If you’ve ever taken a train or used a refrigerator, there’s a good chance a mechanical engineer was involved in its creation or design. Mechanical engineering is an essential part of our world: it drives innovation and keeps things running in healthcare, aviation, transportation, and beyond, often by facilitating the systems we don’t always see. If you’re a creative student who loves bringing ideas to life in the form of tangible products or systems, mechanical engineering is a career path worth exploring. In this blog, we’ll look at what it actually means to be a mechanical engineer and the main branches of mechanical engineering.
What is Mechanical Engineering?
In the simplest terms, mechanical engineering is a field focused on systems in motion. Mechanical engineers are responsible for ensuring that products with moving parts are functional and reliable. For example, a mechanical engineer designing an elevator system will have to think about how each individual component in the elevator works and how the system as a whole performs in different temperatures, under different stresses, etc. The goal of a mechanical engineer is to bring a product to life that is efficient, safe, performs well, and won’t fail.
What do Mechanical Engineers Do?
Mechanical engineering is present in virtually all industries, including automotive, aerospace, and robotics. This presents mechanical engineers with plenty of different opportunities in a field of their choosing. In general, mechanical engineers have interdisciplinary training, covering fields like physics, mathematics, materials science, and electricity. While it's helpful to love all things math and science-related, students with a passion for design may also enjoy this field. Detailed, creative, and well-thought-out product design is a key part of a mechanical engineer’s job.
Once someone has graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering, the world is their oyster. Mechanical engineers are always in demand and there are many different pathways at their disposal. It doesn’t hurt that mechanical engineer salaries are quite high, with a $97,000 mean annual salary.
What a mechanical engineer does on a day-to-day basis can vary a lot. Their job typically involves research and development (R&D), prototyping, building, testing, and inspection of mechanical systems, including engines and vehicles, manufacturing machinery, robotic systems, and more. Mechanical engineers also make use of their social skills, often partaking in teamwork, project management, and even customer service.
Types of Mechanical Engineers
Mechanical engineering is a branch of engineering that encompasses diverse specializations. Many students find this exciting because this diversity allows them to focus on industries they’re passionate about. To get a better idea of what a future in mechanical engineering could look like, check out the different branches below.
Robotics is a particularly innovative branch of mechanical engineering. In this field, mechanical engineers are tasked with designing and developing automated robotic systems, specifically their structures, mechanical motion capabilities, and heat transfer properties. In short: they ensure robots are physically capable of doing the tasks they will be programmed to do. Because robots are used across many industries, this branch of mechanical engineering is multidisciplinary.
Biomedical engineering applies principles of mechanical engineering to the human body to better understand its functions and come up with new solutions for medical issues. In this field, mechanical engineers utilize their various skills in research and production settings to develop all manner of biomedical products, like implants, prosthetics, and artificial organs, as well as surgical robots, diagnostic systems, biocompatible materials, and more.
Transportation systems are an essential part of our societies: whether it’s the subway people take to work, the cargo ship that transports essential goods, or the airplane that reunites you with long-distance family. Mechanical engineers working within this particular specialization use their knowledge and skills to solve complex transportation problems and come up with innovative infrastructure and vehicle solutions to transport people and goods efficiently and safely.
Thermodynamics is a field that focuses on how heat relates to energy. In the case of mechanical engineering, thermodynamics often comes into play for the development of systems that involve heat transfer, energy generation, and fluid dynamics. Mechanical engineers utilize thermodynamics when designing products like car engines, airplanes, refrigeration systems, power generators, and more.
This branch of mechanical engineering is focused on how things are made and how to improve the manufacturing process. Mechanical engineers analyze existing manufacturing techniques, such as injection molding, machining, or 3D printing, and come up with solutions to make those methods and machines better. A mechanical engineer in this field could be tasked with creating a manufacturing machine that is more sustainable than previous systems, or more cost-efficient.
While many mechanical engineers deal with large systems, like cars and manufacturing machines, there is a branch of mechanical engineering that specializes in small systems that are invisible to the naked eye. Nanotechnology is the study and manipulation of atoms and molecules. Mechanical engineers that specialize in nanotechnology are able to fine-tune systems on the nanoscale and have made incredible advances in terms of energy storage and consumption. This is an emerging subsection of mechanical engineering and specialists in nanotechnology are in demand.
Pursuing a Career in Mechanical Engineering
Of course, that’s only the tip of the iceberg: mechanical engineers are needed across virtually all industries and have many different skills. Ultimately, mechanical engineering is a versatile degree that has many potential pathways, making it a great career option for students who can synthesize different areas of knowledge and skills and enjoy problem-solving. Check out our Sphero robots and STEM kits to start exploring your mechanical engineering interests.