publishing / science journalism, government, military, medicine, research, and more. 

Most mechanical engineers work in an office setting although there may also be visits to sites to investigate problems or attend to pieces of equipment.

Benefits of Becoming a Mechanical Engineer

The first and most obvious benefit of becoming a mechanical engineer is the wide variety of employment opportunities that are available. In addition, new areas of employment growth are being developed for mechanical engineers with breakthroughs in areas such as acoustical engineering, biotechnology, composites, computational fluid dynamics, and nanotechnologies.

Along with the benefits of having a range of potential employment opportunities and fields of work to choose from, mechanical engineering can also offer a good salary.

While the exact salaries vary between companies and sectors according to the demand for engineers, mechanical engineering can be a well-paid career. As with most jobs, the wages increase as your career, expertise and experience develop.

In the UK, salaries for mechanical engineers range from £20,000 for those starting out or on graduate training schemes and moving up to £60,000+ for senior engineers. By comparison, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the United States, the 2021 median annual salary for a mechanical engineer was $95,300. 

Work

The reliance on mechanical engineering in a range of industries means that there is always a demand for skilled professionals to fill mechanical engineering jobs. Sectors such as automotive, aerospace, biotechnology, electronics, energy, and manufacturing employ a high number of mechanical engineers but, as shown above, they can be found in a range of different sectors.

These examples of mechanical engineering roles will offer an insight into some of the types of work available:

Auto Research Engineers:

Working to improve the performance of cars and other road and off-road vehicles, these engineers design new parts, modify existing components, troubleshoot problems and create solutions including for suspension systems, aerodynamics, new fuel types, engine performance and more.

Heating and Cooling Systems Engineers:

Working on everything from buildings to aeroplanes and automobiles to trains and computer server rooms, these engineers are experts in creating, developing and maintaining environmental systems to manage temperature and humidity levels. These engineers also use computers, pressure gauges and other equipment to assess energy losses in buildings.

Robotics Engineers:

These mechanical engineers specialise in robotics and are able to design, build and maintain robots, including extra systems such as sensors. This role also involves designing processes to keep the robots running correctly in a range of environments including manufacturing plants.

Materials Engineers:

These engineers develop, process and test new materials so that they meet the mechanical, electrical and chemical requirements for a range of industries. These engineers are integral to the development of new materials though the study of chemical properties, structures and the mechanical uses of a range of materials, including plastics, nanomaterials, ceramics and composites.

Mechanical engineering can be split according to discipline, with some offering overlap into different fields, example disciplines include:

  • Acoustics
  • Aerospace
  • Automation
  • Automotive
  • Autonomous Systems
  • Biotechnology
  • Composites
  • Computer Aided Design (CAD)
  • Control Systems
  • Cyber security
  • Design
  • Energy
  • Ergonomics
  • Human body, medical and health
  • Manufacturing (including additive manufacturing)
  • Mechanics
  • Nanotechnology
  • Production planning
  • Robotics
  • Structural analysis

As your knowledge and experience increases the more avenues of work will open up to you, allowing you to earn more and change your employment sector more easily. 

Knowledge and Skills

There is a wide range of skills and knowledge used by mechanical engineers to perform their duties. These include:

1. Statics and Kinematics:

Statics research is concerned with how forces are transmitted to and through structures, including the dynamics, velocities, and acceleration forces of a system in motion. Once in motion, kinematics is used to measure how a mechanism behaves as it moves through different ranges of motion.

2. Materials:

Materials science allows us to determine which materials are best for different applications. This includes testing the strength of the material under different conditions and loads as well as working out the properties of the material. This knowledge is used across the construction, automotive, medical and other industries.

3. Thermodynamics:

Thermodynamics examines how energy is converted to useable power and how much energy is lost in the process. This includes matters such as heat transfer, temperature data, and heat distribution through machinery.

4. Fluid Mechanics:

Looking at properties such as drops in pressure and fluid flow rates, this is used in a range of applications including aerospace, where it can measure hose efficiencies and aerodynamic drag.

5. Manufacturing:

Knowledge of manufacturing processes is important for improving efficiencies through the development and testing of equipment-scale processes. This knowledge also draws on other areas in the field of mechanical engineering, such as vibration analysis in manufacturing machinery, electrical efficiencies, and more.

6. Economics:

An understanding of economics is important to ensure mechanical designs are practical in the real world, including affordability of materials and parts, life cycle costs, and more.

