What is Engineering?
What is Engineering?
One of the great attractions of engineering work is the huge variety of tasks and environments in which engineers find themselves working.
From designing programs at a computer terminal, to overseeing maintenance operations for major structures like aircraft, ships, heavy earth moving equipment, mobile cranes and offshore oil platforms – there are many ways to be an engineer.
A great deal of engineering work is done with the aid of computers. This can range from design, testing, the control of systems, the direction of equipment and the analysis of the properties of materials.
The main disciplines
Historically, mainstream engineering was divided into the four broad disciplines of chemical, civil, electrical and mechanical engineering, with several branches within each discipline covering an enormous range of fields.
Today, we are seeing the emergence of new disciplines of engineering. Select from the links below to read about of some of the major fields of engineering.
Aerospace Engineers design, construct and operate aircraft, aerospace vehicles and propulsion systems. This includes planes, jets, helicopters, gliders, missiles and spacecraft. They are involved in researching, developing and testing new materials, engines, body shapes and structures that may increase the speed and strength of aircraft. They are also responsible for planning thorough maintenance programs for aircraft and exercising strict safety and environmental controls. Aerospace Engineers also use their knowledge of electrical, electronic and computer systems for automatic control and communication systems for the operation of aircraft.
Aeronautical Engineering deals specifically with flight vehicles such as airplanes and helicopters. Work in this field is still available, however it is being overtaken by aerospace engineering.
Aerospace Engineers may be responsible for investigating faulty engines or other components, and for developing repair systems. They may be involved in designing improved air conditioning or fuel systems for aircraft or ground based systems for operations such as flight control. They may prepare technical or commercial information when competing with other companies for the manufacture or supply of equipment.
The aerospace industry in Australia is changing from having an introspective defence dependent focus to a more export-oriented outlook. Opportunities now exist for research and development into composite material and manufacturing techniques, exploring how products are made. Many aircraft components are now made from advanced composite materials, such as carbon fibre reinforced plastics.
There are three main areas of work in the aerospace industry; design and manufacture, research and development and airworthiness operations. A new graduate engineer may be involved with one aspect of a project such as calculating the type and weight of material to go into a component. Senior engineers may be in charge of coordinating a whole project, giving other engineers, technicians and draftspersons different tasks to complete, and ensuring that the project meets budget.
The Civil Aviation Safety Authority employs Aeronautical Engineers whose main task is to ensure that Australian aircraft are airworthy. This covers the certification of aircraft and involves the assessment of manufacturers' data from within Australia and overseas. They may have to assess mechanical systems, flight characteristics and aircraft performance. This may be done by test flights, measuring take off distances, rate of climb, stall speeds, maneuverability and landing capacities and comparing results with safety standards.
Aerospace Engineers may also work for commercial airline companies, aerospace manufacturers, government defence departments and defence forces and in government research laboratories. The Australian aerospace industry is very small and many graduates find their advanced technological skills are transferable to work in related fields. One such example is the automotive industry which occasionally advertises for Aerospace Engineers.
These engineers are involved with conserving and developing the world's natural resources such as soil, water, land, rivers and forests. They research and develop solutions to combat problems such as soil erosion and salinity. They are responsible for designing better methods of farming and forestry, improved farming machinery and buildings and also in lessening the impact of humans on the environment.
Agricultural Engineers may work towards solutions for problems such as sustainable agricultural production, the environmental impact of intensive agriculture and also look at the ways in which agricultural and primary products are handled.
Many agricultural Engineers are employed by government departments in such areas as water supply, agriculture, forestry, soil conservation and in environment protection agencies. Private employers may include consulting firms, manufacturers and distributors of agricultural and irrigation equipment, corporate farms, intensive animal industries and food processing plants. Work may also be available on overseas agricultural aid programs.
Biomedical Engineers work with doctors and medical scientists, researching and designing ways to improve health care and medical services. They may use microcomputers, lasers, and other materials to develop and improve medical research equipment that is used to diagnose health problems. They may be involved in the development of medical products and different types of equipment used to monitor and treat patients and in designing and improving
equipment for disabled people.
