What Do Engineers Do?

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Engineers design, build, and maintain various complex systems and structures, from buildings to software. While there are many engineering professions, there is one consistent engineering mindset: to innovate. To do so, they must think in increasingly cross-disciplinary ways, finding combinations, patterns, and intersections between previously disparate conceptual realms.

Engineers are the architects of the world. While stereotypes paint a picture of engineering as an anti-social hard science that’s primarily conducted behind a computer, engineers are in fact the scientists and artists who created the Palm Islands in Dubai and the Millau Viaduct in France. An engineer’s creativity does not always need to be so grandiose—nano-engineers work down to a billionth of a meter in scale.

Engineers combine rigorous scientific knowledge with elegant creativity to change society and address global problems, often in previously unthought of ways. This article explores the expansive world of engineering, from microchips to aircraft, prosthetics to nuclear reactors, cell phones to life-saving drugs.

Aerospace Engineering

Aerospace engineers are at the forefront of the future. Aerospace engineers design and model aircraft, spacecraft, satellites, and missiles to do what engineers do best: chart the unknown and put it to work with rigorous scientific modeling. They are changing the landscape of what is possible, whether that means putting a man on the moon, connecting different parts of the world with satellite communication and air travel, or exploring the far reaches of the solar system.

Professional societies include:

  • The Aerospace Industries Association
  • The Vertical Flight Society (AHS International)
  • The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA)
  • The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI)

Automotive Engineering

Automotive engineers design, test, and build land vehicles that operate in a wide variety of environments, which in turn requires an extraordinarily complex and multi-disciplinary approach. Fuel systems, thermodynamics, computer science, and industrial logistics all intersect in automotive engineering to build smarter, more efficient, and safer land transportation systems that, to the end-user, feel effortless. What’s more, with the advent of autonomous vehicles, automotive engineers today benefit from an in-depth understanding of cybersecurity.

Professional societies include:

  • The Automotive Industry Action Group (AIAG)
  • The International Federation of Automotive Engineering Societies (FISITA)
  • The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE International)
  • The United States Council for Automotive Research

Biomedical Engineering

Biomedical engineers apply an engineering skill set to the biological sphere. They design technology that interacts with the living body, whether this is designing and developing advanced prosthetics, artificial internal organs, complex diagnostic devices, or new drug treatments, biomedical engineers explore, enhance, and extend life beyond its original limits.

Professional societies include:

  • The American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering (IAMBE)
  • The American Society of Biomechanics (ASB)
  • The Biomedical Engineering Society (BMES)
  • The IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology (EMBS)

Chemical Engineering

Chemical engineers attack global problems at the chemical level. They apply engineering skills to the field of chemistry to help mitigate pollution, optimize waste management, refine fuel products, make energy systems more productive, revolutionize agricultural processes, and work hand-in-hand with manufacturing operations to consider the broader environment.

Professional societies include:

  • The American Chemical Society (ACS)
  • The American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE)
  • The Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE)
  • The World Chemical Engineering Council

Civil Engineering

Civil engineers design, build, and maintain the physical infrastructure that connects our society. Roads, dams, buildings, airports, bridges, tunnels, water and waste systems—civil engineers build and connect a jigsaw puzzle of moving parts so that they can come together in safe, efficient, and productive ways. Nested underneath civil engineering are three further specializations:

  • Environmental engineering: Environmental engineers explore how humans interact with their environment, and vice versa, often in areas such as waste disposal, recycling, pollution, and public health.
  • Power systems engineering: Power systems engineers deal with the transport of electrical power, with applications in the smart grid, electric vehicles, and renewable energy sources.
  • Water systems engineering: Water systems engineers focus on fluid mechanics in waste and water storage and transit, finding applications in dams, levees, potable water, and hydraulic energy.

Professional societies include:

  • The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE)
  • The American Concrete Institute (ACI)
  • The International Association for Bridge and Structural Engineering (IABSE)
  • The American Society for Metals (ASM International)

Computer Engineering

Computer engineers design and develop the technical components of computers, such as microprocessors, sensors, circuit boards, memory devices, networks, and routers. As computer engineering continues to grow as a field, four sub-specializations have developed within it:

  • Computer science: This sector focuses on the algorithms and infrastructures necessary to store, synthesize, and represent information in meaningful and transmutable ways.
  • Data science: Data science takes an engineering mindset to the complications that arise from processing massive quantities of data in scientifically rigorous ways—and translates the zeroes and ones into applicable, real-world insights.
  • Cybersecurity: Cybersecurity engineers defend and repair networked systems from both outside attack and internal corruption, using conceptual extrapolation to prepare for and prevent threats.
  • Software engineering: Software engineers design and develop the software that allows end users to interact with the underlying complexity of network systems in seamless, elegant ways, from apps to research engines and even tools that allow people and machines to communicate with one another.

Professional societies include:

  • The Association for Computing Machinery (ACM)
  • The Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AAAI)
  • The IEEE Computer Society

Electrical Engineering

Electrical engineers design and develop all forms of electrical equipment, such as radar systems, GPS, and electric motors, as well as new forms of power generation and transfer. They work in tandem with federal or private entities to streamline today’s systems and build tomorrow’s.

