Mechanical Engineering - Definition, Specializations & Applications

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The phrase “don’t reinvent the wheel” comes to mind when thinking about mechanical engineering. This discipline exists to improve products created from a base knowledge of applied physics. The modern world comes with a lot of moving parts. From how a wall clock ticks away the time to the spinning of car wheels on their axles, it takes many precise pieces and movements to keep machines running smoothly.

While it takes many people and machines to put together something so complex as a car, each step is considered through the lens of a mechanical engineer. In short: if a machine moves, a mechanical engineer made it.

The enormous discipline of mechanical engineering includes the design and manufacturing of moving parts. As a result, mechanical engineers work across various industries conceptualizing, designing, and creating machines and their components. Some of the key sectors are automotive, healthcare, energy, and of course, construction.

Though it is one of the oldest engineering disciplines, it is also one that continues to change and grow with advancements in technology, making it a vibrant and exciting career path to this day. The American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), established in 1880, has over 90,000 members in 135 countries and “promotes the art, science, and practice of multidisciplinary engineering and allied sciences around the globe.” ASME sets global standards for manufacturing and offers certification and accreditation programs in fields such as boiler and pressure vessel, nuclear quality assurance, and bioprocessing equipment.

Read on to learn more about the history of mechanical engineering, its branches, and its applications.

Why Does the World Need Mechanical Engineering?

Though it may not be an engineering discipline many people think about, mechanical engineering is critical to many aspects of everyday life, from modern conveniences to fundamental understanding of science. Indeed, mechanical engineering is one of the oldest scientific disciplines and can be traced back centuries to the great thinkers of Ancient Greece like Archimedes. Contributions from these ancient engineers include chariots with differential gears, water clocks, and even a primitive steam engine.

In 1206, one of the foundational books of mechanical engineering was written by Muslim inventor and engineer Al-Jazari, called Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices, which included the beginnings of such important modern designs as the crankshaft.

As scientific thinking progressed, mechanical engineering expanded to include more analytical thought, particularly with Sir Isaac Newton’s laws of motion, which were integral to continued engineering progress. In the US, the first three mechanical engineering schools included the US Military Academy, Norwich University, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, which were all in full operation by 1825.

Ultimately, most things that we use today that involve any type of moving parts come, at least in part, from the minds of mechanical engineers, and that is unlikely to change any time soon. Even the development of more sophisticated electronics and other technologies will depend at least in part on mechanical engineers. That is why mechanical engineering is an exciting and essential area of concentration.

What Does One Learn in a Mechanical Engineering Program?

Mechanical engineering programs are fairly standardized across the US, thanks in part to the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET). As a result, mechanical engineering undergraduate degrees typically begin with some foundational courses applicable across the spectrum of engineering programs, including calculus, physics, and basic introductory engineering courses.

Once mechanical engineers focus on their major, they can expect to find courses in design, manufacturing, mechanics, thermodynamics, and materials. Thus, graduates of a master’s of engineering (ME) program should have academic and lab experience in the various disciplines that apply directly to mechanical engineering.

Notably, a mechanical engineering degree offers a great degree of breadth, making it an attractive major for those students who know they want to study engineering but are not sure where to focus.

Mechanical engineers can begin their professional careers with a bachelor of science degree, but some students pursue advanced learning through a master’s or a PhD level education. It is common for engineers to gain some experience with their bachelor’s degree and later further their formal education to move forward in their careers.

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Branches of Mechanical Engineering

Because mechanical engineering is a broad topic, many engineering specialties can fit within its scope. Some of the most common mechanical engineering branches where graduating students could find careers include:

  • Acoustical engineering: the manipulation and control of vibration to reduce unwanted noise
  • Manufacturing engineering: optimizing manufacturing techniques, developing processes as well as machines, tools, and equipment for the manufacture of goods
  • Thermal engineering: creating and maintaining comfortable and safe environments through the control of heating and cooling systems
  • Vehicle engineering: the design and manufacture of all manner of vehicles
  • Aerospace engineering: vehicle engineering as specific to air and space travel

In some instances, other specialties fall within the purview of mechanical engineering as well. For example, the Stanford graduate program in mechanical engineering is one of the world’s top institutions and features specialties in:

  • Biomechanical engineering: the application of engineering theory to medicine
  • Design engineering: the use of mechanical engineering theories to design better machines that promote efficiency as well as sustainability
  • Flow physics and computational engineering: the intersection of sciences, engineering, mathematics, and computer science
  • Mechanics and computation engineering: the application of mechanics to solids, fluids, biological tissue, and complex materials
  • Thermoscience engineering: the use of engineering to create, harness, and conserve energy

Undergraduate students are largely not expected to choose a specialty. Still, those who decide to go on to a graduate program should be prepared to focus on a particular area of mechanical engineering.

To learn more about programs in mechanical engineering, please visit our online mechanical engineering degree programs page.

The Present and Future of Mechanical Engineering

While the future is never certain, there are some emerging industry trends in mechanical engineering. For example, according to one survey of mechanical engineers working in their field, the most sought-after positions for mechanical engineers will be in energy, biomedicine, computers, electronics, water, and nanotechnology. This breadth of subjects suggests jobs will be fairly plentiful for knowledgable, experienced, and certified mechanical engineers.

However, with advancements in technology happening at such a rapid pace, it is impossible for an aspiring engineer to graduate from an academic program and receive all the cutting-edge knowledge and experience needed for their future. In order to succeed, mechanical engineers will have to find a way to continue their education and stay abreast of technological developments throughout their careers.

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