A biomedical engineer working in a hospital, for example, may be responsible for the safe and effective operation of equipment such as monitoring, diagnostic, and therapeutic medical equipment ranging from catheters, CAT scanners, pacemakers and kidney machines. They may be involved in designing artificial joints and limbs and assisting the surgical team in fitting these to the patient. Biomedical Engineers design and deliver technology to improve the quality of life of people with disabilities. For example, they may develop equipment to assist people who may have difficulty walking, communicating or carrying out simple daily tasks.
Building Services Engineers are involved with designing heating, air-conditioning, electric lighting and power, water and gas supply, plumbing and drainage systems. Fire safety and security systems, phones, faxes, intercoms, computers, lifts and escalators are all needed for a functional and safe work environment.
Chemical engineering is concerned with the ways in which raw materials are changed into useful and commercial end products. Research of raw materials and their properties, design and development of equipment and the evaluation of operating processes are all part of chemical engineering. These skills are combined to extract raw materials which can then be refined and manufactured to produce such things as food, petrol, plastics, paints, paper, ceramics, minerals and metals. Often these processes are carried out at large scale plants and the safe operation of these plants is also part of chemical engineering.
Extracting these raw materials without harming the environment is also a major area of work for chemical engineers. For example, new types of fuels which can be used safely to provide the energy we need, without having an adverse effect on the environment, are currently being developed and tested. Chemical engineers are also involved in the production of pharmaceutical products as diverse as penicillin and shampoo.
Chemical engineers may work in companies involved in the production of such things as food, plastics, ceramics, pharmaceuticals, metals and glass. Many chemical engineers also find employment in environment protection and the reclamation or clean up of contaminated sites, or in research laboratories, chemical plants and petroleum refineries. Other major employers of chemical engineers include manufacturers of basic iron and steel products, organic industrial chemicals and the mining industry.
Engineers working in this field may specialise as combustion engineers, petroleum engineers, principal chemical engineers, smelting engineers, water treatment engineers or environmental engineers (see section on environmental engineering). There is also scope for chemical engineers to move into related areas including biotechnology, food engineering and mineral engineering.
Food engineers design equipment, machinery and production methods that increase the life of food whilst maintaining its quality and nutritional value. They also ensure that the food produced is free from bacteria and disease and does not lose its original texture and colour.
Engineers in this field find, produce, use and improve oil and natural gas based on geological study. Methods of removing oil and gas from the earth safely and economically are constantly being researched and tested. Raw materials extracted from the earth or oceans are turned into synthetic fibres, dyes, detergents and many forms of plastics materials and products.
Equipment that produces life-saving drugs and medicine is designed and operated by engineers in the pharmaceutical field. These drugs need to be made very precisely in both small and large quantities. Engineering teams work closely with medical research teams to achieve the most effective results.
Process Control Engineers are concerned with creating and maintaining computer software and systems designed to control the quantity and quality of a particular product when it is being manufactured. Computers are used in a chemical plant to control such things as pressure, temperature and liquid levels in a tank. It is also important to ensure that the minimum amount of waste material is produced during manufacturing.
Production engineers are responsible for the equipment and processes used in various chemical or manufacturing plants. Production engineers ensure equipment is maintained and operating at peak level of production and may also be involved in advising on the layout of the factory floor to maximise production levels, or on the purchase of new equipment.
Much of the physical infrastructure of our modern society is provided by Civil Engineers. Civil Engineers are concerned with all types of structures including dams, bridges, pipelines, roads, towers and buildings. They are responsible for the design and construction of all our transport systems, the design and management of our gas and water supply, sewerage systems, harbours, airports and railways. Civil Engineers plan, design and test the structures of private and public buildings and facilities.
They are also involved in many environmental areas such as the assessment of the impact large scale projects have on the environment and the collection and treatment of sewage and industrial wastes, pollution control, environmental control and resource protection and management.
A Civil Engineer will work from an architect's drawings and consider whether the chosen materials for a particular building will be strong enough to hold a structure of that height or design. At the same time they would also think about how the structure might affect its surroundings. It is the responsibility of the civil engineer to produce safe, economical and environmentally-sound structures.
