Engineering applies scientific and technical knowledge to solve human problems. Engineers use imagination, judgment,reasoning and experience to apply science, technology, mathematics, and practical experience. The result is the design, production, and operation of useful objects or processes.
- "An engineer is someone who can do for a dime what any fool can do for a dollar."
The crucial and unique task of the engineer is to identify, understand, and integrate the constraints on a design in order to produce a successful result. It is usually not enough to build a technically successful product; it must also meet further requirements. Constraints may include available resources, physical or technical limitations, flexibility for future modifications and additions, and other factors, such as requirements for cost, manufacturability, and serviceability. By understanding the constraints, engineers deduce specifications for the limits within which a viable object or system may be produced and operated.
Engineers use their knowledge of science, mathematics, and appropriate experience to find suitable solutions to a problem. Creating an appropriate mathematical model of a problem allows them to analyze it (perhaps, but rarely, definitively), and to test potential solutions. Usually multiple reasonable solutions exist, so engineers must evaluate the different design choices on their merits and choose the solution that best meets their requirements. Genrich Altshuller, after gathering statistics on a large number of patents, suggested that compromises are at the heart of "low-level" engineering designs, while at a higher level the best design is that which eliminates the core contradiction causing the problem).
Engineers typically attempt to predict how well their designs will perform to their specifications prior to full-scale production. They use, among other things: prototypes, scale models, simulations, destructive tests, nondestructive testing, and stress tests. Testing ensures that products will perform as expected. Engineers as professionals take seriously their responsibility to produce designs that will perform as expected and will not cause unintended harm to the public at large. Engineers typically include a factor of safety in their designs to reduce the risk of unexpected failure. However, the larger the safety factor, the less efficient the design will be.
As with all modern scientific and technological endeavours, computers and software play an increasingly important role. Numerical methods and simulations can help predict design performance more accurately than previous approximations.
Using computer-aided design (CAD) software, engineers are able to more easily create drawings and models of their designs. Computer models of designs can be checked for flaws without having to make expensive and time-consuming prototypes. The computer can automatically translate some models to instructions suitable for automatic machinery (e.g., CNC) to fabricate (part of) a design. The computer also allows increased reuse of previously developed designs, by presenting an engineer with a library of predefined parts ready to be used in designs.
Of late, the use of finite element method analysis (FEM analysis or FEA) software to study stress, temperature, flow as well as electromagnetic fields has gained importance. In addition, a variety of software is available to analyse dynamic systems.
Electronics engineers make use of a variety of circuit schematics software to aid in the creation of circuit designs that perform an electronic task when used for a printed circuit board (PCB) or a computer chip.
The application of computers in the area of engineering of goods is known as Product Lifecycle Management (PLM).
It is a myth that engineer originated to describe those who built engines. In fact, the words engine and engineer (as well as ingenious) developed in parallel from the Latin root ingeniosus, meaning "skilled". An engineer is thus a clever, practical, problem solver. The spelling of engineer was later influenced by back-formation from engine. The term later evolved to include all fields where the skills of application of the scientific method are used. In some other languages, such as Arabic, the word for "engineering" also means "geometry".
The fields that became what we now call engineering were known as the mechanic arts in the 19th century.
Historically, engineering has been seen as a somewhat dry, uninteresting field in popular culture, and has also been thought to be the domain of nerds (with little of the romance that attaches to hacker culture). For example, the cartoon character Dilbert is an engineer.
(This has not always been so - most British school children in the 1950s were brought up with stirring tales of 'the Victorian Engineers', chief amongst whom where the Brunels, the Stephensons, Telford and their contemporaries.)
In science fiction engineers are often portrayed as highly knowledgeable and respectable individuals who understand the overwhelming future technologies often portrayed in the genre. The Star Trek characters Montgomery Scott and Geordi La Forge are famous examples.
Engineers are often respected and ridiculed for their intense beliefs and interests. Perhaps because of their deep understanding of the interconnectedness of many things, engineers such as Governor John H. Sununu are often driven into politics to "fix things" for the public good.
Occasionally, engineers may be recognized by the "Iron Ring" - a stainless steel or iron ring worn on the little (fifth) finger of the working hand. This tradition was originally developed in Canada in the Ritual of the Calling of an Engineer as a symbol of pride and obligation for the engineering profession. Some years later this practice was adopted by the United States. Members of the US Order of the Engineer accept this ring as a pledge to uphold the proud history of engineering. A Professional Engineer's name often has the post-nominal letters PE or P.Eng.
