It requires a solid understanding of core concepts including mechanics, kinematics, thermodynamics and energy. Mechanical engineers use the core principles as well as other knowledge in the field to design and analyze motor vehicles, aircraft, heating and cooling systems, watercraft, manufacturing plants, industrial equipment and machinery, robotics, medical devices and more.
Applications of mechanical engineering are found in the records of many ancient and medieval societies throughout the globe. In ancient Greece, the works of Archimedes (287 BC–212 BC) and Heron of Alexandria (10–70 AD) deeply influenced mechanics in the Western tradition. In China, Zhang Heng (78–139 AD) improved a water clock and invented a seismometer, and Ma Jun (200–265 AD) invented a chariot with differential gears. The medieval Chinese horologist and engineer Su Song (1020–1101 AD) incorporated an escapement mechanism into his astronomical clock tower two centuries before any escapement could be found in clocks of medieval Europe, as well as the world's first known endless power-transmitting chain drive.
During the years from 7th to 15th century, the era called islamic golden age, there have been remarkable contributions from muslims in the field of mechanical technology, Al Jaziri, who was one of them wrote his famous "Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices" in 1206 presented many mechanical designs. He is also considered to be the inventor of such mechaincal devices which now form the very basic of mechanisms, such as crank and cam shafts. During the early 19th century in England and Scotland, the development of machine tools led mechanical engineering to develop as a separate field within engineering, providing manufacturing machines and the engines to power them. The first British professional society of mechanical engineers was formed in 1847, thirty years after civil engineers formed the first such professional society. In the United States, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) was formed in 1880, becoming the third such professional engineering society, after the American Society of Civil Engineers (1852) and the American Institute of Mining Engineers (1871). The first schools in the United States to offer an engineering education were the United States Military Academy in 1817, an institution now known as Norwich University in 1819, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1825. Education in mechanical engineering has historically been based on a strong foundation in mathematics and science.
Field of mechanical engineering is normally considered broadest of all engineering desciplines. Work of mechanical engineering can be seen from the bottom of the oceans to the farthest boundaries of space which man has ever been able to reach.
In the U.S., most undergraduate mechanical engineering programs are accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) to ensure similar course requirements and standards among universities. The ABET web site lists 276 accredited mechanical engineering programs as of June 19, 2006. Mechanical engineering programs in Canada are accredited by the Canadian Engineering Accreditation Board (CEAB), and most other countries offering engineering degrees have similar accreditation societies.
Some mechanical engineers go on to pursue a postgraduate degree such as a Master of Engineering, Master of Science, Master of Engineering Management (MEng.Mgt or MEM), a Doctor of Philosophy in engineering (EngD, PhD) or an engineer's degree. The master's and engineer's degrees may or may not include research. The Doctor of Philosophy includes a significant research component and is often viewed as the entry point to academia.
Mechanical engineers are also expected to understand and be able to apply basic concepts from chemistry, chemical engineering, electrical engineering, civil engineering, and physics. Most mechanical engineering programs include several semesters of calculus, as well as advanced mathematical concepts which may include differential equations and partial differential equations, linear and modern algebra, and differential geometry, among others.
In addition to the core mechanical engineering curriculum, many mechanical engineering programs offer more specialized programs and classes, such as robotics, transport and logistics, cryogenics, fuel technology, automotive engineering, biomechanics, vibration, optics and others, if a separate department does not exist for these subjects.
Most mechanical engineering programs also require varying amounts of research or community projects to gain practical problem-solving experience. Mechanical engineering students usually hold one or more internships while studying, though this is not typically mandated by the university.
In the U.S., to become a licensed Professional Engineer, an engineer must pass the comprehensive FE (Fundamentals of Engineering) exam, work a given number of years as an Engineering Intern (EI) or Engineer-in-Training (EIT), and finally pass the "Principles and Practice" or PE (Practicing Engineer or Professional Engineer) exam.
In the United States, the requirements and steps of this process are set forth by the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES), a national non-profit representing all states. In the UK, current graduates require a MSc, MEng or BEng (Hons) in order to become chartered through the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.
