What is Mechanical Engineering?
Mechanical engineering is the study of motion, energy and force. The mechanical engineer seeks to control these elements by using a combination of material, human and economic resources to develop mechanical solutions that help satisfy the needs and wants of society.
What Do Mechanical Engineers Do?
Some of the most common job functions of a mechanical engineer are:
- Product Design: Designing products ranging from biomedical devices to internal combustion engines to fuel-efficient motor vehicles, motors and appliances.
- Research and Development: Researching new ideas and solutions that satisfy society’s demands or improving or expanding older ideas and solutions.
- Manufacturing: Designing and building the machines that mass produce consumer products. Of prime importance is designing and building machines that improve operating efficiency.
- Systems Management: Managing the operations of a large system, such as a manufacturing facility or a power plant.
- Energy: Planning how energy is created, stored and moved in industries that produce and deliver electrical power, such as natural gas, oil and alternative energy.
In most of these areas, the mechanical engineer’s goal is to harness or create energy in machines such as boilers, air conditioners and refrigeration equipment. Product design is about designing and manufacturing tangible products, such as engines, personal computers and dishwashers.
Mechanical engineers must be comfortable making decisions. They decide the size, material and shape of every part of a machine or mechanical device. Some decisions are critical to human life, such as those concerning the safety features of an industrial machine or a consumer product.
High School Preparation
Mechanical engineering requires a solid foundation in mathematics, science and language arts. Prospective engineering students should enroll in high school algebra, geometry, trigonometry and calculus courses. Chemistry, biology and physics should also be taken.
Additionally, students should strive to develop strong oral and written communications skills, as they are important to achieving success in mechanical engineering studies. Courses in computer-aided drafting can help students understand the practicalities of engineering projects.
Mechanical Engineering Coursework and Training
Most mechanical engineers will be required to complete a bachelors in mechanical engineering. At the college or university level, mechanical engineering majors take courses in advanced mathematics, calculus, chemistry, and physics. After finishing these fundamental courses, students take engineering courses in:
- Materials Sciences
- Manufacturing Processes
- Heat Transfer
- Fluid Dynamics
- Mechanical and Structural Design
- Kinematics and Dynamics of Machinery
- Instruments and Controls
- Advanced computer programming
Students should try to land a paid or unpaid engineering internship. An internship can help the student understand the "real world" of engineering and apply the theories and principles that were taught in the classroom. An internship can also help the student determine his or her professional preferences, strengths and weaknesses.
Once again, because good oral and written communication skills are essential to a successful career in mechanical engineering, the student should not neglect the liberal arts and humanities. Moreover, because many large industrial companies that employ mechanical engineers are international, a second language can be invaluable.
Salaries and Trends in Mechanical Engineering Careers
According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS), employment in the field is expected to grow about nine percent over the next decade, bringing along 21,300 new positions. Additionally, many openings will result from the natural replacement of workers who transfer to other occupations or retire.
In 2011, mechanical engineers earned an average salary of $79,230 (BLS). The best-paid engineers earned about $119,950; the lowest-paid earned less than $51,340. Industries that paid the highest annual mean wage include:
- Lessors of real estate ($119,380)
- Oil and gas extraction ($108,520)
- Bakeries and tortilla manufacturing ($103,880)
Fields like biotechnology, materials science and nanotechnology are expected to create job opportunities for mechanical engineers. In particular, medical biotechnology is becoming more attractive to mechanical engineers who specialize in design mechanics.
This area involves the design of prosthetic devices and artificial organs. Mechanical engineers work with medical doctors to design and develop these products that will withstand stress and be compatible with the human body.
Is Mechanical Engineering Right For You?
Ask yourself these questions to help you evaluate your potential future as a mechanical engineering major:
- Do you struggle in math and science? If the answer is “yes,” then choose another college major.
- Are you naturally curious about how things work? Do you take things apart and put them back them back together? This is a natural trait of a mechanical engineer.
- Do you enjoy discovering new or better ways to do things? If so, mechanical engineering may be the right path for you.
- Can you process visual information and create mental images of objects that are yet to be developed? These abilities are critical to engineering, especially in the area of product design.
- Do people trust your decisions? If so, then you have demonstrated the ability to make rational decisions, a necessary requirement for the mechanical engineer.
The following trade associations are great sources of information about the field of mechanical engineering:
- American Society of Mechanical Engineers
- American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers
- Society of Automotive Engineers
- Society of Black Engineers
- Society of Women Engineers