In most modern countries, certain engineering tasks, such as the design of bridges, electric power plants, and chemical plants, must be approved by a Professional Engineer. Laws protecting public health and safety mandate that a professional must provide guidance gained through education and experience. In the United States, each state tests and licenses Professional Engineers.
The federal government, however, supervises aviation through the Federal Aviation Regulations administrated by the Dept. of Transportation, Federal Aviation Administration. Designated Engineering Representatives approve data for aircraft design and repairs on behalf of the Federal Aviation Administration.
Even with strict testing and licensure, engineering disasters still occur. Therefore, the Professional Engineer adheres to a strict code of ethics. Each engineering discipline and professional society maintains a code of ethics, which the members pledge to uphold.
In Canada each Province is governed by their own engineering association. For instance, in the Province of British Columbia an engineering graduate with 5 or more years of experience in an engineering related field will need to be certified by the Association for Professional Engineers and Geoscientists (APEGBC) in order to become a Professional Engineer.
Comparison to other disciplines
- You see things; and you say "Why?" But I dream things that never were; and I say "Why not?" —George Bernard Shaw
Engineering is concerned with the design of a solution to a practical problem. A scientist may ask why a problem arises, and proceed to research the answer to the question or actually solve the problem in his first try, perhaps creating a mathematical model of his observations. By contrast, engineers want to know how to solve a problem, and how to implement that solution. In other words, scientists attempt to explain phenomena, whereas engineers use any available knowledge, including that produced by science, to construct solutions to problems. This is no contradiction.
There is an overlap between science (fundamental and applied) and engineering. It is not uncommon for scientists to become involved in the practical application of their discoveries; thereby becoming, for the moment, engineers. Scientists may also have to complete engineering tasks, such as designing experimental apparatus or building prototypes. Conversely, in the process of developing technology engineers sometimes find themselves exploring new phenomena, thus becoming, for the moment, scientists.
However, engineering research has a character different from that of scientific research. First, it often deals with areas in which the basic physics and/or chemistry are well understood, but the problems themselves are too complex to solve in an exact manner. The purpose of engineering research is then to find approximations to the problem that can be solved. Examples are the use of numerical approximations to the Navier-Stokes equations to solve aerodynamic flow over an aircraft, or the use of Miner's rule to calculate fatigue damage to an engineering structure. Second, engineering research employs many semi-empirical methods that are foreign to pure scientific research, one example being the method of parameter variation.
In general, it can be stated that a scientist builds in order to learn, but an engineer learns in order to build.
There are significant parallels between engineering and medicine. Both professions are well known for their pragmatism — the solution to real world problems often requires moving forward before phenomena are completely understood in a more rigorous scientific sense.
There are also close connections between the workings of engineers and artists; they are direct in some fields, for example, architecture, landscape architecture and industrial design; and indirect in others. Artistic and engineering creativity may be fundamentally connected.
Top 15 branches
(See fields of engineering for a full listing.)
- Aerospace engineering
- Architectural engineering
- Biomedical engineering
- Computer engineering
- Civil engineering
- Chemical engineering
- Electronics engineering
- Electrical engineering
- Environmental engineering
- Industrial engineering
- Materials engineering
- Mechanical engineering
- Petroleum engineering
- Systems engineering
- Software engineering
- List of engineering topics (covers the broad field of engineering).
- List of aerospace engineering topics
- List of electrical engineering topics (alphabetical)
- List of electrical engineering topics (thematic)
- List of mechanical engineering topics
- List of software engineering topics (alphabetical)
- List of software engineering topics (thematic)
- List of engineers
- Fields of engineering
- Engineering society
- Engineering Wiki
- Iron Ring
- The Ritual of the Calling of an Engineer
- Petroski, Henry, To Engineer is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design, Vintage, 1992
- Petroski, Henry, The Evolution of Useful Things: How Everyday Artifacts-From Forks and Pins to Paper Clips and Zippers-Came to be as They are, Vintage, 1994
- Vincenti, Walter G. What Engineers Know and How They Know It: Analytical Studies from Aeronautical History, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993
- Licensure and Qualifications for the Practice of Engineering
- The Engineer's Ring
- The Ritual of the Calling of an Engineer
- Engineering Disasters and Learning from Failure
- American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE)
- ASEE engineering profile (2003) PDF
- The Instititute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. (IEEE)
- The Engineering Wiki a wiki entirely dedicated to collecting information about Engineering.
- International Council on Systems Engineering (INCOSE)