A Career Roadmap for Mechanical Engineers

Everything You Need to Know about a Career in Mechanical Engineering

Mechanical engineering is a broad discipline under the umbrella of engineering. The mechanical engineers design, research, develop, test, and build a variety of engines, tools, thermal sensors, machines, and many other mechanical devices.  In fact, professional mechanical engineers fuse together a variety of sciences that include: physics, engineering, analysis, materials science, maintenance, and manufacturing.  From these broad-based science disciplines, a mechanical engineer will learn core pieces of thermodynamics, electricity, structural analysis, kinematics, and mechanics to name a few.  Tools of the trade become product lifecycle management software and/or computer-aided design tools to assess the viability and applicability of things like: HVAC systems, aircraft, robotics, watercraft, medical devices, transport systems, weapons, manufacturing plants, machinery, and industrial equipment.

Duties of Mechanical Engineers

Given the broad nature of the mechanical engineering discipline, it would be impossible to illuminate the job responsibilities of each mechanical engineer by subsector in an efficient manner.  Below you will find a few high-level job duties that will help a prospective student better visualize a few common areas of responsibility of a mechanical engineer.

  • Analyze problems or systemic inefficiencies to determine if thermal and/or mechanical devices may help better solve the issue.
  • Develop an original design or modify an existing design schema for thermal and/or mechanical devices or their associated subsystems with the assistance of computer-aided design systems.
  • Create, design, and testing prototypes of new devices being constructed or fabricated.
  • Perform deep analysis of data from test results in an effort to modify a design schema or mechanical system.
  • Manage the manufacturing process for a device, part, or assembly. Examples may include the manufacturing of an internal combustion engine, electric generator, steam turbine, HVAC systems, gas turbine, escalators, refrigeration systems, and elevators.

Like other engineers, a mechanical engineer must be proficient with computers, computer software, and computer systems.  More specifically, a mechanical engineer can be charged with the responsible for integrating controllers, sensors, and machinery.  Computer technology helps mechanical engineers create and analyze a set of designs, run simulations, and perform tests both as a stand-alone device or as part of a functioning machine assembly prior to final deployment.

Qualifications of a Mechanical Engineer

A professional mechanical engineer will need a bachelor’s degree in either mechanical engineering technology or mechanical engineering.  A specific license will be required of any mechanical engineer that provides services to the general public and many municipalities.  Mechanical engineering programs in college will include a wide variety of courses that may include the following areas of study: physics, chemistry, material tensile strength, composites, materials engineering, calculus, linear algebra, differential equations, differential geometry, HVAC, energy conversion, civil engineering, chemical engineering, electrical engineering, thermodynamics, internal combustion engines, computer-aided design, drafting, robotics, pneumatics, hydraulics, control engineering, vibration, kinematics, fluid dynamics, and computer-aided manufacturing to name a few.

Some colleges and universities offer 5-year programs which allow students to attain both a bachelor’s degree followed by a master’s degree at the same school in a compressed timeline.  Additionally, there are accredited colleges that offer 5-year and 6-year cooperative plans that intermix classroom study with practical work in an effort to help students garner real-life experience while earning an income to help pay for schooling.

Sub-Disciplines of Mechanical Engineering

Mechanical engineering is a conglomeration of various science disciplines.  Some of these sub-disciplines are unique to mechanical engineering while others cross over with other areas of science.  In either case, we will touch on five sub-domains of mechanical engineering quickly below:

  1. Robotics & Mechatronics: The science of mechatronics is the result of blending electronics and mechanics while robotics leverages mechatronics to create robots and automate manufacturing.
  2. Structural Analysis: The discipline of structural analysis focuses on how and why structural objects fail & their respective structural integrity.
  3. Mechanics: In its most basic form, mechanics is the study of forces and their effect upon matter.  Mechanical engineers will frequently use mechanics to analyze and design various phases of engineering.
  4. Drafting & Design: Drafting is the mechanical engineers path to design and create a set of basic instructions for the manufacturing of a part, device, or assembly.  Design is the ideation of a product or process that is followed by an illustration, drawing, or computer-generated example (often known as computer-aided design (CAD) or computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) processes).
  5. Thermodynamics: In its essence, thermodynamics is the study of energy. As applied to mechanical engineering, thermodynamics will often focus on the use of energy and transformation through a given system.

