Do you know about the different types of Engineers? In this article, we will tell you everything from bridges to biotechnology. Engineers invent, develop, and maintain the machines and systems upon which modern life depends. Innovation, analysis, safety regulations, and problem-solving are common features of the engineering profession, as well as the application of scientific and mathematical principles. However, with engineers working on projects as diverse as medical nanotechnology, dam construction, and designing nuclear reactors, the day-to-day roles and responsibilities of engineers differ greatly depending on their specialism. Furthermore, different types of engineering involve various industries, employers, and workplaces, including offices, laboratories, factories, construction sites, and marine vessels.
If you are working as an engineer or in a similar profession, you might be looking to advance your career by taking a managerial position. Further education can equip you with the management and leadership skills to achieve this – for example, check out the engineering degree online in Canada, an online master’s degree offered by the University of Ottawa in Canada. This course is designed to supercharge your professional development with industry-oriented training in areas such as project management, leadership, analytics-driven decision-making, and project budgeting.
Whether you are a qualified engineer looking to specialize, an engineering student, or just exploring career options, this article is for you. The four main types of engineering (civil, mechanical, chemical, and electrical) are explained in depth, followed by brief sections on more specific fields (aerospace, marine, and nuclear).
Different Types of Engineers
Read on to find out more about what a career in engineering could look like and explore the similarities and differences between the different specialisms.
Wherever you’re reading this, take a moment to look around – you’re almost guaranteed to see the work of a civil engineer. Buildings, railways, bridges, dams, and even sewage systems require civil engineering, to name just a few examples. Civil engineers are involved in designing, constructing, and supervising infrastructure projects for both the public and private sectors. Famous landmarks such as the Golden Gate Bridge, Hoover Dam, and the New York subway system are all feats made possible by civil engineers. Like all branches of engineering, problem-solving is at the heart of a civil engineer’s profession. For example, before the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge began in 1932, it was considered by many to be an impossible project due to the deep water and the strong winds and currents in the area. It took civil engineer Joseph Baermann Strauss and his team to make the impossible dream a feasible reality.
‘Civil engineering’ is a very broad term; most civil engineers specialize in a specific industry. Common specialisms for civil engineers include transportation, construction, and coastal engineering. The wide range of projects that require civil engineering means that employers vary, with major employers being rail, construction, and utility companies, as well as local governments. In broad terms, a useful way to distinguish between types of civil engineering is to recognize the difference between contractors and consultants. Contractors tend to spend most of their time onsite, often outside in all weathers, with a practical responsibility to lead and monitor the construction process.
On the other hand, consultants tend to be more office-based and responsible for the design of the project – which often involves complex calculations, computer modeling, and management of the finance and resources required. Consultants may make occasional visits to the project site, but it is contractors who are responsible for much of the practical side. Both consultants and contractors often work alongside other professionals, such as architects and builders, and in most cases, require a license to take on work in the public sector.
Many people might associate mechanical engineering with cars and factories, but in fact, mechanical engineering is one of the most diverse types of engineering, encompassing fields such as biotechnology, manufacturing, aerospace, automotive, and robotics. It is so wide-ranging that it evades a simple definition, but mechanical engineering generally relates to the science of movement and machine design, manufacture, and maintenance. The rapid pace of technological development in recent decades has led to a Cambrian explosion of fields within mechanical engineering, with computers facilitating the emergence of new fields such as medical nanotechnology. The overlap between mechanical engineering and electrical engineering has been expanded in this process. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that most mechanical engineers are office-based – such is the shift to computational work. However, most mechanical engineers also perform site visits depending on their role.
Engineering service providers, research and development organizations, and manufacturing industries are the primary employers of mechanical engineers. Responsibilities include assessing client requirements, designing, and testing new machines, and calculating the manufacturing costs and energy usage of the production process. With increases in energy costs and the impact of climate change, sustainability is a growing field within mechanical engineering.
What do drugs, food, adhesives, and ultra-strong cables have in common? The answer is that they’re all products that require chemical engineers! Chemical engineering describes the development and testing of chemical processes and the application of chemistry to industrial production.
In many cases, chemical processes are initially developed in a laboratory by chemical engineers working on research. These new techniques are then upscaled for manufacturing, which requires careful calculation of efficiency, percentage yield, and overall profitability. Finally, the manufacturing process is monitored and fine-tuned to optimize profits without significantly compromising product quality. The job roles of most chemical engineers generally involve one or more of these steps. Many manufacturers employ chemical engineers to oversee and evaluate the manufacturing process, a role involving a lot of data analysis and computer-aided design (CAD) techniques. Therefore, chemical engineers need to be particularly attuned to fine details, especially as industries such as food and drug manufacturing require intricate production processes.
The principles of material science are crucial to chemical engineers because this knowledge informs calculations of attributes such as the strength, malleability, and durability of a particular material. These skills are fundamental in the manufacturing of textiles, adhesives, and ultra-strong cables, which are all used in the vehicle industry. Material science is also key to the manufacture of medical components such as pacemakers, as these products must be biocompatible to not be injurious to health.
