Mechanical Engineering

Engineering Degree Guide: Mechanical Engineering

Engineers bridge the gap between conceptual theories of science and the practicality of everyday life. They address problems from a scientific background to provide the best solution available. Arguably the oldest and most well documented field of engineering is its application to mechanical devices. This occupation involves the design, production and analysis of dynamic systems, or those with intrinsic physical properties. Most of these systems are commonly called machines, though mechanical engineers also work with more obtuse systems such as highways and architecture. Through examination of the forces involved in these systems they discover weak points and areas for improvement and then implement these findings into their designs. This article explores the mechanical engineering career and the subtopics encompassed by it to lend prospective students, interested tinkerers and professionals the insights and inspiration they seek with the modern innovations, breakthroughs and science behind the field of engineering.

Subfields

Mechanical engineering is not a new field and some argue it has been in practice since humans first employed tools to meet their needs. Since this primitive inception many new developments in engineering and other fields have influenced the course of mechanical engineering. Many subfields have developed over the years and there is substantial overlap in practice between mechanical engineering and other engineering disciplines. Below are descriptions of some classic and emerging subfields of mechanical engineering.

Design

The primary goal of mechanical engineering is to create technologies that address specific problems while ensuring the quality of these prototypes. Design is the first step in this process, though theories of design often incorporate how a product will be used, its environment and human operability. In this sense design is much more than simply preparing a technology for manufacturing and involves envisioning the use of the product throughout its lifetime while adapting product features to its these expectations. Here are some examples of mechanical designs and information on what is necessary for the process.

  • DesignNews collects current events in engineering design in one place. They provide examples of current tools and innovations employed to advance the way we use products to incorporate the broad scope of mechanical engineering.
  • MIT Elements of Mechanical Design is part of the Michigan Institute of Technology’s Open Course Ware project whereby notes and assignments from course are provided online for free. The class is at an advanced level and requires students to create a mechanical device from the design process through application, but you can browse the material without worrying about the curve.
  • The Mechanical Design Handbook is a place for engineers and students to find ideas about how to incorporate design principles to improve their projects. It discusses ideas for common elements of mechanical engineering products and the specific challenges that each design component brings to the project.
  • Mechanical Design 101 provides resources including video tutorials, photographs and upcoming events emphasizing current projects related to mechanical design. Their Mechanism Generator is an impressive tool to help engineers by listing possible mechanisms to fulfill their design needs.

Structural Analysis

Though engineers try their best to develop the optimal solution for a particular problem, they often cannot foresee the problems the future will hold. Some technology may be designed for a particular use, but fails in the face of new technologies. An example of this would be the insufficiency of bridges made for horse-drawn carriages to handle automobile travel during its formative years. Engineers working in structural analysis collect data on systems likely to fail to prevent deterioration from becoming disaster. These resources have additional information on the how structural analysis is performed and common tools used in its processes.

  • The Structural Analysis Reference Library offers a large selection of information on the characteristics of specific materials, stress tests used on various systems and components useful for structural analysis projects. General information on the use of different mathematical units and software tools helps to engineers in the practical performance of their jobs.
  • Mechanical Structural Analysis and Design Optimization of Industrial Robots is a publication of The Robotics Institute detailing the procedure for evaluating robotic constructions. Robotics is a complex and growing field for mechanical engineers to demonstrate their abilities and this paper gives some idea for the usefulness of these talents.

Biomechanics

A relatively new field, biomechanics is the study of the way organisms move to develop products that augment physical ability and replace certain organs in the event of injury. This study is tied extensively to medicine, though it requires the expertise of engineers to devise methods to approximate the complex workings of biology. Using the information provided by doctors and medical researchers, engineers are able to develop prosthetics and performance boosting mechanisms that imitate natural function as closely as possible. This is an extremely popular and controversial field and the resources below have information about its specifics.

  • The Applied Biomechanics Laboratory at the University of Washington uses medical knowledge to develop products and research on the range of motion of specific body parts. Much of their work deals with spinal trauma and the development of technology to replace hips and other complex joints in the body.
  • Biomechanics Resources, provided by ePodiatry, features internet materials, print books, scholarly publications and professional societies dealing with all aspects of biomechanics. Though the materials are hosted on a podiatry site they are not limited strictly to foot care.
  • The Sport & Exercise Biomechanics Guide has information on books, journals and internet resources that explain the dynamics of exercise and explore possible technologies to augment performance and reduce injury. Much of the content is only available in print though links are provided to relevant materials online when available.

Mechatronics

Robotic systems and automated processes combine the mechanical tinkering of engineering with control systems based in electronics and computer programming. As robots are adopted by more manufacturers and automated systems gain popularity among businesses, the need for people to design these systems increases correspondingly. Mechanical engineers work with software programmers and electronic engineers to develop solutions to the challenges of creating and implementing these systems. More information on the importance of mechanical processes in robotics and the creation of new solutions can be found in the materials below.

  • Mechatronics Tutorial Information is a comprehensive guide to the knowledge involved in constructing robotic systems and their control mechanisms. The section on prototyping is probably most relevant to mechanical engineering though a basic knowledge of the electronic and programming efforts involved can only help.
  • Mechatronics Resources by Colorado State University is meant to give students and other interested people the knowledge they need to address the problems of designing robotic systems for a variety of applications. Much of the information is about where to find components necessary for a robotics project but books about the subject and related web pages are also listed.
  • Mechatronic Tips is an outlet for news and advice about the mechanical, electronic and computerized aspects of designing robotic systems and their applications for real world problems. The content focuses on current events and the mechatronic devices involved in keeping order and conducting experiments.
  • Mechatronics Wiki is a project conducted by Northwestern University students and faculty to use as a reference source for knowledge of the subject. It includes information on different components for use in mechatronic applications, software suites to aid design and a section on current projects in the field.

