What is Mechanical Engineering?

Mechanical engineering is a diverse subject that derives its breadth from the need to design and manufacture everything from small individual parts and devices (e.g., microscale sensors and inkjet printer nozzles) to large systems (e.g., spacecraft and machine tools). The role of a mechanical engineer is to take a product from an idea to the marketplace. In order to accomplish this, a broad range of skills are needed. The mechanical engineer needs to acquire particular skills and knowledge. He/she needs to understand the forces and the thermal environment that a product, its parts, or its subsystems will encounter; to design them for functionality, aesthetics, and the ability to withstand the forces and the thermal environment they will be subjected to; and to determine the best way to manufacture them and ensure they will operate without failure. Perhaps the one skill that is the mechanical engineer’s exclusive domain is the ability to analyze and design objects and systems with motion.

Since these skills are required for virtually everything that is made, mechanical engineering is perhaps the broadest and most diverse of engineering disciplines. Mechanical engineers play a central role in such industries as automotive (from the car chassis to its every subsystem—engine, transmission, sensors); aerospace (airplanes, aircraft engines, control systems for airplanes and spacecraft); biotechnology (implants, prosthetic devices, fluidic systems for pharmaceutical industries); computers and electronics (disk drives, printers, cooling systems, semiconductor tools); microelectromechanical systems, or MEMS (sensors, actuators, micropower generation); energy conversion (gas turbines, wind turbines, solar energy, fuel cells); environmental control (HVAC, air-conditioning, refrigeration, compressors); automation (robots, data and image acquisition, recognition, control); manufacturing (machining, machine tools, prototyping, microfabrication).

To put it simply, mechanical engineering deals with anything that moves, including the human body, a very complex machine. Mechanical engineers learn about materials, solid and fluid mechanics, thermodynamics, heat transfer, control, instrumentation, design, and manufacturing to understand mechanical systems. Specialized mechanical engineering subjects include biomechanics, cartilage-tissue engineering, energy conversion, laser-assisted materials processing, combustion, MEMS, microfluidic devices, fracture mechanics, nanomechanics, mechanisms, micropower generation, tribology (friction and wear), and vibrations. The American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) currently lists 36 technical divisions, from advanced energy systems and aerospace engineering to solid-waste engineering and textile engineering.

The breadth of the mechanical engineering discipline allows students a variety of career options beyond some of the industries listed above. Regardless of the particular path they envision for themselves after they graduate, their education will have provided them with the creative thinking that allows them to design an exciting product or system, the analytical tools to achieve their design goals, the ability to overcome all constraints, and the teamwork needed to design, market, and produce a system. These valuable skills could also launch a career in medicine, law, consulting, management, banking, finance, and so on.

For those interested in applied scientific and mathematical aspects of the discipline, graduate study in mechanical engineering can lead to a career of research and teaching.


500 W. 120th St., Mudd 220, New York, NY 10027    212-854-2966           
©2012 Columbia University