What is mechanical engineering?
Mechanical engineering is "the branch of engineering concerned with the design, construction, and operation of machines" (Sinclair, 1993, p.825). As such it covers a wide range of activities. Machines are used in most areas of engineering from construction to automobiles, so career opportunities are vast and varied for this branch of engineering.
Machines are "an assembly of interconnected components arranged to transmit or modify force in order to perform useful work" (Sinclair, 1993, p.792). Machines require an "input" in order to do some work and produce an "output".
What is a machine?
In modern society the concept of a "machine" inspires a shiny metal contraption which helps people perform a task, be it a car or a coffee machine. However, the history of machines dates back considerably further. The humble axe for example is technically a machine (although machines without moving parts are often called tools) - it transfers a lateral force into a splitting force (New World Encyclopedia contributors, 2022).
With the discovery of new materials and new "inputs" such as electricity, machines have become increasingly more sophisticated. The design of machines can be quite complex, and careful thought to how they are maintained needs to be considered from the outset.
Robotics and computers
Computer Aided Design (CAD) and the use of robotics has made it easier to manufacture components. Mass production is now possible, and precision more repeatable - allowing the creation of sophisticated components to extremely fine tolerances, and much quicker timescales - something not achievable by hand.
As with most branches of engineering there will always be trade-offs. Any design of a machine must meet the needs of the "work" - required safely, but at an affordable cost. You can make a brilliant machine, but if it's so expensive no one can buy it, or so heavy it can't be moved to where it's needed, what's the point? Trade offs come in all forms, from the materials used to the ease of maintenance. So, any mechanical engineer needs to know how to balance cost with function, as well as thinking of the life cycle of their machine - from creation to disposal.
Modern mechanical engineering
Within the last few decades 3D-printing has become a growth industry. We can now use a range of materials in 3D-printing from plastic to metals, and even concrete! Creating simple housing quickly can make a real difference to third world countries and allow for evermore intricate shapes and designs - not achievable via conventional housing construction techniques (Dean, 2022).
Dean, J. (2022) First-of-its-kind 3D-printed home blends concrete, wood (14 September 2022) Available at: https://news.cornell.edu/stories/2022/09/first-its-kind-3d-printed-home-blends-concrete-wood. (Accessed 8 December 2022)
New World Encyclopedia contributors (2022) Machines. Available at: https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/p/index.php?title=Machine&oldid=1085703. (Accessed 8 December 2022)
Sinclair, J.M. et al (eds) (1993a) Collins Concise English Dictionary. 3rd edn. Glasgow: HarperCollins.