In most modern countries, certain engineering tasks, such as the design of bridges, electric power plants, and chemical plants, must be approved by a Professional Engineer or a Chartered Engineer. "Only a licensed engineer, for instance, may prepare, sign, seal and submit engineering plans and drawings to a public authority for approval, or to seal engineering work for public and private clients. This requirement can be written into state and provincial legislation, such as Quebec's Engineer Act. In other countries, such as Australia, no such legislation exists; however, practically all certifying bodies maintain a code of ethics independent of legislation that they expect all members to abide by or risk expulsion.
The total number of engineers employed in the U.S. in 2004 was roughly 1.4 million. Of these, 226,000 were mechanical engineers (15.6%), second only to civil engineers in size at 237,000 (16.4%). The total number of mechanical engineering jobs in 2004 was projected to grow 9% to 17%, with average starting salaries being $50,236 with a bachelor's degree, $59,880 with a master's degree, and $68,299 with a doctorate degree. This places mechanical engineering at 8th of 14 among engineering bachelors degrees, 4th of 11 among masters degrees, and 6th of 7 among doctorate degrees in average annual salary. The median annual income of mechanical engineers in the U.S. workforce is roughly $63,000. This number is highest when working for the government ($72,500), and lowest when doing general purpose machinery manufacturing in the private sector ($55,850).
Canadian engineers make an average of $29.83 per hour with 4% unemployed. The average for all occupations is $18.07 per hour with 7% unemployed. Twelve percent of these engineers are self-employed, and since 1997 the proportion of female engineers has risen to 6%.
Other CAE programs commonly used by mechanical engineers include product lifecycle management (PLM) tools and analysis tools used to perform complex simulations. Analysis tools may be used to predict product response to expected loads, including fatigue life and manufacturability. These tools include finite element analysis (FEA), computational fluid dynamics (CFD), and computer-aided manufacturing (CAM).
Using CAE programs, a mechanical design team can quickly and cheaply iterate the design process to develop a product that better meets cost, performance, and other constraints. No physical prototype need be created until the design nears completion, allowing hundreds or thousands of designs to be evaluated, instead of a relative few. In addition, CAE analysis programs can model complicated physical phenomena which cannot be solved by hand, such as viscoelasticity, complex contact between mating parts, or non-Newtonian flows
As mechanical engineering begins to merge with other disciplines, as seen in mechatronics, multidisciplinary design optimization (MDO) is being used with other CAE programs to automate and improve the iterative design process. MDO tools wrap around existing CAE processes, allowing product evaluation to continue even after the analyst goes home for the day. They also utilize sophisticated optimization algorithms to more intelligently explore possible designs, often finding better, innovative solutions to difficult multidisciplinary design problems.
Mechanics is, in the most general sense, the study of forces and their effect upon matter. Typically, engineering mechanics is used to analyze and predict the acceleration and deformation (both elastic and plastic) of objects under known forces (also called loads) or stresses. Subdisciplines of mechanics include
Mechanical engineers typically use mechanics in the design or analysis phases of engineering. If the engineering project were the design of a vehicle, statics might be employed to design the frame of the vehicle, in order to evaluate where the stresses will be most intense. Dynamics might be used when designing the car's engine, to evaluate the forces in the pistons and cams as the engine cycles. Mechanics of materials might be used to choose appropriate materials for the frame and engine. Fluid mechanics might be used to design a ventilation system for the vehicle (see HVAC), or to design the intake system for the engine.
Mechanical engineers typically use kinematics in the design and analysis of mechanisms. Kinematics can be used to find the possible range of motion for a given mechanism, or, working in reverse, can be used to design a mechanism that has a desired range of motion.
Mechatronics is an interdisciplinary branch of mechanical engineering, electrical engineering and software engineering that is concerned with integrating electrical and mechanical engineering to create hybrid systems. In this way, machines can be automated through the use of electric motors, servo-mechanisms, and other electrical systems in conjunction with special software. A common example of a mechatronics system is a CD-ROM drive. Mechanical systems open and close the drive, spin the CD and move the laser, while an optical system reads the data on the CD and converts it to bits. Integrated software controls the process and communicates the contents of the CD to the computer.
