Mechanical Engineering is an engineering discipline that was developed from the application of principles from physics and materials science. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, it is the branch of engineering that encompasses the generation and application of heat and mechanical power and the design, production, and use of machines and tools. It is one of the oldest and broadest engineering disciplines.
The field requires a solid understanding of core concepts including mechanics, kinematics, thermodynamics, fluid mechanics, heat transfer, materials science, and energy. Mechanical engineers use the core principles as well as other knowledge in the field to design and analyze manufacturing plants, industrial equipment and machinery, heating and cooling systems, motor vehicles, aircraft, watercraft, robotics, medical devices and more.
Applications of mechanical engineering are found in the records of many ancient and medieval societies throughout the globe. In ancient Greece, the works of Archimedes (287 BC–212 BC) and Heron of Alexandria (c. 10–70 AD) deeply influenced mechanics in the Western tradition. In China, Zhang Heng (78–139 AD) improved a water clock and invented a seismometer, and Ma Jun (200–265 AD) invented a chariot with differential gears. The medieval Chinese horologist and engineer Su Song(1020–1101 AD) incorporated an escapement mechanism into his astronomical clock tower two centuries before any escapement could be found in clocks of medieval Europe, as well as the world’s first known endless power-transmitting chain drive.
During the years from 7th to 15th century, the era called the Islamic Golden Age, there have been remarkable contributions from Muslim inventors in the field of mechanical technology. Al-Jazari, who was one of them, wrote his famous Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices in 1206, and presented many mechanical designs. He is also considered to be the inventor of such mechanical devices which now form the very basic of mechanisms, such as the crankshaft and camshaft.
During the early 19th century in England, Germany and Scotland, the development of machine tools led mechanical engineering to develop as a separate field within engineering, providing manufacturing machines and the engines to power them.The first British professional society of mechanical engineers was formed in 1847, thirty years after civil engineers formed the first such professional society.On the European continent, Johann von Zimmermann (1820 – 1901) founded the first factory for grinding machines in Chemnitz (Germany) in 1848. In the United States, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) was formed in 1880, becoming the third such professional engineering society, after the American Society of Civil Engineers (1852) and theAmerican Institute of Mining Engineers (1871). The first schools in the United States to offer an engineering education were the United States Military Academy in 1817, an institution now known as Norwich University in 1819, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1825. Education in mechanical engineering has historically been based on a strong foundation in mathematics and science.
The field of mechanical engineering is considered among the broadest of engineering disciplines. The work of mechanical engineering ranges from the depths of the ocean to outer space.
Degrees in mechanical engineering are offered at universities worldwide. In Bangladesh, China, India, Nepal, North America, and Pakistan, mechanical engineering programs typically take four to five years and result in a Bachelor of Science (B.Sc), Bachelor of Technology (B.Tech), Bachelor of Engineering (B.Eng), or Bachelor of Applied Science (B.A.Sc) degree, in or with emphasis in mechanical engineering. In Spain, Portugal and most of South America, where neither BSc nor BTech programs have been adopted, the formal name for the degree is “Mechanical Engineer”, and the course work is based on five or six years of training. In Italy the course work is based on five years of training; but in order to qualify as an Engineer you have to pass a state exam at the end of the course.
In the U.S., most undergraduate mechanical engineering programs are accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) to ensure similar course requirements and standards among universities. The ABET web site lists 276 accredited mechanical engineering programs as of June 19, 2006. Mechanical engineering programs in Canada are accredited by the Canadian Engineering Accreditation Board (CEAB), and most other countries offering engineering degrees have similar accreditation societies.
Some mechanical engineers go on to pursue a postgraduate degree such as a Master of Engineering, Master of Technology, Master of Science, Master of Engineering Management (MEng.Mgt or MEM), a Doctor of Philosophy in engineering (EngD, PhD) or an engineer’s degree. The master’s and engineer’s degrees may or may not include research. The Doctor of Philosophy includes a significant research component and is often viewed as the entry point to academia.