Chemical engineers do not work exclusively in manufacturing; environmental agencies and energy companies are also major employers. Roles in environmental agencies include pollution control –
inspecting industrial plants and water treatment facilities and innovating new ways to filter waste products to minimize contamination of open water. In energy companies, chemical engineers design and adapt fuel extraction and refinement methods, as well as innovate alternative energy sources to tackle climate change.
Electricity powers the technology that characterizes the modern age. With most aspects of modern life at least partially dependent on electrical equipment, it is no surprise that there are so many career opportunities in electrical engineering. In its broadest definition, electrical engineering refers to the design and production of electrical components. However, there is a branch of electrical engineering that is so significant that it merits its own category: electronic engineering. Electronic engineering concerns the design, optimization, and management of smaller electronic devices. In contrast, electrical engineering tends to refer to the design and construction of larger electrical infrastructures such as power generators, communication systems, and other macro-scale projects.
Let’s look at the electrical engineering of macro projects first. Compared to electronic engineers, electrical engineers tend to spend more time outside or onsite. Energy companies and telecommunications companies are major employers of engineers, and responsibilities could include designing and maintaining power generators and managing power distribution by working on the improvement of existing systems. As demand for electricity rises, there is no shortage of jobs in the electrical engineering field. Outside of energy generation and distribution, electrical engineers are often employed by construction companies. Day-to-day roles in this field could include analyzing a client’s brief for a ventilation system for a new building, suggesting alterations, and using CAD to draw up detailed plans for installation.
Meanwhile, electronic engineers are focused on developing smaller devices and appliances, from microchips and sensors to electronic systems used in cars. Electronic engineers tend to be based in workshops, factories, laboratories, and offices and are generally employed by electronics companies, manufacturers, and research and development industries. Components made by electronic engineers often have applications in medicine, aviation, and the military, so a career in electronic engineering is likely to offer exciting roles in developing cutting-edge technology. Many electronic engineers specialize in producing computer hardware, meaning that they often work alongside other IT technicians.
Fancy working on missiles, aircraft, and even the International Space Station? Then a career in aerospace engineering could be for you. Aerospace engineers produce and test technologies used in aircraft, spacecraft, and national defense systems, applying mathematical and physical disciplines such as aerodynamics, thermodynamics, and robotics. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, aerospace engineers typically specialize in either aeronautical or astronautical engineering. Aeronautical engineers concern themselves with flight within the Earth’s atmosphere, while astronautical engineers focus on satellites and spacecraft that fly both within and outside the atmosphere. The importance of both types of aerospace engineering to national defense systems means that these engineers are often required to pass a security check. However, do not be deceived by the glamorized depictions of spacewalks and extra-terrestrial romances in the movies – though an interesting and rewarding career for many, aerospace engineering is largely computer-based work and generally takes place on terra firma.
Marine engineering, also known as maritime engineering, is about more than just ensuring that a ship will float. Marine engineers are responsible for devising, producing, and maintaining technology for marine vessels, including submarines, commercial ships, and aircraft carriers. This technology may relate to various systems required aboard these vessels, such as propulsion mechanics, power generation, engine lubrication, fuel storage, and water and electricity supplies. With self-contained power supplies, vulnerability to high turbulence, and a reliance on mechanical systems, marine environments present unique challenges, which explains why marine engineering is such a specialized field. Some marine engineers work on vessels and are responsible for the upkeep and smooth functioning of their allocated machinery, to avoid breakdowns and other emergencies. Meanwhile, many marine engineers work in offices or manufacturing plants, designing, and creating machinery for marine use.
The generation, usage, and safety of nuclear power are the primary concerns of nuclear engineers. Essential to the functioning of nuclear power plants, nuclear engineers oversee the safety and maintenance of nuclear reactors while often writing recommendations and reports on safety to inform regulations on nuclear power. Nuclear engineers working in power plants may also be tasked with designing new methods of radiation shielding to protect plant workers, the local community, and the environment from dangerous exposure to radiation. Another key issue that requires the attention of nuclear engineers is nuclear waste – nuclear engineers are employed to design and improve systems of waste reduction and disposal, which is one of the major challenges that nuclear power stations continue to face to this day. As well as day-to-day safety and operation work, nuclear engineers may work in research and development, testing new methods of nuclear power generation and planning new reactors. However, nuclear engineers are not confined to power companies – engineers also work on nuclear technology in medicine, defense, and spacecraft.
Engineering is an extremely broad field – each engineering category is made up of subcategories due to the diversity of roles available. If you are looking to build a career in engineering, it’s worth taking time to consider the working conditions, variability of work, skills required, and responsibilities involved in the different types of engineering to find a specialism that is suitable for you. As rewarding as it is essential, engineering work offers so many options that if you are interested and motivated, you’re sure to find a career you love.