Growing Areas of Research for Mechanical Engineers

We will quickly touch on a few burgeoning areas of research from professional mechanical engineers that are truly exciting.  These growing areas of science extend our current understanding of what is physically possible helping to make systems more efficient, safer, and often less expensive.

Friction Stir Welding (FSW) – Friction Stir Welding is a new steady state welding process that joins materials that were historically not known to be welded together such as aluminum alloys, composites, and synthetics.

Composites – Composites are a mixture of various materials that combine to make something physically unique.

Nanotechnology – The term nanotechnology is often used to describe mechanical engineering at the smallest of scales. Scientists and engineers continue to push the bounds of the known with nanotechnology that currently include nanostructures, nanofilms, and nanofilters.

Micro electro-mechanical systems (MEMS) – In short, MEMS is the technology used to describe microscopic devices, most often those with parts that move.  Examples may include parts found in cell phones, gyroscopes, and sensors found in airbags.

Biomechanics – In essence, biomechanics is the study of mechanical principles as applied to biological systems like humans, cells, plants, and animals.

Finite element analysis (FEM) – The discipline of finite element analysis is a math technique that uses numbers to find solutions for partial differential equations and boundary value problems.  By dividing a larger problem into smaller parts, the goal of FEM is to solve each small problem and re-assemble those small parts into a whole system.

Acoustical engineering – The study of acoustical engineering is primarily focused on sound and vibration.  While seemingly simple, acoustical engineers work to mitigate noise pollution, improve hearing aids, enhance speaker technology, and optimize the sound in a symphony hall.

Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) – Computational fluid dynamics is the use of algorithms to analyze problems relating to fluid flows.  With the help of supercomputers, CFD professionals can model boundary conditions in a safe environment prior to production of a product or system.

What are Typical Qualities of Mechanical Engineers?

-         Listening skills: Mechanical engineers work on projects with other professionals, like computer scientists and architects, and must pay attention to details of a project and analyze diverse approaches from others in order to successfully finish the task at hand.

-         Creativity: Mechanical engineers design and build multi-faceted pieces of machinery and equipment.  While some pieces of a project are already designed and vetted, new elements or assembling the entire project may take a great deal of creativity to complete on-time and on-budget.

-         Math skills: A mechanical engineer will frequently utilize principles of statistics, calculus, statistics, and other math-based disciplines during various stages of analysis, design, and troubleshooting.

-         Mechanical skills: Engineers will need to thoroughly understand basic engineering concepts and mechanical processes to help solve problems, design new systems, and properly deploy a new product.

-         Problem-solving skills: Lastly, a mechanical engineer will need to harness their knowledge to achieve a higher-order set of problem-solving skills in order to successfully master their respective trade.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations for Mechanical Engineers

Although licensure is not needed for entry-level mechanical engineer positions, professional mechanical engineers will need to earn a PE license. A Professional Engineering (PE) license allows for advanced levels of independence and leadership for a mechanical engineer within an organization.  Once a mechanical engineer obtains a PE license, he/she can supervise other engineers, endorse projects, and offer services to the public.  State licensure will requires a mechanical engineer to:

-         Obtain an ABET-accredited engineering degree

-         Receive a passing score on the Fundamentals of Engineering examination

-         Obtain at least 4 years of relevant work experience in the field

-         Successfully pass the Professional Engineering (PE) exam

In addition to the college-level degree from an ABET accredited school and licensure requirements, many states are now integrating mandatory continuing education hours for mechanical engineers in an effort to keep their knowledge current and maintain an active license.  Several professional organizations such as the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) and The American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) offer mechanical engineers various certification programs to help them properly demonstrate competence in particular fields of mechanical engineering.

Job Outlook for Mechanical Engineers

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the mechanical engineering professions is estimated to grow by 5% through 2024 which is about as fast as the average composite rate for all occupations.  The average annual income for a mechanical engineer is just under $84,000 with four states (Alaska, Texas, New Mexico, and Delaware) exceeding $100,000 on average.  The fastest growing areas for mechanical engineers is Texas, the Great Lakes region, the Northeast and Northwest.


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