What Is Mechanical Engineering?

Technically, mechanical engineering is the application of the principles and problem-solving techniques of engineering from design to manufacturing to the marketplace for any object. Mechanical engineers analyze their work using the principles of motion, energy, and force — ensuring that designs function safely, efficiently, and reliably, all at a competitive cost.

Mechanical engineers make a difference. That’s because mechanical engineering careers center on creating technologies to meet human needs. Virtually every product or service in modern life has probably been touched in some way by a mechanical engineer to help humankind. 

This includes solving today’s problems and creating future solutions in health care, energy, transportation, world hunger, space exploration, climate change, and more.

Being ingrained in many challenges and innovations across many fields means a mechanical engineering education is versatile. To meet this broad demand, mechanical engineers may design a component, a machine, a system, or a process.  This ranges from the macro to the micro, from the largest systems like cars and satellites to the smallest components like sensors and switches. Anything that needs to be manufactured — indeed, anything with moving parts — needs the expertise of a mechanical engineer.  

Parts drawing and gear

What do mechanical engineers do?

Mechanical engineering combines creativity, knowledge and analytical tools to complete the difficult task of shaping an idea into reality.

This transformation happens at the personal scale, affecting human lives on a level we can reach out and touch like robotic prostheses. It happens on the local scale, affecting people in community-level spaces, like with agile interconnected microgrids. And it happens on bigger scales, like with advanced power systems, through engineering that operates nationwide or across the globe. 

Mechanical engineers have an enormous range of opportunity and their education mirrors this breadth of subjects. Students concentrate on one area while strengthening analytical and problem-solving skills applicable to any engineering situation. 

Disciplines within mechanical engineering include but are not limited to:

  • Acoustics
  • Aerospace
  • Automation
  • Automotive
  • Autonomous Systems
  • Biotechnology
  • Composites
  • Computer Aided Design (CAD)
  • Control Systems
  • Cyber security
  • Design
  • Energy
  • Ergonomics
  • Human health
  • Manufacturing and additive manufacturing
  • Mechanics
  • Nanotechnology
  • Production planning
  • Robotics
  • Structural analysis

Technology itself has also shaped how mechanical engineers work and the suite of tools has grown quite powerful in recent decades. Computer-aided engineering (CAE) is an umbrella term that covers everything from typical CAD techniques to computer-aided manufacturing to computer-aided engineering, involving finite element analysis (FEA) and computational fluid dynamics (CFD). These tools and others have further broadened the horizons of mechanical engineering.

Robotics machine

What careers are there in mechanical engineering?

Society depends on mechanical engineering. The need for this expertise is great in so many fields, and as such, there is no real limit for the freshly minted mechanical engineer. Jobs are always in demand, particularly in the automotive, aerospace, electronics, biotechnology, and energy industries. 

Here are a handful of mechanical engineering fields.

In statics, research focuses on how forces are transmitted to and throughout a structure. Once a system is in motion, mechanical engineers look at dynamics, or what velocities, accelerations and resulting forces come into play. Kinematics then examines how a mechanism behaves as it moves through its range of motion. 

Materials science delves into determining the best materials for different applications. A part of that is materials strength — testing support loads, stiffness, brittleness and other properties — which is essential for many construction, automobile, and medical materials. 

How energy gets converted into useful power is the heart of thermodynamics, as well as determining what energy is lost in the process. One specific kind of energy, heat transfer, is crucial in many applications and requires gathering and analyzing temperature data and distributions. 

Fluid mechanics, which also has a variety of applications, looks at many properties including pressure drops from fluid flow and aerodynamic drag forces.

Manufacturing is an important step in mechanical engineering. Within the field, researchers investigate the best processes to make manufacturing more efficient. Laboratory methods focus on improving how to measure both thermal and mechanical engineering products and processes. Likewise, machine design develops equipment-scale processes while electrical engineering focuses on circuitry. All this equipment produces vibrations, another field of mechanical engineering, in which researchers study how to predict and control vibrations.   

Engineering economics makes mechanical designs relevant and usable in the real world by estimating manufacturing and life cycle costs of materials, designs, and other engineered products. 

Worker in a machine shop

What skills do mechanical engineers need?

The essence of engineering is problem solving. With this at its core, mechanical engineering also requires applied creativity — a hands on understanding of the work involved — along with strong interpersonal skills like networking, leadership, and conflict management. Creating a product is only part of the equation; knowing how to work with people, ideas, data, and economics fully makes a mechanical engineer.

What tasks do mechanical engineers do?

Careers in mechanical engineering call for a variety of tasks.

  • Conceptual design
  • Analysis
  • Presentations and report writing
  • Multidisciplinary teamwork
  • Concurrent engineering
  • Benchmarking the competition
  • Project management
  • Prototyping
  • Testing
  • Measurements
  • Data Interpretation
  • Developmental design
  • Research
  • Analysis (FEA and CFD)
  • Working with suppliers
  • Sales
  • Consulting
  • Customer service
A mechanical engineer working in a lab

How much do mechanical engineers earn?

Like careers in many other engineering fields, mechanical engineers are well paid. Compared to other fields, mechanical engineers earn well above average throughout each stage of their careers. According to salary.com, the median starting salary for a Mechanical Engineer I in the United States is just under $63,000, with the top ten percent earning close to $75,000.

The future of mechanical engineering 

Breakthroughs in materials and analytical tools have opened new frontiers for mechanical engineers. Nanotechnology, biotechnology, composites, computational fluid dynamics (CFD), and acoustical engineering have all expanded the mechanical engineering toolbox. 

Nanotechnology allows for the engineering of materials on the smallest of scales. With the ability to design and manufacture down to the elemental level, the possibilities for objects grows immensely. Composites are another area where the manipulation of materials allows for new manufacturing opportunities. By combining materials with different characteristics in innovative ways, the best of each material can be employed and new solutions found. CFD gives mechanical engineers the opportunity to study complex fluid flows analyzed with algorithms. This allows for the modeling of situations that would previously have been impossible. Acoustical engineering examines vibration and sound, providing the opportunity to reduce noise in devices and increase efficiency in everything from biotechnology to architecture. 

Mechanical Engineering at Michigan Tech

Mechanical Engineering Undergraduate Programs

Our Bachelor of Science Degree

The bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering at Michigan Tech offers undergraduate students many unique, hands-on learning opportunities: 

Undergraduate Research Opportunities

Undergraduate research opportunities are plentiful. Our department offers undergraduate students numerous opportunities in research, hands-on experience, and real-world client work. Research projects often require help from students for running simulations, taking data, analyzing results, etc. These opportunities may even be paid, depending on the availability of funds on the particular project. Take advantage of over 50,000 square feet of labs and computer centers, in the 13-story R. L. Smith Mechanical Engineering-Engineering Mechanics Building. 

Real-World Experience

Get ready to contribute on the job from day one. Our students benefit from hands-on experiences ranging from our senior capstone design program to our enterprise teams to internships/co-ops. As a mechanical engineer, you can make a difference in the world by using the latest technologies to help solve today’s grand challenges.

ABET Accreditation

Our undergraduate mechanical engineering program is ABET Accredited. ABET accreditation is a significant achievement. We have worked hard to ensure that our program meets the quality standards set by the profession. And, because it requires comprehensive, periodic evaluations, ABET accreditation demonstrates our continuing commitment to the quality of our program—both now and in the future. 

Prepare for Graduate Study

Our undergraduate program in mechanical engineering prepares you for advanced study in the field.  Earn your M.S. and/or Ph.D. degrees in mechanical engineering, engineer mechanics, or a related field either at Michigan Tech or at another university.