Robotics is the application of mechatronics to create robots, which are often used in industry to perform tasks that are dangerous, unpleasant, or repetitive. These robots may be of any shape and size, but all are preprogrammed and interact physically with the world. To create a robot, an engineer typically employs kinematics (to determine the robot's range of motion) and mechanics (to determine the stresses within the robot).
Robots are used extensively in industrial engineering. They allow businesses to save money on labor, perform tasks that are either too dangerous or too precise for humans to perform them economically, and to insure better quality. Many companies employ assembly lines of robots, and some factories are so robotized that they can run by themselves. Outside the factory, robots have been employed in bomb disposal, space exploration, and many other fields. Robots are also sold for various residential applications.
Structural analysis is the branch of mechanical engineering (and also civil engineering) devoted to examining why and how objects fail. Structural failures occur in two general modes: static failure, and fatigue failure. Static structural failure occurs when, upon being loaded (having a force applied) the object being analyzed either breaks or is deformed plastically, depending on the criterion for failure. Fatigue failure occurs when an object fails after a number of repeated loading and unloading cycles. Fatigue failure occurs because of imperfections in the object: a microscopic crack on the surface of the object, for instance, will grow slightly with each cycle (propagation) until the crack is large enough to cause ultimate failure.
Failure is not simply defined as when a part breaks, however; it is defined as when a part does not operate as intended. Some systems, such as the perforated top sections of some plastic bags, are designed to break. If these systems do not break, failure analysis might be employed to determine the cause.
Structural analysis is often used by mechanical engineers after a failure has occurred, or when designing to prevent failure. Engineers often use online documents and books such as those published by ASM to aid them in determining the type of failure and possible causes.
Structural analysis may be used in the office when designing parts, in the field to analyze failed parts, or in laboratories where parts might undergo controlled failure tests.
Thermodynamics is an applied science used in several branches of engineering, including mechanical and chemical engineering. At its simplest, thermodynamics is the study of energy, its use and transformation through a system. Typically, engineering thermodynamics is concerned with changing energy from one form to another. As an example, automotive engines convert chemical energy (enthalpy) from the fuel into heat, and then into mechanical work that eventually turns the wheels.
Thermodynamics principles are used by mechanical engineers in the fields of heat transfer, thermofluids, and energy conversion. Mechanical engineers use thermo-science to design engines and power plants, heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems, heat exchangers, heat sinks, radiators, refrigeration, insulation, and others.
Drafting or technical drawing is the means by which mechanical engineers create instructions for manufacturing parts. A technical drawing can be a computer model or hand-drawn schematic showing all the dimensions necessary to manufacture a part, as well as assembly notes, a list of required materials, and other pertinent information. A U.S. mechanical engineer or skilled worker who creates technical drawings may be referred to as a drafter or draftsman. Drafting has historically been a two-dimensional process, but computer-aided design (CAD) programs now allow the designer to create in three dimensions.
Instructions for manufacturing a part must be fed to the necessary machinery, either manually, through programmed instructions, or through the use of a computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) or combined CAD/CAM program. Optionally, an engineer may also manually manufacture a part using the technical drawings, but this is becoming an increasing rarity, with the advent of computer numerically controlled (CNC) manufacturing. Engineers primarily manually manufacture parts in the areas of applied spray coatings, finishes, and other processes that cannot economically or practically be done by a machine.
Drafting is used in nearly every subdiscipline of mechanical engineering, and by many other branches of engineering and architecture. Three-dimensional models created using CAD software are also commonly used in finite element analysis (FEA) and computational fluid dynamics (CFD).
Composites or composite materials are a combination of materials which provide different physical characteristics than either material separately. Composite material research within mechanical engineering typically focuses on designing (and, subsequently, finding applications for) stronger or more rigid materials while attempting to reduce weight, susceptibility to corrosion, and other undesirable factors. Carbon fiber reinforced composites, for instance, have been used in such diverse applications as spacecraft and fishing rods.
Mechatronics is the synergistic combination of mechanical engineering, electronic engineering, and software engineering. The purpose of this interdisciplinary engineering field is the study of automata from an engineering perspective and serves the purposes of controlling advanced hybrid systems.