What is mechanical engineering?

Published on 19 April 2024

Find out what a mechanical engineer does and learn about career options.

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What you need to know
  • Mechanical engineering is the branch of engineering concerned with machines and manufacturing processes.
  • It applies mathematic and scientific principles to solve engineering challenges.
  • Mechanical engineers work in sectors such as car manufacturing, electronics, energy, and aerospace.
  • Mechanical engineers are highly valued for their analytical, technical, and problem-solving skills
  • It's a broad discipline with lots of opportunities to specialise.

If something has moving parts, then mechanical engineering helped design it. From small components like switches to large jet engines, mechanical engineers apply their skills to the manufacturing and design process.

Study mechanical engineering if you like design, problem solving, and are curious about how things work.

How is mechanical engineering different from other types of engineering?

  • Mechanical engineers work on mechanical systems - their design, build, and maintenance.
  • Civil engineers design and construct infrastructure, like buildings and roads.
  • Biomedical engineers combine engineering, medicine and other disciplines to develop healthcare technology.
  • Structural engineers focus on the construction of buildings and structures. They ensure these can withstand loads and environmental conditions.
  • Electrical engineers design and maintain electrical systems and components.

What does a mechanical engineer do?

If you consider many 21st century innovations, the chances are these have involved mechanical engineering. 3D printers, robotic vacuum cleaners, and electric vehicles are some examples.

Mechanical engineers use their understanding of mechanics, thermodynamics, and materials science to make these ideas a reality. This might involve designing a product from scratch or improving an existing one.

Mechanical engineers apply their knowledge to all stages of the design and development process. For example, they might:

  • analyse how thermal and mechanical devices might solve a particular problem
  • use computer-aided design to redesign a mechanical system
  • design and test prototypes
  • oversee the manufacturing process for a product or device
  • diagnose faults in equipment and suggest fixes
  • investigate how to increase the efficiency of mechanical systems

Mechanical engineers develop solutions for real-world problems. The renewable energy sector is a good example of this.

Solar energy

Mechanical engineers work on solar energy systems. They aim to make solar cells more efficient and improve energy storage.

Wind turbines

Mechanical engineering has been key to development of wind turbines to generate renewable energy. Mechanical engineering work to make these more efficient and structural reliable.

Hydro power

Hydropower is a well-established form of renewable energy. Mechanical engineers work to improve its performance and impact. Mechanical engineers might examine how turbine design can improve energy conversion. Alternatively, they can focus on safety or water management in hydro power. For example, improving the design of dam and reservoirs.

In all these areas, mechanical engineers are developing solutions to meet human needs.

Precision and creativity

Precision and accuracy are perhaps words that come to mind when thinking about mechanical engineering. Calculations and measurements made during the design process need to be precise. If not, then it can have huge consequences on the safety and reliability of a mechanical device.

What you might not realise is that creativity is also an important aspect of mechanical engineering. A fresh perspective is often the starting point for designing a mechanical device. This is especially true in the early stages of the design process. A mechanical engineer will use their creativity to brainstorm and generate ideas.

What is the work environment of a mechanical engineer?

Some of a mechanical engineer's work will be office based. For example, analysing and developing technical plans using computer aided design tools.

But the work isn't all desk-bound. A mechanical engineer may be on the road conducting site visits. They may also be in the factory overseeing production and maintenance.

There are lots of opportunities to travel and work abroad, especially in areas like Europe, the Middle East, Asia and Australia.

Is mechanical engineering right for me?

To study mechanical engineering, you will need a solid background in maths and physics.

It also helps if you are curious about how things work. You should like the idea of combining creativity and analytical skills to solve problems. These problems include some of the biggest global challenges such as:

  • helping everyone in the world access clean drinking water
  • making better, greener, safer transport
  • researching and developing life-saving medical equipment

Good communication skills are important too if you want to be a mechanical engineer. That's because they need to be able to present technical information in clear way. This might be in written reports, presentations, or working with colleagues.

Careers in mechanical engineering

As it's such a broad field, there many sectors where mechanical engineers are in demand. These sectors include:

  • aerospace engineering
  • automotive engineering
  • construction
  • energy
  • healthcare
  • transport
  • utilities
  • high tech manufacturing
  • medical engineering / health and life sciences
  • infrastructure and transport
  • design and consultancy
  • sport industries
  • satellite design and enabling space exploration
  • developing futuristic fashion, fabrics, and wearable technology

A degree in mechanical engineering can offer you a wide range of career opportunities. Some examples include:

  • aerospace engineer
  • automotive engineer
  • CAD technician
  • control and instrumentation engineer
  • construction engineer
  • maintenance engineer
  • mechanical engineer
  • nuclear engineer
  • production engineer
  • structural engineer

With experience, mechanical engineers often move into specialist project management roles or consultancy.

A mechanical engineering degree also provides a range of transferable skills. For example, the ability to analyse and present complex information opens up career options outside of engineering.

Undergraduate mechanical engineering courses

Mechanical Engineering BEng (Hons)

Analyse and solve mechanical engineering problems with traditional engineering principles and emerging technologies.

Mechanical Engineering with Renewables BEng (Hons)

Study the design and function of mechanical engineering in relation to renewable energy, such as solar, biomass, wind, and tidal.


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