Standards set by each country’s accreditation society are intended to provide uniformity in fundamental subject material, promote competence among graduating engineers, and to maintain confidence in the engineering profession as a whole. Engineering programs in the U.S., for instance, are required by ABET to show that their students can “work professionally in both thermal and mechanical systems areas. The specific courses required to graduate, however, may differ from program to program. Universities will often combine multiple subjects into a single class or split a subject into multiple classes, depending on the faculty available and the university’s major area(s) of research. Fundamental subjects of mechanical engineering usually include:
Statics and dynamics
Strength of materials and solid mechanics
Instrumentation and measurement
Thermodynamics, heat transfer, energy conversion, and HVAC
Fluid mechanics and fluid dynamics
Mechanism design (including kinematics and dynamics)
Manufacturing technology or processes
Hydraulics and pneumatics
Mathematics – in particular, calculus, differential equations, and linear algebra.
Mechatronics and control theory
Drafting, CAD (including solid modeling), and CAM
Mechanical engineers are also expected to understand and be able to apply basic concepts from chemistry, chemical engineering, electrical engineering, civil engineering, and physics. Most mechanical engineering programs include several semesters of calculus, as well as advanced mathematical concepts which may include differential equations and partial differential equations, linear and modern algebra, and differential geometry, among others.
In addition to the core mechanical engineering curriculum, many mechanical engineering programs offer more specialized programs and classes, such as robotics, transport and logistics, cryogenics, fuel technology, automotive engineering, biomechanics, vibration, optics and others, if a separate department does not exist for these subjects.
Most mechanical engineering programs also require varying amounts of research or community projects to gain practical problem-solving experience. In the United States it is common for mechanical engineering students to complete one or more internships while studying, though this is not typically mandated by the university.
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.
The field of mechanical engineering can be thought of as a collection of many mechanical disciplines. Several of these sub disciplines 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 sub disciplines 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 sub disciplines, as well as specialized sub disciplines. Specialized sub disciplines, 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 sub disciplines are discussed in this section.
Main article: Mechanics
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 elasticand 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 (or kinetics), the study of how forces affect moving bodies
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
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.
Main article: Kinematics
Kinematics is the study of the motion of bodies (objects) and systems (groups of objects), while ignoring the forces that cause the motion. The movement of a crane and the oscillations of a piston in an engine are both simple kinematic systems. The crane is a type of open kinematic chain, while the piston is part of a closed four-bar linkage.
Mechanical engineers typically use kinematics in the design and analysis of mechanisms. Kinematics can be used to find the possible range of motion for a given mechanism, or, working in reverse, can be used to design a mechanism that has a desired range of motion.
Mechatronics and robotics
Main articles: Mechatronics and Robotics
Mechatronics 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 insure better quality. Many companies employ assembly lines of robots, 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.
Main articles: Structural analysis and Failure analysis
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.
Structural analysis may be used in the 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
Main article: Thermodynamics
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, thermo fluids, 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.
Main articles: Technical drawing and CNC
Drafting or technical drawing is the means by which mechanical engineers 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, but this is becoming an increasing rarity, with the advent of computer numerically controlled (CNC) manufacturing. Engineers primarily manually manufacture parts in the areas of applied spray coatings, 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).
Frontiers of research
Mechanical engineers are constantly pushing the boundaries of what is physically possible in order to produce safer, cheaper, and more efficient machines and mechanical systems. Some technologies at the cutting edge of mechanical engineering are listed below (see also exploratory engineering).
Micro electro-mechanical systems (MEMS)
Micron-scale mechanical components such as springs, gears, fluidic and heat transfer devices are fabricated from a variety of substrate materials such as silicon, glass and polymers like SU8. Examples of MEMS components will be the accelerometers that are used as car airbag sensors, gyroscopes for precise positioning and microfluidic devices used in biomedical applications.
Friction stir welding (FSW)
Main article: Friction stir welding
Friction stir welding, a new type of welding, was discovered in 1991 by The Welding Institute (TWI). This innovative steady state (non-fusion) welding technique joins materials previously un-weldable, including several aluminum alloys. It may play an important role in the future construction of airplanes, potentially replacing rivets. Current uses of this technology to date include welding the seams of the aluminum main Space Shuttle external tank, Orion Crew Vehicle test article, Boeing Delta II and Delta IV Expendable Launch Vehicles and the SpaceX Falcon 1 rocket, armor plating for amphibious assault ships, and welding the wings and fuselage panels of the new Eclipse 500 aircraft from Eclipse Aviation among an increasingly growing pool of uses.