Civil engineers may specialise as chief civil engineers, construction engineers, municipal engineers, structural engineers, transport engineers, or water supply distribution engineers.
Civil and public health engineers may work in the private sector as consulting engineers, project managers or construction contractors or in a wide range of government departments.
Work opportunities for civil engineers are affected by fluctuations in the building and construction industry. As a result, the number of opportunities may rise or fall over a short period of time.
These engineers provide information and knowledge on how the soil and rocks beneath a proposed structure will behave under pressure. An understanding of the structures being built is needed in order to assist in the design of their foundations. Geotechnical engineers spend a lot of time outdoors, collecting samples and testing ground areas and advising on work in progress.
Hydraulics (Water) Engineering is concerned with planning and organising how water is provided and removed both for large and local schemes. Hydraulics engineers also deal with the treatment of waste from industry, the control of rivers and flood waters, the protection of the coastline and careful planning of harbours.
Natural forces such as wind, waves and earthquakes and their effects all need to be taken into account when a structure is designed and built. Certain stresses caused by the modern environment, such as the traffic of both cars and people, also need to be considered. A structural engineer ensures that structures are built in such a way that they stand up to these forces. Innovative solutions to these problems are researched, developed and tested by structural engineers.
Structural engineers often work with architects, builders and those in mechanical, electrical and chemical engineering to organise and supervise the construction of particular structures.
The study of structural engineering is often combined with civil engineering, but certain subjects can be chosen at university in order to specialise in structural engineering, or work after graduation may be focussed in this particular area.
Transporting Engineering is concerned with the transport means for both people and freight.
Transport engineers design, test and improve systems and structures used to move people, cars, trains, airplanes and ships. For example, it is vital that traffic intersections are designed in such a way that traffic flows freely and does not cause unnecessary congestion. The layout of train lines needs to be designed with similar objectives in mind. Transport engineers also plan future travel needs of city and country areas as populations increase and needs change.
Coastal and Ocean Engineers work at the interface between land and the sea and in the open ocean environment and are skilled in understanding this dynamic natural environment. This provides the specialised knowledge needed to ensure safe and ecologically sustainable development of our nearshore zone, vital ports and harbours and valuable offshore resources. Coastal and Ocean Engineers work in either the private sector as consulting engineers, project managers, construction contractors or in specialised government organisations and university teaching and research.
Electrical engineering encompasses electronic, computer systems, telecommunications, control and electrical power engineering. It is concerned with the way electrical energy is produced and used in homes, the community and industry. Electrical engineers design and build the systems and machines that generate, transmit, measure, control and use electrical energy essential to modern life.
Electronics engineering deals with devices and systems that use small amounts of electrical energy to analyse, transmit and store information.
Transmission of these electronic signals forms the basis of communications and the information technology industry, and includes the field of microelectronics and the use of silicon chip technology. Various systems for communication between people both nearby and on the other side of the world have been developed and are constantly being improved and refined. This communication takes place using satellite, telephone, optical fibres and computer systems. These systems are of vital importance in everyday communication, defence, transport, civil aviation & medical equipment such as the bionic ear, pacemakers and life support systems.
People who specialise as electronics engineers may work in such industries as communications, broadcasting, aviation, defence, robotics, computers, medical engineering or meteorology. Many electronics engineers are now finding more opportunities in entertainment, transport and telecommunications industries. Data communications, mobile radio and the broader entertainment industry all require the input of electronics engineers. An example of one growth area is the use of satellites and cable systems in Pay Television. The transport sector is employing more electronics engineers as the vehicles and the systems controlling them become more automated.
Electronics engineers in the field of communications may be responsible for the operation of satellite television transmission, or for the smooth running of telephone switching exchanges. Often these systems or operations are monitored using complicated panels of instruments. It is the responsibility of the electronics engineer to find and correct faults quickly and to ensure the smooth working of the operation.
Electronics engineering is a very diverse field and it is currently undergoing expansion as new applications are found for electronic equipment. This has led to the development of two relatively new fields of engineering - software engineering and mechatronics.
Software engineers design and modify complex software systems and computer hardware.
