Choosing a career in engineering can be a difficult decision due to the wide array of options offered by Universities and Colleges. The first step is identifying your passions and interests and to see how well they match each of the engineering disciplines. Mechanical engineering is one of the four major disciplines along with civil, electrical and chemical.
Mechanical engineering focuses on dynamic, or moving, systems. It is a very broad field that overlaps with civil engineering in many instances. The ability of a mechanical engineer to consider dynamic events and design for load transfer (a car experiences load transfer when the brakes are applied by the driver and the weight of the car shifts to the front wheels) is what distinguishes them from civil engineers. Mechanical engineers design machinery and components for use in the construction, transportation and automotive industries using a wide array of computer software such as CAD (Computer Aided Design) and FEA (Finite Element Analysis). CAD allows an engineer to design a component before simulating its durability and strength using FEA. This process saves countless hours and dollars for companies as they are now able to test a component before they have to build it.
Anyone who has a good level of mechanical aptitude and is curious about complex systems and vehicles is a good candidate to undertake a mechanical engineering course. It teaches the general principles of mechanical systems whereas the sub-disciplines focus only on one field of development. For example, a student who builds robots as a hobby would be most suited to a mechatronics course rather than the mechanical course. The major sub-disciplines of mechanical engineering are briefly described below.
Aerospace engineers are responsible for the advance of aircraft and space vehicles. They specialise in designing highly sophisticated commercial and military aircraft. Wind tunnels are their weapon of choice, with many hours dedicated to aerodynamic testing within them. Aerospace engineers are also used extensively in the automotive industry, mainly in high performance fields such as Motorsport. This course may also serve as a pathway to obtaining a pilots licence and vice versa.
A branch of mechanical engineering that focuses on understanding the vehicle manufacturing process and the future direction of the automotive industry. This course prepares graduates for a career with an OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer), component suppliers, or road transport agencies. Greater emphasis on hybrid and electric cars may create more opportunities for automotive engineers in the near and long term future.
Marine engineering includes marine vessel design, operation, maintenance and the design of any infrastructure that exists for the marine industry. All marine vessels contain mechanical and electrical systems such as turbines, fuel systems and air conditioning, requiring engineers to have knowledge in both areas.
Mechatronics is a mechanical/electrical hybrid engineering discipline that is mostly concerned with optimising products and processes using cutting edge technology. This field is a great choice for those with a passion for robotics.
The field of nuclear power is the sole focus of nuclear engineers. Power generation, radiation and nuclear reactions (fission and fusion energy) are the fundamental research areas of nuclear engineering. A large portion of nuclear engineers work on power plant design and may be stationed on-site to supervise the operation of the plant. Many opportunities exist for research and development of nuclear power; mainly in the United States.
If you are able to identify yourself with any of the above sub-disciplines you are halfway to deciding on an engineering course. If you are interested in mechanical systems but are not particularly passionate about a specific field, then it is advisable to choose a mechanical engineering course which will expose you to a broad range of subjects. Once enrolled in a course, it is always possible to transfer into a related discipline should you change your mind.