Mechanical engineering is the discipline that applies engineering, physics, engineering mathematics, and materials science principles to design, analyze, manufacture, and maintain mechanical systems. It is one of the oldest and broadest of the engineering disciplines.
The mechanical engineering field requires an understanding of core areas including mechanics, dynamics, thermodynamics, materials science, structural analysis, and electricity. In addition to these core principles, mechanical engineers use tools such as computer-aided design (CAD), computer-aided manufacturing (CAM), and product life cycle management to design and analyze manufacturing plants, industrial equipment and machinery, heating and cooling systems, transport systems, aircraft, watercraft, robotics, medical devices, weapons, and others. It is the branch of engineering that involves the design, production, and operation of machinery.
Mechanical engineering emerged as a field during the Industrial Revolution in Europe in the 18th century; however, its development can be traced back several thousand years around the world. In the 19th century, developments in physics led to the development of mechanical engineering science. The field has continually evolved to incorporate advancements; today mechanical engineers are pursuing developments in such areas as composites, mechatronics, and nanotechnology. It also overlaps with aerospace engineering, metallurgical engineering, civil engineering, electrical engineering, manufacturing engineering, chemical engineering, industrial engineering, and other engineering disciplines to varying amounts. Mechanical engineers may also work in the field of biomedical engineering, specifically with biomechanics, transport phenomena, biomechatronics, bionanotechnology, and modelling of biological systems.
The fundamental subjects of mechanical engineering usually include:
Mathematics (in particular, calculus, differential equations, and linear algebra)
Basic physical sciences (including physics and chemistry)
Statics and dynamics
Strength of materials and solid mechanics
Materials engineering, Composites
Thermodynamics, heat transfer, energy conversion, and HVAC
Fuels, combustion, Internal combustion engine
Fluid mechanics (including fluid statics and fluid dynamics)
Mechanism and Machine design (including kinematics and dynamics)
Instrumentation and measurement
Manufacturing engineering, technology, or processes
Vibration, control theory and control engineering
Hydraulics, and pneumatics
Mechatronics, and robotics
Engineering design and product design
Drafting, computer-aided design (CAD) and computer-aided manufacturing (CAM)
Mechanical engineers are also expected to understand and be able to apply basic concepts from chemistry, physics, chemical engineering, civil engineering, and electrical engineering. All mechanical engineering programs include multiple semesters of mathematical classes including calculus, and advanced mathematical concepts including differential equations, partial differential equations, linear algebra, abstract algebra, and differential geometry, among others.
In addition to the core mechanical engineering curriculum, we offer more specialized services, such as control systems, robotics, transport and logistics, cryogenics, fuel technology, automotive engineering, biomechanics, vibration analysis, optics and others.
The field of mechanical engineering can be thought of as a collection of many mechanical engineering science disciplines. Several of these subdisciplines which are typically taught at the undergraduate level are listed below, with a brief explanation and the most common application of each. Some of these subdisciplines are unique to mechanical engineering, while others are a combination of mechanical engineering and one or more other disciplines. Most work that a mechanical engineer does uses skills and techniques from several of these subdisciplines, as well as specialized subdisciplines. Specialized subdisciplines, as used in this article, are more likely to be the subject of graduate studies or on-the-job training than undergraduate research. Several specialized subdisciplines are discussed in this section.
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
- Statics, the study of non-moving bodies under known loads, how forces affect static bodies
- Dynamics the study of how forces affect moving bodies. Dynamics includes kinematics (about movement, velocity, and acceleration) and kinetics (about forces and resulting accelerations).
- Mechanics of materials, the study of how different materials deform under various types of stress
- Fluid mechanics, the study of how fluids react to forces
- Kinematics, the study of the motion of bodies (objects) and systems (groups of objects), while ignoring the forces that cause the motion. Kinematics is often used in the design and analysis of mechanisms.
- Continuum mechanics, a method of applying mechanics that assumes that objects are continuous (rather than discrete)
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.
Mechatronics and robotics
Mechatronics is a combination of mechanics and electronics. It 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 ensure better quality. Many companies employ assembly lines of robots, especially in Automotive Industries 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, from recreation to domestic applications.
Structural analysis is the branch of mechanical engineering (and also civil engineering) devoted to examining why and how objects fail and to fix the objects and their performance. 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.
Once theory is applied to a mechanical design, physical testing is often performed to verify calculated results. Structural analysis may be used in an office when designing parts, in the field to analyze failed parts, or in laboratories where parts might undergo controlled failure tests.
Thermodynamics and thermo-science
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.
Design and drafting
Drafting or technical drawing is the means by which mechanical engineers design products and 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. However, with the advent of computer numerically controlled (CNC) manufacturing, parts can now be fabricated without the need for constant technician input. Manually manufactured parts generally consist spray coatings, surface 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).
Many mechanical engineering companies, especially those in industrialized nations, have begun to incorporate computer-aided engineering (CAE) programs into their existing design and analysis processes, including 2D and 3D solid modeling computer-aided design (CAD). This method has many benefits, including easier and more exhaustive visualization of products, the ability to create virtual assemblies of parts, and the ease of use in designing mating interfaces and tolerances.
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.
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