Mechatronics combines the disciplines of mechanical and electrical engineering. It is associated with the use of digital computers to control machines and processes. It is also used to create diverse products such as substitutes for human sensors and organs and computer controlled machine tools. Mechatronics is a rapidly developing field and as the world becomes steadily more technologically advanced it will be of increasing importance.
Electronic engineers work for companies and government departments that design, construct, and test electronic devices (including computers) or that are involved with their installation.
Computer Systems Engineering is based on electrical engineering and computer science. These days computers are used to operate many of the things we use in everyday life, for example our cars, telephone systems, trains, TV and radio stations. Computer engineers are involved in the analysis, design, development and operation of computer hardware and software. Most electronic design is based on the use of computer aided simulation.
Computer systems engineers may work in the private sector with computer manufacturing and service companies, business consulting firms, the information systems divisions of companies and a wide range of government activities.
Control Engineering is involved with the use of electrical signals to move and operate equipment and machinery. Control engineers design, test and improve automatic control systems for large industries such as oil refineries, mining operations and production plants. The safe flow of road and air traffic is also the responsibility of the control engineer.
Power Generation & Distribution Engineering provides electricity to our homes and to industry. It is concerned with planning, developing, testing, installing, using and maintaining power plants or stations that provide electric power. It also deals with the transmission of that power to where it is needed - cities, towns, railway lines, large businesses and industry. Power engineers also conduct research on developing alternative power sources such as solar and wind energy. Electrical power engineers work for companies and government departments that are involved with providing and using electrical power.
Environmental Engineers are concerned with protecting the environment by assessing the impact a project has on the air, water, soil and noise levels in its vicinity. This is done by studying the project's design, construction and operation and minimising any adverse effects that it may have on the environment. Environmental Engineers are also involved in removing problems caused by past activity, such as cleaning contaminated industrial land so it can be used for housing. Environmental Engineers predict what problems may be caused by accidents, such as oil spills for example, and assess what may cause problems for the environment in the long term. They also plan and design equipment and processes for the treatment and safe disposal of waste material and direct the conservation and wise use of natural resources. They are involved in research and development of alternative energy sources, water reclamation, waste treatment and recycling.
Environmental Engineers may work with government departments or in the private sector with resource processing companies as consulting Engineers.
Industrial Engineering is concerned with the design, improvement, and installation of integrated systems of human resources, materials, equipment and finance. It draws upon specialised knowledge and skill in the mathematical, physical, physiological and social sciences together with the principles and methods of Engineering analysis and design to specify, predict and evaluate the results to be obtained from such systems and measure achievement.
Industrial Engineering is a science devoted to getting the best results from available resources, whilst still ensuring that the quality and expectations of the project are met.
Marine Engineers are involved in designing, testing, and improving machinery and equipment used at sea. This machinery may include propulsion machinery, electrical, refrigeration, air conditioning, cargo handling and domestic services equipment. It is their responsibility to check that it is all functioning effectively and being properly maintained. A marine engineer needs to have a good understanding of the way in which all these systems operate.
Marine Engineers must also become familiar with pressure vessel operation including steam generating equipment and the associated control instrumentation. Automatic control systems are becoming more and more widely used so an understanding of computer controlled processes is also important. Computers now mean that marine Engineers do not have to be on constant watch in the engine room.
Marine Engineers may also work with organic pumping or mooring systems, pipelines, dockyards, port and harbour operations, equipment for offshore oil rigs and platforms. This is a relatively small field of Engineering and there tends to be a low turnover of staff. Demand is basically determined by activity in the water transport industry.
Materials Engineers test the ways certain materials behave when put under pressure or are heated or joined with other materials (metals, plastics, rubber, timber, ceramics). Materials Engineers are involved with developing new materials and improving certain qualities of existing materials. They may also be involved with developing new and improved ways of recycling plastics and paper. Materials Engineering deals with the manufacture, structure, properties and use of metals and non-metallic substances such as polymers, ceramics and composites.
Materials Engineers may work in diverse areas, particularly those where chemical, electrical, manufacturing and mining Engineers find employment. These areas include large foundries, steel works, aluminum plants and companies involved with alloy research.
