What Do Engineers Do?
Engineers: They're Math Ninjas, Science Samurais, and More
You say "engineer" and I say "math ninja."
You say "engineer" and I say "logical thinker" and "creative problem solver."
You say "engineer" and I say "science samurai."
Yep, you've got that right. Thank heaven for engineers—wonderful, under-appreciated, and (let's be honest here) well-paid engineers.
If you value the efficiencies and conveniences of your modern life, you can thank engineers. Many of us, however, are barely aware of the sheer value of their contributions. We don't know what engineers actually do.
So What Is an Engineer?
If you look in a textbook for a simple explanation of what engineers do, you're likely to find a definition similar to this one:
Engineers creatively apply scientific and technological principles to
- design or develop structures, machines, equipment, or apparatuses, or
- improve manufacturing or other processes.
What this really means is that engineers find creative ways to take science out of the lab and apply it in ways so that you and I can benefit. They apply their scientific knowledge to solve problems.
Engineering is about creating things. Whether it is traditional, physical buildings — from bridges and robots to power transmission systems and race cars — or a 'virtual' product like Facebook or an iPhone app, engineering requires you to conceive of something that doesn’t yet exist, and then make it happen. ... It’s about inventing, creating, and building.— Mikell Taylor, Robotics Engineer
Engineers design and develop
- the tools that entertain and connect us with one another
- the technologies that keep us safe and comfortable
- the systems that transport us across town or to elsewhere in our galaxy
- the devices that help detect, monitor, and treat illness and injury and enhance our quality of life
- the structures that shelter us, and
- the processes that deliver electricity, fossil fuels, and every other type of energy to power our modern lives.
Engineers Make Products and Processes . . .
more energy efficient
less variable (more consistent)
less harmful to the environment
more cost effective
Examples of Engineers' Impact on Society
Engineers have helped to create . . .
social media platforms like Facebook and LinkedIn
plant-based textiles and bio-plastics
3D printing of animatronics, prosthetic limbs and artificial organs
post-consumer recycled paper and greener packaging technologies
our transportation infrastructure
the electrical grid and its energy alternatives
clean, safe drinking water
robots that perform IED (improvised explosive device) disposal
tele-robots that locate people after disasters, perform surgeries, or work underwater to turn off a valve (e.g., on an oil rig)
alternative energy sources for automobiles (e.g, high energy, rechargeable batteries)
cardio-pulmonary stethoscope to predict heart failure
more durable asphalt and greener concrete
structures that are resistant to high wind, earthquakes, etc.
space travel and underwater exploration
Why Study Engineering? Several Fortune 500 CEOs Weigh In
Civil Engineers: Building Our Future
Who designs roller coasters that are not only structurally sound but also provide the adrenaline rush that amusement park goers seek?
And who can we rely on to design buildings that resist the damage of natural disasters such as earthquakes, hurricanes, and floods?
Civil engineers are the masterminds who plan, design, and oversee construction and maintenance of public and private-owned infrastructure and public works, including:
- buildings and power plants
- roads, tunnels, railways, and bridges
- water supply and sewage systems
- airports and
- levees, ports, dams and reservoirs.
Can you imagine going about your daily life without the life-affirming impact of civil engineers?
On a day-to-day basis, the job relies heavily upon analytical and problem solving skills, particularly in the project planning phase. During project planning, civil engineers review survey reports, maps, blueprints, aerial photography, and other topographical or geologic data.
They also typically
- direct and participate in surveying in advance of construction
- perform tests on soils and building materials, and
- assemble cost estimates and submit compliance documents such as deeds, environmental impact statements, or property and right-of-way descriptions.
Given the particularly critical nature of the nation's transportation infrastructure, the career outlook for civil engineers is very positive.
Mechanical Engineers: Engineers in Motion
If you couldn't do without your automobile, air conditioning, or smart phone, you owe a debt of gratitude to mechanical engineers (among others) who make these technologies a reality.
Mechanical engineering is one of the broadest engineering disciplines, as well as one of the largest and oldest. Mechanical engineers create and build mechanical devices, often helping to take a product from concept to marketplace.
Their expertise comes from a knowledge of mechanical systems as well as the following:
- solid and fluid mechanics
- heat transfer
- design, and
On a day-to-day basis mechanical engineers may
- Analyze blueprints, technical drawings and schematics.
- Structurally design products.
- Troubleshoot manufacturing problems. Investigate system, equipment, or product failures.
- Recommend and implement design modifications/improvements.
- Document design details.
Chemical Engineers: Delivering Solutions
What do each of the following have in common?
- gasoline and biofuel
- vaccines and antibiotics
- plastics and adhesives and
- the catalytic converter.
