Is mechanical engineering the best engineering field for you? I want to answer this question by summarizing what you’ll generally do in your day-to-day and compare the reality of mechanical engineering with the expectations.
All my teachers and guidance counselors told me that mechanical engineering is broad with many possible career paths. I didn’t know what I wanted to major in and I wanted to keep my options open.
Out of the standard biology, chemistry and physics classes in high school, physics was the most intuitive and enjoyable science subject, so that narrowed down my choices to mechanical and electrical engineering. Generally, biology and chemistry are more related to chemical engineering.
High school physics classes are one half mechanics and other half electricity/magnetism. I was better at the mechanics half, so I chose mechanical engineering.
Also, I transferred to a four year engineering school for my junior and senior years. Before that, I was going to a two-year community college that offered maybe five engineering-related classes that were taught by a total of three engineering professors. All of the engineering classes I took were mechanical engineering-related, so that’s another reason to major in mechanical engineering.
When I transferred, most of my credits transferred to the engineering school. Transfer students normally lose enough credits that they need at least an extra semester to earn back the lost credits and get their four year degree. I was able to graduate in a total of four years, two years at the community college and two years at the engineering school.
If you want to know more about my first job after I graduated, click here.
First, I want to go over some traits I think you should have if you want to be an engineer. You don’t need ALL of them to make it as an engineer, but you should have at least 3:
I want to clearly define what mechanical engineering, and engineering in general, involves, and I want to compare the reality with expectations of being a mechanical engineer.
This is the engineering design process:
(Image originally from: http://www.sciencebuddies.org/engineering-design-process/engineering-design-process-steps.shtml)
Most engineers work in the “Based on results and data” part. Most real world, practical problems have already been defined in one form or another. So, engineers improve or modify pre-existing products.
R&D (research and development) is the notable exception. These engineers develop new products, processes, and technologies to solve new problems. R&D engineers focus on the first 4-5 steps of the design process. Other engineers perform the remaining steps of the design process.
I’m a mechanical engineer, so I can talk a lot about this field. Mechanical engineers use CAD (Computer-Aided Design), CAM (Computer-Aided Manufacturing), and CAE (Computer-Aided Engineering) software to design, evaluate, and manufacture products. This field has three main specializations:
This specialization designs machines and mechanical systems, anything that has moving parts like cars and planes. They also create the processes for manufacturing those machines and mechanical systems.
This is the oldest, “traditional” mechanical engineering specialization. Since almost all machines have moving parts, mechanical engineers work in a shit-ton of industries. This is likely the reason why people believe mechanical engineering is broad enough to apply to EVERYTHING.
For something like a car, engineers work in teams to design and build subsystems on the car, like suspension (wheels on a car), transmission (taking the torque from an engine and using it to move the wheels), and chassis (the outer body of the car).
CAD software packages allow engineers to create 3D models and sketches of parts, subsystems, and the completed products on a computer. Before CAD, engineers made models and sketches by hand.
(Image originally from: http://www.sidereel.com/tv-shows/tom-and-jerry/season-1950/episode-47)
You’ll still do some hand sketching in high school engineering classes or engineering camps since they generally can’t afford CAD software. Colleges and universities have enough funding to afford CAD software for their students.
Mechanical design evaluation is studying the material behavior of the parts and components so that they meet technical requirements. For this specialization, designs are required to withstand mechanical stress like compression or torque. This is accomplished through numerous methods, such as constructing prototypes and FEA (Finite Element Analysis).
A prototype is a functioning representation of your product. The prototype provides a clear, unambiguous physical representation of your product and how it mechanically behaves during use, but it’s costly and time-consuming to build one.
However, 3D printing greatly reduces the costs and the time. A 3D printer shoots out superheated plastic, usually ABS or PLA, and it “prints out” layer-by-layer full three-dimensional objects. You can use a 3D printer to quickly make a prototype of your design.
FEA is a numerical technique that predicts how a part or component will behave under stress. Similar to CAD, software packages have replaced the need for hand calculations.
(Image originally from: http://nxportalen.com/cae-en/finite-element-analysis-en/)
FEA is low cost and saves significant time, but it comes with greater risk. The engineer has to determine if the FEA results are accurate or not. If the engineer isn’t able to catch an inaccurate test, the product could have flaws that aren’t fixed and be very likely to fail during commercial use.
Lastly, the product is physically made. Engineering companies have machinists and a dedicated manufacturing area to make products, or they outsource it to manufacturing plants. As a mechanical engineer, you won’t be doing any manufacturing work yourself. You still need to be familiar with manufacturing processes so that you can make your designs easy to manufacture. You also need to make sketches for the machinists to follow.