Mechanical and manufacturing engineering turns energy into power and motion. Mechanical engineers design, create and improve systems and machinery that is used for domestic, public and industrial purposes. This area covers the design and manufacture of a great variety of products such as domestic appliances, industrial machinery, ships, aircraft, engines, pumps, compressors and turbines or complex systems such as the air-conditioning and ventilation systems of buildings. The mechanical area interlinks closely with other areas of engineering and applies knowledge of materials, energy and structures.
Mechanical engineers often work for industry designing systems and machinery that generate power, make products, move things and help in building. They may also work in chemical processing, power generation, the automotive industry, manufacturing, building services, the aeronautical industry, defence technology, food processing and public utilities.
Demand for mechanical engineers depends on activity in the manufacturing and construction industries. Many graduates cross over into the field of industrial engineering and building services.
Manufacturing systems engineering is concerned with the processes and systems that are used in industry. Systems and equipment that complete tasks accurately and change raw materials into products with the smallest wastage of time, materials and energy are designed and improved by manufacturing systems engineers.
Hydraulics is involved with the design of new and improved ways of applying fluid control, so that machinery can operate smoothly and effectively with the least amount of pressure. For example, hydraulic oil pressure is used to move large cranes.
Pneumatics covers the use of air pressure to control machinery. For many industries, air is a much safer material to use because it is clean and can be used safely in flammable areas. It is practical to use pneumatics in food processing as it is much cleaner. It is also used for safety reasons in machines that process flammable substances such as petrol and paint.
Thermodynamics deals with heat energy transfer and machinery that turns heat energy into mechanical power. Engineers in this field design, manage and improve machinery such as boilers and gas and steam turbine generators, and facilities like cooling towers, and heating or refrigerant systems.
This form of Engineering is concerned with turning raw material of low value into valuable products, for example bauxite into aluminum. Minerals Engineers use a wide range of treatments to process materials in the most efficient way. This might involve physical or chemical separations and hydro or pyro-metallurgical processes. Metallurgical Engineering takes this one step further by combining metals and non-metals to make new composite materials. These new composites are designed to be light, strong, durable and heat resistant materials for use in the design and performance of cars, boats, jets, spacecraft and other vehicles.
Mining Engineers work together with geologists to investigate and carry out the extraction of ore bodies and mineral deposits, as well as the extraction of non-metallic ores and fuels such as coal and uranium. They are responsible for planning the safest and most cost effective way of removing minerals from the ground, rivers or the sea bed. They may be involved with designing, installing and supervising the use of mining machinery and equipment and for inspecting the progress of mining operations.
Computerised techniques are often used in the development and operation of mines. Mining Engineers are responsible for protecting conditions for both people and the environment in the vicinity of mines. Mining Engineers work on mining sites and in head offices of mining companies. Many mines are located in remote areas and young graduates should be prepared to travel and live in non-urban areas. Salaries for those working in the mining area are usually well above that for most other professionals and the opportunities for travel are excellent.
Experienced mining Engineers have a wide range of career options including mine planning and design, operations management, technical specialists, contracting, consulting, the mines inspectorate, investment analysts and advisers, research, tertiary education and general management.
Resource Engineering is concerned with the development and efficient use of natural resources and the management of the environment in rural areas. This includes the development, conservation and control of water resources, soil conservation and the recovery of degraded land, catchment and land management, and the assessment and control of water pollution from agricultural and mining industries.
Particular roles in resource Engineering may include estimation of water yields from catchments, flood analysis, or the design and construction of drainage and irrigation systems sympathetic to the environment.
Resource Engineers are employed by government management agencies and local government bodies, consulting Engineers, the mining and forest industries and civil Engineering and construction companies.
There is a growing awareness in the general public of the need for risk assessments to be carried out before a project begins. This involves analyses based on a knowledge of chemistry, physics and operational aspects of any given project. It is important to identify any potential hazards, the consequences of these hazards and the frequency and magnitude with which they are likely to occur. These hazards need to be managed and emergency response procedures identified.
Risk consultants often carry out detailed risk assessment studies for private companies or review studies done by other parties.