Electrical and computer engineering (ECE) is an emerging subspecialty that explores the interaction of machines with computers, with applications in robotics, autonomous vehicles, power systems, lasers, medical equipment, and electromagnetics.

Another subspecialty, nanoengineering, focuses on applications in computer science and biomedical engineering that operate at one billionth of a meter—another impossibility made possible by the engineering mindset.

Professional societies include:

  • The American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE)
  • The Association for Computing Machinery (ACM)
  • Institute of Engineering and Technology (IET)

Engineering Management

Engineering management is the link between the engineering world and the world of business. Engineering managers act as translators between the two worlds by interfacing with both sides and streamlining the processes and organizational structures of engineering teams and departments. Whether managing projects, products, or people, engineering managers apply the engineering mindset—i.e., developing processes that allow each element of a structure to work, in tandem—for optimal efficiency.

Professional societies include:

  • The American Society for Engineering Management (ASEM)
  • The IEEE Technology and Engineering Management Society
  • The Project Management Institute (PMI)
  • The Society for Engineering and Management Systems (SEMS)

Industrial Engineering

Industrial engineers design and maintain industrial and manufacturing processes. This can include the interconnected and optimized storage and distribution of various resources such as time, labor, machines, materials, information, and energy, which increasingly travel across geopolitical borders. Whether streamlining supply chain logistics, developing job evaluation tools, or calibrating manufacturing processes, industrial engineers interact with computer networks, robotics, and organizational structures in the pursuit of efficient, safe, and rapid productivity.

Professional societies include:

  • The Institute of Industrial and Systems Engineers (IISE)
  • The Institute for Operations Research and Management Sciences (INFORMS)
  • The Manufacturing and Service Operations Management Society

Materials Engineering

Materials engineers work at the atomic level—developing, processing, and testing raw materials such as ceramics, plastics, composites, and metals. Materials engineers can mold these elements to certain technical specifications, or apply an innovative approach and discover or design or reproduce new materials that, like aluminum, one day become the essential building blocks of the future.

Professional societies include:

  • The Materials Information Society (ASM International)
  • The Materials Research Society (MRS)
  • The Institute of Materials, Minerals, and Mining (IOM3)

Mechanical Engineering

Mechanical engineering is the development of machines. Such a broad mandate has led to the development of more than 30 technical divisions according to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), making mechanical engineering one of the broadest genres of engineering. Often incorporating thermodynamics and materials science, mechanical engineers design and develop products as diverse as inkjet printer nozzles, elevators, factory equipment, and thermal sensors. Mechanical engineers interact with nearly every other facet of engineering.

Professional societies include:

  • The American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME)
  • The Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IME)
  • The Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME)

Nuclear Engineering

Nuclear engineers harness, study, and manage the power of the atom, primarily through nuclear power and radiation. Not limited to developing reactor cores, radiation shields, and power plant instrumentation, nuclear engineering also applies to medical diagnosis and treatment. Acutely trained in the tremendous power and complexity of an invisible-to-the-eye world, nuclear engineers find ways to prevent or correct nuclear power plant emergencies, to safely dispose of nuclear waste, and to locate and irradiate a tumor in a human body.

Professional societies include:

  • The American Nuclear Society (ANS)
  • The Institute of Nuclear Materials Management (INMM)
  • The Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO)

Robotics Engineering

Robotics engineers create robotic devices and the applications that run them. While manufacturing is still the primary employer in this area, robotics has moved out of the factory floor and into various industries, such as agriculture, aerospace, automotive, biomechanical, and power systems management—with new applications in new arenas being tested every day. Robotics engineers must not only learn to collaborate with many different fields of research but also learn to anticipate and envision how robotics may play a role in society.

Professional societies include:

  • The Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AAAI)
  • The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI)
  • The IEEE Robotics Automation Society

Safety Engineering

Safety engineering prevents accidents and reduces opportunities for human error in engineered environments, which means that this type of engineering applies to almost every discipline. Safety engineers ensure that buildings are structurally sound, that advanced factory systems are designed with safety at the forefront, and that workers have best-in-class clothing and equipment that protects them in specialized and hazardous environments. Whether with medical equipment, airplanes, power plants, or handheld devices, safety engineers are making sure that the priority is protecting the humans interacting with engineered technology.

Professional societies include:

  • The American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE)
  • The IEEE Product Safety Engineering Society Membership

Systems Engineering

Closely related to engineering management, systems engineering focuses on issues surrounding the design and implementation of complex systems. Systems engineers look at the big picture and take into account the entire life cycle and surrounding ecology of a specific system, including operations, performance, test, manufacture, cost, schedule, training, support, and disposal. Applicable to nearly any discipline, systems engineers consider both the business and technical needs of stakeholders to optimize design processes.

Professional societies include:

  • The International Council on Systems Engineering (INCOSE)
  • The Institute of Industrial and Systems Engineers (IISE)

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