What is mechanical engineering?


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May 29, 2013


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What is mechanical engineering?

Sean Carron, combustion, heat transfer, fluids, machines, control systems, oil/gas processing
Answered Aug 7, 2016
I have hired many engineers over the past 20 years and the two things that I tell a fresh graduate is that the greatest skill you have to offer me is your ability to read and comprehend technical topics very quickly. For many years I have questioned why we need to divide engineering education into different groups - civil, mechanical, electrical, mining, petroleum etc… In my province (BC) we are legally allowed to practice engineering in areas we have proven competence. Being a mechanical engineer does not mean that I am competent in HVAC design or aircraft design. It also does not mean that I am incompetent in Electrical systems design. Once you have an engineering degree, all you have proven is that you can learn technical subjects quickly. The real learning starts on your first day of work. Some of our best process (chemical) engineers are mechanical engineers because they have an excellent grasp of thermodynamics, fluids, heat transfer etc… Similarly, I have seen some very good structural engineers (typically civil) that had mechanical engineering degrees. Mechanical engineers make great controls engineers as they understand the mechanical and process aspects of the system and we also learn most aspects of electrical circuits. Many of our best “programmers” are mechanical engineers where you would have expected a computer or electrical engineer. I used to design building systems and was forced to learn about building codes, mechanical systems and electrical systems. I was equally comfortable specifying beams as I was specifying high voltage feeders or plumbing waste stacks. Having hired many different engineers over my career, I have learned that mechanical engineers are generally the most well rounded and can do just about anything with suitable training and mentorship. I personally think that we should only have one engineering degree and that it should be based on mechanical engineering. Once you graduate and follow a certain path, then you can take more specialized course for a particular field. I have also hired many technologists who generally get more specialized training in one field; however, I find their ability to expand beyond their base is limited. Sure they know the new lingo and hit the ground running but they stall pretty quick once the technology or conditions change. Young engineers are generally more broad but can quickly grasp the lingo and concepts.

Another very important aspect is that engineering is a self-regulated profession. As a profession, we are held to very high standards. After university, we only get two grades. The bridge either stands up or it falls down. The plane either flies or it crashes. If we screw up, people can die. We are not allowed to make mistakes. How is it possible that anyone can get 100% every time. It is very simple, we use proven codes, standards and methods. We use checkers and stringent approval processes. We are registered with the government and take an oath to protect the public and put them above all else. When we stamp a drawing, we are saying that people can bet their lives on our work. We are expected to know and follow the applicable codes and if we deviate from them, we better be able to defend it in court. When you read a code - for example NFPA 85 code for boilers, - it makes reference to every discipline of engineering from civil to mechanical to electrical and controls. We are expected to fully comprehend and translate the requirements into specifications that can be relied upon for the construction of a system that is safe, reliable and cost effective. So in essence, engineers are also technical lawyers. Our job is to understand technical requirements embodied in codes and standards and protect the public. We are held to very high ethical standards. This often brings conflict and forces us to ponder philosophy. Is it ethical for an engineer to develop weapons that could be used to kill children. Is it ethical for an engineer to design machines that contribute to global warming. We are faced with these questions every day.

In many ways mechanical engineers are the engine of society. We create and build the systems that everyone relies upon. If someone asks where power comes from and their initial thoughts are the electrical outlet, then we smile and think about all the massive infrastructure that was created by engineers to support power getting to the outlet.

Being a mechanical engineer can be very fulfilling. Indirectly you touch many lives and solve problems that benefit society. I am not suggesting mechanical engineering is altruistic but there is definitely an element of philosophy embodied in our profession.

I started university at 16 with extreme naivety and just took mechanical engineering because I liked cars. I now look back on my life and career and feel extremely fortunate and truly believe I could not have picked a better profession.

So the short answer to what is mechanical engineering is that it can be whatever you want. You are given a toolbox of knowledge that lets you do anything or go anywhere that your heart desires. How you use the tools is up to you.

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