Branches of Mechanical Engineering
If you’re the type of person who constantly wonders how technology works—how the engine in your car converts gas into power, for example, or how the electricity from your local power plant makes it to your outlets—then you may enjoy the field of mechanical engineering.
What Should I Know About the Mechanical Engineering Field?
Mechanical engineers design and build the machines and processes that make modern life possible. Mechanical engineering includes over a dozen subspecialties. All mechanical engineering branches use the same basic concepts: math, engineering science, physics, and materials science. Each area just applies these concepts to a different technical problem.
According to the Sloan Career Cornerstone Center, “Fundamentally, mechanical engineers are involved with the mechanics of motion and the transfer of energy from one form to another or one place to another.” With this in mind, we’ll take a brief look at some of the major branches of mechanical engineering.
What Areas of Mechanical Engineering Can I Study?
Aerospace Engineering: These engineers apply mechanical engineering principles to build planes, spacecraft, defense systems, and other airborne technologies. Aerospace engineering is a very broad discipline and engineers may specialize in a particular area, such as propulsion, instrumentation, or structural design.
Bioengineering: Also called biomedical engineers, these engineers work at the crossroads of medicine, biology, and mechanical engineering. Bioengineers work on a variety of problems, from the manipulation of cells and tissue to the design of medical devices and instruments. They work in hospitals, research and development firms, government agencies, colleges, and medical institutions.
Fluids Engineering: Mechanical engineers in fluids engineering design processes that involve the use of water and other fluids. This might include developing a pump or pipeline, prototyping a hydraulic lift, or building a hydroelectric dam. Fluids engineers work in a variety of sectors, from manufacturing to food production.
Manufacturing Engineering: While many engineers develop products that will eventually be produced on a large scale, many engineers also work solely on the challenges involved in manufacturing those products. Manufacturing engineers need to understand the manufacturing process, material science, electronics, and industrial equipment.
Materials Engineering: Materials engineers study the properties of materials, such as their malleability, strength, and resistance to corrosion. These engineers also develop materials that have desirable properties for a particular manufacturing or design purpose.
Nuclear Engineering: You guessed it: Nuclear engineers design the machines used by nuclear power plants. Radioactive waste disposal systems and nuclear reactors are some of the major systems these engineers create.
Petroleum Engineering: Petroleum engineers make the systems used to extract oil and gas from the ground. They also create new processes for refining fuels, reducing pollution, and transporting fuels long distances. About half of petroleum engineers work in oil and gas extraction, while 15 percent work in mining support activities and 7 percent work in petroleum and coal manufacturing.
Power Engineering: Power engineers work on power plants that generate power through the use of turbines. Power engineers design the systems used in these plants, from the turbines themselves to the cooling towers, condensers, pumps, and other necessary equipment.
Solar Engineering: These engineers develop ways to harness and use energy from the sun. They design photovoltaic cells and fuel cell systems to store this energy, as well as heating and refrigeration systems that run using stored solar power.
Systems Engineering: Systems engineers work on production lines in engineering settings, to make these lines more responsive and dynamic. The controls that these engineers design help improve the output and quality of manufacturing systems.
How Do I Become a Mechanical Engineer?
All engineers begin their career by earning an accredited bachelor’s degree in an engineering field. ABET is the major programmatic accrediting board for engineering degrees. Choosing an accredited program is important for landing a job and earning a Professional Engineer license later in your career.
Mechanical engineering programs include courses in liberal arts and sciences, as well as engineering principles, math, and physics. Core ME classes include the following:
- Design and manufacturing
- Dynamics and vibrations
- Fluid mechanics
How Do I Choose a Mechanical Engineering Specialization?
Mechanical engineering is the second largest occupation in the United States., which means prospective engineers have many specializations and work environments to choose from. The following are possible factors to consider when choosing a specialty:
Your areas of interests: Do you prefer working with materials or with complex systems? With electronic components or engines?
Job growth in the subspecialty: Some areas, such as biomedical engineering, will be experiencing rapid growth in the coming years, while hiring in other areas will be slowing down.
Work environment & hours: Some engineers travel for their profession, while others work a standard 9-5 in office buildings.
Room for advancement into management roles: Many engineering settings require engineering managers to supervise workers and direct processes.
- Salary: While most engineers make a comfortable salary, some, such as petroleum engineers, have very high earnings.
- ^"Mechanical Engineering Overview." Sloan Career Cornerstone Center. Accessed December 12, 2012. http://www.careercornerstone.org/pdf/me/mecheng.pdf.
- ^abOccupational Outlook Handbook. Bureau of Labor Statistics of the US Department of Labor. Published August 7, 2012. http://www.bls.gov/ooh/architecture-and-engineering/petroleum-engineers.htm.
- ^Occupational Outlook Handbook. Bureau of Labor Statistics of the US Department of Labor. Published August 7, 2012. http://www.bls.gov/ooh/architecture-and-engineering/mechanical-engineers.htm.