Or, you actually create the specific processes for making products. From my experience, manufacturing techniques have basically remained the same for centuries. Major innovations in manufacturing include automated equipment, like CNC (Computer Numerical Control) milling machines, and additive manufacturing techniques like 3D printing.
This specialization deals with themodynamics, the study of converting heat into other forms of energy, and fluid mechanics, the study of how fluids mechanically behave. Engineers in this specialization make products like heaters, ventilation systems, air conditioners, refrigerators, fans, and equipment that use water pressure (hydraulics).
The product development process is the same as the previous specialization. The engineers use CAD to create models of their products. They use prototypes, FEA, CAM, and CAE software to validate their designs before manufacturing them. The products are also divided into separate subsystems.
The design challenges for these products are controlling temperature (heating, air conditioning and refrigeration), generating air flow (venting), and withstanding the mechanical stress from water pressure in hydraulic systems (fluids).
This is a relatively new specialization. Mechatronics is an interdisciplinary field that combines mechanical, electrical, computer, and controls engineering. Many mechanical systems like cars now include electrical and controls systems, including Bluetooth connectivity, Wi-Fi, anti-lock braking, televisions, and a way for the owner to open the trunk by waving their foot in front of a sensor located at the bottom of the car. Mechanical engineers should be familiar with electrical and controls systems.
Also, mechanical, electrical, controls, and computer engineers work together on projects. An engineer with a mechatronics specialization can help engineers from these diverse backgrounds communicate and work well together; they can bridge the gap between the different engineering fields.
(Image originally from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mechatronics)
These engineers design products with electrical and controls systems included in them, which includes most modern cars, robotics, microcontrollers, and automated equipment like factory assembly lines and CNC manufacturing machines.
The technical challenges of this specialization include making products that can withstand mechanical stresses, like in the first specialization. But, it also often includes challenges that electrical and computer engineers face, such as troubleshooting electric circuits and debugging code. Another challenge is in the sheer broad range of engineering knowledge you’ll have to know. You have to be a mechanical engineer who also knows how to build and troubleshoot electric circuits, write and debug code, and understand controls principles.
Now, I’ll go over what you’ll ACTUALLY be experiencing in your day-to-day as a mechanical engineer. All of this is a combination of my experiences and the experiences of other engineers I work with. To an extent, this applies to all engineers in general.
You’ll definitely be using a lot of CAD. Contrary to expectations, you won’t be coming up with new designs often, if at all. You’ll likely spend most of your time editing parts, assemblies, and drawings. Most companies have a rigid process for creating drawings and other documentation like reports, and you’ll be spending most of your time following this process. You create a drawing, and your manager returns it to you for corrections.
Design evaluation will also include design reviews by an entire panel of engineers and engineering managers. You need to prepare posters and PowerPoint presentations for your design reviews. Contrary to expectations, you’ll actually spend MORE time making presentation materials and doing presentation prep than doing actual engineering work.
The design reviews are often harsh and brutal. Some of the engineers on the panel are not only experts with more experience than you, but they are also arrogant and pompous. They’ll enjoy ripping apart your work the same way a man dying of thirst would enjoy a glass of water. This is where the ability to handle criticism well becomes essential.
Your product is going to be used by millions of people, so it’s important to make sure that it’s not going to fail during use and hurt someone.
Companies also have rigid purchasing procedures, so you’ll also spend a lot of time going through the process of buying parts you need to complete your projects.
You’ll also spend a lot of time in meetings, conference calls and the occasional company event. At meetings and conference calls, the project manager hands out tasks to team members and updates everyone on project progress. Company events include dinners, office parties, or special events held for visiting company executives. The project managers give presentations, everyone wears a blazer, a catering company provides lots of sugary foods and coffee, and it usually ends with a tour of the work area.
That’s mechanical engineering: what it involves, and a comparison of the reality with common expectations.
All engineering is ultimately about problem solving. Engineers build products and create processes that solve practical problems. Air conditioners and heaters cool buildings during summer and warm them during winter. Cars and planes provide transportation. To be successful as an engineer, I highly encourage you to adopt a problem solving mentality.
I also hope you can learn to have some fun with it and not take the criticism too personally. The criticism is ultimately meant to make your product perfect so that no one gets hurt from using it, and also to help you become the best engineer you can possibly be.
I hope this blog post was informative. Let me know down in the Comments what you think. And if you haven’t already, subscribe to my free newsletter to stay up to date on my latest content.
All the best,