Tools and Knowledge

As the problems that mechanical engineers faced historically became more complex they needed reliable sources of information with proven strategies for solving problems. Academic journals initially served this purpose very well and allowed a forum for engineers to share their findings. Today’s journals simply do not have enough pages to cover the myriad problems engineers encounter on a daily basis. In response to this growing need, many software programs have been developed to provide the tools needed to address complex problems without even a completed prototype. These software programs are extremely useful for the daily challenges of engineering, but have not made research publications obsolete. Journals now coexist with these powerful software tools to disseminate information on theories and discoveries important across an array of applications. The publications and software below can be used in conjunction to research breaking discoveries in engineering and solve the complex equations of specific problems that would otherwise prove too time consuming.

  • Engineers Edge: Calculators features extensive calculation tools and formulas to quantify the forces active in a specific system. The applicable systems range from simple calculations of different types of shapes within a system to the calculation of force on the threads of a screw.
  • SolidWorks is the golden standard of mechanical engineering software and is employed in educational settings and engineering firms throughout the world. It allows users to create objects in a 3D environment, test the capabilities of different materials and even simulate the operating conditions of the specific product.
  • Free Mechanical Engineering describes open source, freeware tools that mechanical engineers can use to model different aspects of a system and optimize its components for proper functioning. Though most of these lack the robustness of pay to use software, there is a great enough variety to use a few in conjunction to address more complex problems.
  • The Journal of Biomechanics presents research and developments applying mechanical systems and principles to the benefit individual health. All articles from 1997 to current day are available online for a subscription fee.
  • Mechatronics is a scholarly journal investigating new ideas in the relationship between machines and the computerized systems that control them. The articles are only available on a subscription basis.

Institutions

Professional organizations allow engineers a venue to share ideas and collaborate on projects that interest them. Most of these societies publish research in their respective field and host events to provide their members with information and build their careers. Here are the most active and influential organizations dealing with aspects of mechanical engineering.

  • The American Society for Biomechanics reaches out to professionals in the biomechanical community by hosting events and disseminating information about the field. It also spurs education through grants and development of curriculum to ensure students have the understanding they need.
  • The Institution of Mechanical Engineers represents professionals from the United Kingdom and promotes research in all specialties of the field. They foster education through scholarships and grants and host professional events emphasizing standards and skill development as well as the MX Awards for proven talent.
  • NAFEMS stands for National Agency for Finite Element Analysis and was founded in the United Kingdom to standardize and improve the methods used for mechanical analysis. They are now an international organization that informs its membership on new trends and research on structural analysis.
  • The International Association of Mechanical Engineers organizes professionals in the field from around the world to collaborate on the issues facing mechanical engineering. They host conferences, participate in research and release publications through WSEAS Press to achieve this end.

The Career

With the widespread use of advanced technology in the modern world, mechanical engineers are in high demand. They work to devise new contraptions to solve the problems of today while evaluating old designs to determine if they are still viable. By developing solutions to problems in machinery and other dynamic systems, mechanical engineers guide the construction of civilization from the tools we use to the things we build. These resources help to gain an idea of what a job in mechanical engineering entails.

  • Mechanical Engineering Career Guide details the common duties a mechanical engineer is responsible for and what industries consistently need mechanical expertise. The educational requirements both for undergraduate and graduate studies are spelled out along with the intellectual demands of the major.
  • The MIT Engineering Majors Guide outlines the specific skills mechanical engineers need to excel in their education and beyond. The different opportunities available, standard salaries, professional organizations and resources for a career search are provided to help new students and recent graduates get an idea of what their career will hold and where to start looking.
  • The Occupational Outlook Handbook for Engineer is a projection of the job opportunities for engineers in the near future by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. It includes employment statistics for the different types of engineers and a description of the work required of each sub-specialty.
  • ASME’s History of Mechanical Engineering briefly summarizes the progression of mechanical knowledge from ancient civilizations until present day and displays articles highlighting important inventions made possible by advances in mechanical engineering. The topics of the articles range from the medieval trebuchet to the launch of Sputnik and show how the contributions of mechanical engineers can permanently change society.

Job Resources

If you have decided that the mechanical engineering path is right for you and you already have a degree in hand, then it is time to look for a job. This can be one of the most tedious and demoralizing processes in any field, so we have compiled the following job boards specific to the engineering field to help guide you.

  • The American Society of Mechanical Engineers Career Development Center offers advice for applying for jobs in the field and points out career fairs, conferences and individual positions to help aspiring engineers. The job listings are slightly hard to find since they are tucked in at the end of the page.
  • Nation Jobs: Engineering is a nationwide search engine to find jobs in the engineering field. Their positions range from local firms to big names in engineering like Koch, Think Energy and Georgia Pacific Corporation.
  • Jobs for Mechanical Engineers is one of the few sites dedicated specifically to jobs in the mechanical engineering field. They post positions within the U.S. and Canada as well as a few international opportunities.