Mechanical engineers are responsible for the design, manufacture, and proper maintenance of machines and mechanical systems. A machine is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “any device that transmits a force or directs its application,” but a less technical definition is that machines are simply anything that moves or has moving parts. When you consider just how much of our fast-moving world is dependent on these machines, broadly defined, it’s no wonder that this subfield of engineering has been critically important to society since the dawn of the Industrial Age.
Technology has come a long way since the earliest steam engines, of course. Today, mechanical engineers are creating incredibly complex machines to do work across a growing and diverse range of fields, from perennially important industries such as automotive and manufacturing to emerging high-tech areas like aeronautics, biotechnology, and robotics. Mechanical engineering is also shrinking in scale, designing microelectromechanical and even nanoelectromechanical devices and systems that may be invisible to us but are increasingly important to the latest technologies.
Regardless of the scale of the machines in question, the field of mechanical engineering requires core skills across several areas, including calculus, physics, fluid dynamics, thermodynamics, and more. This background, along with much more specialized knowledge in subject-specific areas, enables mechanical engineers to analyze the physical and environmental forces a machine will encounter during operation and then create designs to enable it to perform its function reliably.
If you are fascinated by how things work and want to build the useful machines of the future yourself, a background in mechanical engineering can be a gateway to an interesting and rewarding career. It also allows you to work in a wide range of industries, as technology creates possibilities for new and innovative solutions to problems in a growing range of areas.
For example, mechanical engineers may work in building services, designing elevator and escalator systems for residential and commercial spaces, conveyor belts and other materials transportation systems for factories, or environmental control systems in more specialized roles as heating and cooling systems engineers. Auto research engineers study ways to improve the fuel efficiency and performance of cars, through new types of suspensions and transmissions, more aerodynamic designs, and new fuels such as biofuels blends, electricity, and hydrogen. And the growing field of biomedical engineering is producing novel devices to address health issues, including nanoscale devices small enough to travel through blood vessels.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, mechanical engineering jobs typically require a bachelor’s degree, and mechanical engineers that sell services to the public must be licensed accordingly. These roles also generally pay well, with a median annual wage of $87,370. However, this median wage can vary significantly depending on what type of work you do; machinery manufacturing roles have a median annual wage of $80,310, while, at the high end, roles in scientific research and development services have a median annual wage of $99,870.
While mechanical engineering may sound like a field that requires hands-on learning, in practice it requires a deep background in theoretical foundations like calculus, physics, thermodynamics, fluid mechanics, and material science. Online courses are available on Coursera to help you build your background in the prerequisites of mechanical engineering as well as in more specialized subjects such as robotics, manufacturing, system design, and quantum mechanics.
The Coursera platform offers students the opportunity to learn mechanical engineering from top-ranked institutions like the Georgia Institute of Technology, University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Minnesota. And the ability to learn on a flexible schedule and at a lower cost than on-campus alternatives can help you fit online learning courses into your schedule as well as your budget - all without sacrificing the quality of your education.
People who like to build things and study how things move are best suited for roles in mechanical engineering. Mechanical engineers need to take into account not just how things are built but the environment where they will eventually operate. People with a background in math and physics are best suited for a career in mechanical engineering. Many mechanical engineers are part of a team of people with a common goal or project in mind, so it’s important that you can work well with others and employ problem-solving strategies.
Common career paths in mechanical engineering may lead some people to work for commercial or residential projects, while others may work in transportation, computer manufacturing, or scientific research. Mechanical engineers are responsible for building parts of a machine, so many career paths involve designing, manufacturing, and testing parts of a system.
People interested in renewable energy may wish to explore topics that cover wind energy, solar energy design, green building, and the future of electric energies. Topics that explore CAD and digital manufacturing will teach learners the fundamentals of 3D printing. For those interested in exploring more 3D printing techniques, topics in 3D printing applications, including 3D printing software and hardware, can give learners the tools they need to move their 2D drawings to 3D. For those interested in motion planning and robotics, topics explaining aerial robotics can help learners understand the role drones play in the world today and in the future.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, most mechanical engineers work in architectural and engineering firms. People with a background in mechanical engineering can work in the public or private sector and often work in teams. Some places hire people with a background in mechanical engineering to work in research and development, while other firms may hire people to troubleshoot or make repairs in the field.