Chemical engineers made each of these innovations possible.
Chemical engineering is a remarkable profession. It can take the smallest of discoveries in laboratories — from all fields of science and technology — and replicate them on a mass scale, consistently and economically.— David Brown, IChemE's Chief Executive
From biotechnology to pulp and paper ... from chemical processing to energy ... from food and beverages to electronics ... chemical engineers are employed in a broad range of industries. In general terms, chemical engineering is concerned with
- how to combine or separate chemicals to achieve an intended result
- how to store, transport and handle chemicals safely and
- how to recycle or dispose of them.
On a day-to-day basis, chemical engineers apply their knowledge of physics, chemistry and engineering principles to solve a variety of problems. For example, they may:
- develop safety procedures for employees who work with chemical processes
- troubleshoot chemical manufacturing processes
- perform chemical testing to monitor performance throughout the production process
- evaluate the chemical manufacturing process for compliance and
- research and implement process improvement recommendations.
Electrical Engineers: They Get a Charge out of Their Careers
Electrical engineers are the brainiacs behind a variety of electrically powered products and systems. They design and develop equipment that supplies, generates or transmits electricity. If you appreciate the following, you can thank electrical engineers:
- lighting and wiring in buildings
- radar and navigation systems
- broadcast and communications systems
- electric motors
- machinery controls and
- power generation and transmission equipment, such as that used by electric utilities.
On a day-to-day basis, electrical engineers may:
- plan electrical circuits and wiring
- test electrical products, installations, and systems to diagnose and correct malfunctions
- make design improvements
- oversee electrical maintenance and
- design, develop, test, and supervise electrical equipment manufacturing.
Want to Know More? Additional Engineering Resources
Need to know what the needed knowledge, skills, abilities, and other characteristics are for an occupation? This large database provides a career outlook, as well as a job description, wages, related occupations, and links to actual job openings.
These professional organizations can help you gain insight into the types of projects, priorities, resources, and technological advances that are relevant to the engineering discipline. Student memberships may also be available.
- American Society of Civil Engineers
- American Institute of Chemical Engineers
- Institution of Chemical Engineers
- American Society of Mechanical Engineers
- Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
This government resource describes pay rates and where the highest concentration of jobs are in the United States for engineers.
Funny Tidbit: Engineers Make Upgrades Everywhere They Go
An engineer dies and reports to the pearly gates. St. Peter checks his dossier and says, "Ah, you're an engineer. I'm sorry, but you're in the wrong place."
So, the engineer reports to the gates of Hell and is welcomed in. Pretty soon, the engineer gets dissatisfied with the level of comfort in Hell and begins designing and building improvements. After awhile, they've got air conditioning, flush toilets, and escalators. Obviously, the engineer is a pretty popular guy.
One day, God calls Satan up on the telephone and says with a sneer, "So, how's it going down there in Hell?"
Satan replies, "Hey, things are going great. We've got air conditioning and flush toilets and escalators. There's no telling what this engineer is going to come up with next."
God replies, "What?!? You've got an engineer? That's a mistake—he should never have gotten down there; send him back up here immediately."
Satan says, "No way. I like having an engineer on staff, and I'm keeping him."
God says, "Send him back up here or I'll sue."
Satan laughs uproariously and answers, "Yeah, right. And just where are YOU going to get a lawyer?"
“Scientists dream about doing great things. Engineers do them.”
—James A. Michener, American author
"What we usually consider as impossible are simply engineering problems ... there's no law of physics preventing them."
—Michio Kaku, American theoretical physicist
"The walls between art and engineering exist only in our minds."
—Theo Jansen, Dutch artist
"The story of civilization is, in a sense, a story of engineering -- that long and arduous struggle to make the forces of nature work for man's good."
—Lyon Sprague de Camp, American science fiction writer
"Science can amuse and fascinate us all, but it is engineering that changes the world."
—Isaac Asimov, American author
"Scientists study the world as it is, engineers create the world that never has been."
—Theodore von Karman, Hungarian-American NASA engineer
"The scientist discovers a new type of material or energy and the engineer discovers a new use for it."
—Gordon Lindsay Glegg, Scottish mechanical engineer
"This is not the age of pamphleteers. It is the age of engineers. The spark-gap is mightier than the pen. Democracy will not be salvaged by men who talk fluently, debate forcefully and quote aptly."
—Lancelot Hogben, British zoologist
"There can be little doubt that in many ways the story of bridge building is the story of civilisation. By it we can readily measure an important part of a people’s progress."
—Franklin D. Roosevelt, 32nd U.S. President
You and an engineer will be banished to a deserted island. You can choose what type of engineer you will take with you. Which will it be? (Tell us why in the Comments Section below!)
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
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