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Engineering careers

Mechanical Engineering

The role of the mechanical engineer

The American novelist, James A. Michener, said: “Scientists dream about doing great things. Engineers do them.” This is certainly the case with mechanical engineers. These guys are the people that create and build the machines, tools, equipment and mechanical devices that make the world go round. Sounds pretty important, doesn’t it?

Mechanical engineering is one of the broadest specialist subsectors in the world of engineering. The skills of mechanical engineers are needed in a huge range of industries, such as robotics, aerospace, defence, manufacturing and civil engineering. Just imagine how awful the world would be if:

  • The wheels on the bus didn’t go round and round
  • Everything produced in a factory had to be made by hand
  • A colonoscopy was done using a torch and a piece of string
  • Aeroplanes couldn’t take off – leaving R Kelly as the only person in the world who believed they could actually fly.

Mechanical engineers use their creativity, technical skills, practical abilities and scientific knowledge to design, manufacture and maintain every kind of mechanical device imaginable: from small components, such as precise medical devices (e.g. pacemakers), to large machinery, such as cooling systems in nuclear power plants and jet engines in aeroplanes. Their expertise is essential throughout the research, design, planning, production, testing, installation and maintenance of mechanical devices.

What makes a good mechanical engineer?

Mechanical engineers are forever in tune with the buzz of modern society. As technology advances, they have to improve, redesign and invent mechanical devices to keep up with the times. Mechanical engineers will need excellent mathematical skills and an in-depth knowledge of scientific principles, such as thermodynamics and fluid mechanics.

Furthermore, they will have to be able to work effectively as part of a team, exercise their fantastic communication skills and boast a certain amount of creativity to help them find the best solutions to complex engineering problems.

How does mechanical engineering work?

The first stage of mechanical engineering, when it comes to creating a new machine or adapting an existing device, is research and development. Here, mechanical engineers will liaise with their client, understand their problems and requirements and establish the exact functionality of the device which needs to be engineered. They will then collaborate with other engineers, conduct extensive research and apply their scientific knowledge to develop a detailed theoretical specification for the design process.

The mechanical design process involves turning the research and theoretical ideas into technical blueprints. This process is often called ‘drafting’ and tends to involve the use of complex computer-aided design (CAD) programs. These allow mechanical design engineers to produce 3D designs in a virtual environment and means that tons of different complex designs can be simulated on the computer screen before a physical prototype even has to be made. This facilitates the process of design, evaluation and redesign and therefore saves a lot of time, money and hassle.

During the design process, mechanical engineers will employ complex scientific principles, such as kinematics or complex mechanics, to influence their designs.

The next step in the mechanical engineering process involves production, testing, installation and maintenance. Once the design has been refined and completed, physical prototypes need to be produced. Physical and operational testing needs to be conducted to ensure that the device functions at an optimal level in its operating environment. For example, this might involve extensive thermal testing or structural analysis.

Mechanical engineers will then make expert recommendations on how the design can be modified. Once testing and the final design have been completed, production processes will be agreed upon and put in place, often through the use of Computer Numerical Control techniques.

After this, the production run really kicks off! Mechanical engineers are then responsible for the installation and maintenance of the device to make sure its functionality is effective and consistent.

General and specialised mechanical engineers

Some mechanical engineers play an integral part in every part of the engineering process, whilst others will specialise in one specific area such as installation and maintenance or CAD design. As mechanical engineers progress into more senior roles, they may have wider business-focused responsibilities, such as budget control and managing other engineers on specific projects to ensure that everything is done quickly and efficiently.

Many employers will require mechanical engineers to have a relevant engineering degree; however, some may consider candidates with relevant engineering diplomas for lower level positions.

So, if you are mechanically minded (but not a robot) and you aren’t inclined to throwing spanners in the works, then you can almost certainly build yourself a career in mechanical engineering. Take a look to see if any of our graduate engineering job listings interest you!