Engineering Technology - Definition, History and Applications

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Engineering technology is the practical application arm of engineering. Engineering technicians and technologists work in partnership with engineers or scientists to bring humanity-benefitting designs from the realm of pure theory into reality, developing improvements to existing processes or creating entirely new technologies.

In the U.S. prior to World War II, this process of bringing engineering ideas into reality fell on the shoulders of the academia-trained engineer. During this time, the focus of educational programming for engineers was highly theoretical. It became apparent that these theoretically trained engineers lacked the practical application-based knowledge needed to bring many of the theoretical ideas to life. Engineering technology stepped in to fill this need, eventually leading to the creation of the support roles known today as technologists and technicians, who generally have at least a bachelor’s or associate degree, respectively.

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Engineers, Technologists, and Technicians: A Cooperative Partnership

As a discipline and in practice, engineering and engineering technology share a basic foundation of knowledge in math, science, engineering, and design principles. However, the expertise and responsibilities of engineers, technologists, and technicians vary greatly. It is through the cooperative partnership of engineers, technologists, and technicians that the engineering process is able to move from design to reality.

In the engineering process, an engineer is responsible for the research, analysis, design, and development of the potentially humanity-benefitting idea. The skills needed for this part of the process are conceptual, requiring an understanding of complex math, science, and the fundamentals of physical design.

Once the engineer proves that the idea is feasible in the theoretical realm, the main task of the technologist is to bring the engineer’s idea into the realm of reality. Through tasks related to testing and evaluation, production, technical analysis, and distribution or sale, the technologist’s work is to apply engineering principles in a manner that is tangible.

In order to ensure that the whole project continues moving forward, the technician’s role is ensure all machines being utilized are functional and working per the technologist’s real-world adjustments to the engineer’s designs.

Explained succinctly, the engineer creates designs; the technologist figures out how to apply those designs in real life; and the technician keeps the technology working throughout the process.

What Opportunities Are There in Engineering Technology?

Wherever there is an engineering project to be completed, engineering technologists and technicians typically are needed. The four main branches of engineering are chemical, civil, electrical, and mechanical engineering. Beyond these four, there are other smaller branches, such as aerospace, agricultural, automotive, biological, biomedical, computer, energy, environmental, industrial, manufacturing, nano, nuclear, structural, and vehicular.

A career as an engineering technologist is often more narrowly focused than a career as an engineer due to the practical nature of the knowledge and skills required to be successful. Technologists generally specialize in one engineering arena or a few related engineering arenas and then work in the laboratory, plant, or other physical space related to that area of specialization.

Technicians experience similarly narrow career foci, learning to ensure specialized equipment is functioning correctly per the design specifications of engineers and technologists.

What Level of Education Do You Need to Enter Engineering Technology?

The minimum education needed to enter engineering technology is a two-year associate’s degree from a community college, technical institute, or vocational school. Community colleges offer programs for students who wish to pursue further education, as well as for those who are eager to begin work, focusing on the equipment, repair, assembly, testing, quality assurance, and/or inspection of systems. Aspiring engineering technicians can expect a mixture of the theory required to enable students to transfer to a four-year program, and the practical skills needed to enter the workforce.

Students in technical institutes or vocational schools learn the practical skills needed to become a technician. In some cases, local or regional companies partner with schools or sponsor full programs to teach the skills specifically needed by that company.

Aspiring engineering technologists, by comparison, generally need at least a four-year bachelor’s degree. Unlike four-year engineering programs, which focus on high-level math and theoretical science, engineering technology programs at the university level typically focus on practical mathematics and applied science. In addition, bachelor’s degrees in engineering technology are focused on the application of specific engineering techniques. While not all four-year programs offer specializations in specific branches of engineering, it is possible to earn a specialized bachelor’s degree in engineering technology at some universities. In general, engineering technologist programs impart the knowledge and skills for entry-level positions in areas such as product development, manufacturing, product assurance, sales, and program management.

Finally, a master’s degree in engineering technology prepares professionals to work with greater independence, perform more sophisticated tasks, or to advance into a supervisory role. Offered at traditional universities and online, master’s programs in engineering technology are for technologists seeking to gain advanced skills in the field, or those seeking to adapt to a changing engineering landscape.

The Future of Engineering Technology

Engineering technology employment prospects look bright into the future. By illustration, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in April 2020 that openings in engineering and architectural professions are expected to grow 4 percent nationwide between 2018 and 2028—an addition of 113,300 fresh positions. A majority of these openings are expected to be in infrastructure, renewable energy, robotics, and oil and gas extraction. In sum, due to the rapidly changing nature of the world, new technologies will be needed to respond to the changing needs of humanity, including improvements to existing technologies.

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