Alongside these example practical and scientific skills are softer skills that mechanical engineers may need to use, such as:

1. Problem Solving:

This is at the very core of mechanical engineering, using your knowledge and experience to solve problems.

2. Creativity:

Problem solving may require a creative solution, but mechanical engineers can also get creative with new designs, developments and modifications.

3. Interpersonal Skills:

Don’t overlook the importance of good interpersonal skills for mechanical engineers. Being able to work alongside - and communicate your ideas to - other people is also an important part of the job.

Conclusion

Mechanical engineers can be found working in a variety of industrial and non-industrial settings, making it an in-demand role for employers. While it could be argued that mechanical engineering goes back to antiquity with the creation of the first mechanical tools and engines, the discipline really pushed forwards with the first Industrial Revolution.

Modern mechanical engineers design and develop as well as build, test and maintain all sorts of mechanical devices, engines, tools and machines, often with the aid of computing technology and systems. Working in areas from aerospace and automotive to construction and medical, mechanical engineers play an important role in many industries, using their knowledge and experience to solve problems and innovate.  

FAQs

Is a mechanical engineer a good career?

Mechanical engineering is a good career – with potential for employment in a range of different industries and areas as well as good prospects for the future and above average salaries.

Are mechanical engineers in demand?

The demand for mechanical engineers is expected to continue growing over the coming years. Estimates said that this growth would equal around 7% between 2020 and 2030, although this may depend on your location. However, there are thousands of openings for mechanical engineers each year, making it an in demand occupation.

Will mechanical engineers be needed in the future?

Mechanical engineers will continue to be needed in the future, not just for industrial innovation and manufacturing, but also for areas such as for advising government and other non-industrial organisations.

Are mechanical engineers scientists?

Although they use scientific knowledge, mechanical engineers are not scientists. Scientists investigate the natural world to see how and why things are as they are, while engineers innovate solutions to real-world challenges – albeit often with the application of science. Engineering would be far more dangerous and ineffective without the application of science, but it is not science in itself.

What is the highest paid type of mechanical engineer?

The pay rates for mechanical engineers depends on a number of factors, including location, company, role being performed, and your own level of expertise. Despite this, mechanical engineering roles can be broadly split by salary, with the highest paid tending to rank as follows:

  1. Aerospace Engineer
  2. Mechanical Engineering Manager
  3. Maintenance Manager
  4. R&D Engineer
  5. Nuclear Engineer
  6. Powertrain Engineer
  7. Senior Design Engineer
  8. Tool Engineer

Are mechanical engineers paid well?

Mechanical engineers earn good salaries from the moment they enter the career, typically well above the national average. These salaries increase with knowledge and experience as you progress through your career.

Can I learn mechanical engineering on my own?

It is possible to learn mechanical engineering on your own, however it is always much easier to make sure you are learning correctly if you have advice and guidance. Colleges offer structured learning as well as assessment to prove that you have successfully learned what you need to know. At the very least, if you want to work as a professional engineer you will need qualifications which you can only get by attending a certification exam.

Can mechanical engineers work from home?

Although mechanical engineers may need to visit sites to examine and fix equipment or solve a problem, they tend to do most of their work in an office environment. Provided there is access to the necessary systems, there is no reason why most tasks cannot be carried out from home.

How do mechanical engineers help the world?

Mechanical engineers have been involved in the creation of virtually every product or service used in modern life. From healthcare to power generation, farming to transport, and space exploration to helping deal with climate change, mechanical engineers offer a lot to the world.  

Where to study mechanical engineering?

Mechanical engineering can be studied at a wide range of academic institutions around the world and can also be studied with on-the-job training as part of an apprenticeship or employment training scheme.

With regards to universities, rankings show that some have better reputations and outcomes for students than others. As of 2020, the QS World University Rankings by Subject showed the top ten universities for mechanical engineering as follows (includes two ranked in seventh place):

  1. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (United States)
  2. Stanford University (United States)
  3. University of Cambridge (United Kingdom)
  4. Harvard University (United States)
  5. Delft University of Technology (Netherlands)
  6. University of California, Berkeley (UCB) (United States)
  7. Imperial College London (United Kingdom) / University of Oxford (United Kingdom)
  8. Politecnico di Milano (Italy)
  9. University of Michigan-Ann Arbor (United States)

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