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Mechanical Engineering Overview - The Field - Preparation -
Day in the Life
- Earnings - Employment - Development - Career Path Forecast - Professional Organizations 

The Field
Mechanics, energy and heat, mathematics, engineering sciences, design and manufacturing form the foundation of mechanical engineering. Mechanics includes fluids, ranging from still water to hypersonic gases flowing around a space vehicle; it involves the motion of anything from a particle to a machine or complex structure.

Analysis, design, and synthesis are the key functions of mechanical engineers. The question is often how devices and processes actually work. The first step is to visualize what is happening and clearly state the problem. A mechanical engineer will then use computer-based modeling, simulation, and visualization techniques to test different solutions.

Design is one of the most satisfying jobs for a mechanical engineer. To design and build a new car, you must reckon with power, weight, size and shape, materials, reliability, and safety. "Synthesis" is when you pull all the factors together in a design that can be successfully manufactured. Design problems are challenging because most are open-ended, without a single or best answer. There is no best mousetrap -- just better ones.

The field is notable for emphasizing versatility. A mechanical engineering education is an excellent foundation for work in other fields. Some mechanical engineers work on medical problems, such as the mechanics of bones and joints, or the fluid dynamics of the circulatory system. Mechanical engineers deal with economic issues, from the cost of a single component, to the economic impact of a manufacturing plant. M.E.'s can be found in sales, engineering management, and corporate management. Versatility is a decided asset in a world that is undergoing constant economic, political, industrial, and social change. Mechanical engineers are educated and positioned, not only to adapt, but to define and direct change.

The diversity of the field of mechanical engineering is represented in the following areas of involvement.

Basic Engineering
Fundamentally, mechanical engineers are involved with the mechanics of motion and the transfer of energy from one form to another or one place to another. Mechanical engineers design and build machines for industrial and consumer use -- virtually any machine you find, had a mechanical engineer involved with its development and production. They design heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems to control the climate in homes, offices, and industrial plants, and develop refrigeration systems for the food industry. Mechanical engineers also design heat exchangers, key components in high-tech mechanical and electronic computer equipment. 

Energy Conversion
We live in a world of dependent on the production and conversion of energy into useful forms. Mechanical engineers are involved in all aspects of the production and conversion of energy from one form to another. We design and operate fossil fuel, hydroelectric, conventional, nuclear and cogeneration power plants. We design and develop internal combustion engines for automobiles, trucks and marine use and also for electrical power generation.

Energy Resources
Mechanical engineers are experts on the conversion and use of existing energy sources and in developing the equipment needed to process and transport fuels . At the same time, mechanical engineers are active in finding and developing new forms of energy. In that effort, mechanical engineers deal with the production of energy from alternate sources, such as solar, geothermal, and wind.

Engineering & Technology Management
Working in project teams is a way of life for mechanical engineers. Deciding which projects to undertake and leading those projects to a successful conclusion is the job of experienced engineers who move into management. On the safety front, all projects involve safety issues. By its very nature mechanical engineering involves the harnessing and channeling of the forces of nature, forces which are often extremely powerful. Consider the contained "explosion" that inflates an automobile air bag or the mechanical forces involved in bringing an airplane load of people to a safe and comfortable landing, or the safety and reliability of an elevator, a power plant, or an incubator for pre-maturely born infants.

Environment & Transportation
Transportation is a large and growing field for mechanical engineers. Existing modes of air and surface transport require continuous improvement or replacement. Mechanical engineers work at the cutting edge of these efforts. Wherever machines are made or used, you will find mechanical engineers. They are instrumental in the design, development and manufacturing of machines that transmit power. They are also critically involved with the environmental impact and fuel efficiency of the machines they develop and with any by-products of the fuels used to power those machines. 

In contemporary manufacturing companies, mechanical engineers play a key role in the "realization" of products, working closely with other engineers and specialists in corporate management, finance, marketing, and packaging. Mechanical engineers design products, select materials and processes, and convert them to finished products. They design and manufacture machine tools -- literally the machines that make machines and design entire manufacturing processes, aided by the latest technologies in automation and robotics. Finally, the finished products are transported in equipment designed by mechanical engineers. This is the largest area of employment for mechanical engineers, especially when the process and textile industries are included. A finished product requires the right materials, a viable plant and equipment, and a manufacturing system. This all comes within the purview of mechanical, manufacturing and industrial engineers.

Materials & Structures
In order to arrive at the best design for a product, mechanical engineers use a wide variety of metal, plastic, ceramic materials. They also use composites made up of more than one type of material. Once designed, built and in service, elements like pipeline welds and sections, gears and other drive-train elements may need inspection for structural integrity or the effects of mechanical wear. Non-Destructive Evaluation, as its name implies, allows mechanical engineers to use X-ray, magnetic particle, ultrasound and other techniques to examine the internal condition of structural and machine parts, without causing them to fail or without removing them from service. This analysis is particularly important in assuring the reliability and safety of pressure vessels and piping systems. 

Systems & Design
Most mechanical engineers work in the design and control of mechanical, electromechanical and fluid power systems. As a mechanical engineer functioning as a design engineer it is likely that you would be involved with one or more technical specialties, for example: Robotic System Design; Computer Coordinated Mechanisms; Expert Systems in Design; Computer-Aided Engineering; Geometric Design; Design Optimization; Kinematics and Dynamics of Mechanisms; Cam Design/Gear Design; Power Transmission; or Design of Machine Elements. Design engineers take into account a truly wide number of factors in the course of their work, such as: product performance, cost, safety, manufacturability, serviceability, human factors, aesthetic appearance, durability, reliability, environmental impact and recycleability.

Note: Some resources in this section are provided by ASME and the US Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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