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What is Engineering?

The question "What is engineering?" may seem very simple, but in reality, defining the context as well as understanding what is an “engineer” can be very complex.

In a world where technology and innovation intersect, engineering stands as the cornerstone of human progress. The best way to feel the magnitude of engineering’s effect on society is by looking around: every man-made object you see is the result of engineering.


Let's delve into the various types of engineering disciplines, answer the question "what does an engineer do?" and shed light on the imperative need to entice more students to enter the profession as we speed towards building tomorrow.

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What Is the Definition of Engineering?

In brief, the definition of engineering is the use of science and mathematics to solve problems, not only for manufacturing engines or structures but for a broad variety of activities concerned with the design, development and creation of new innovative solutions to the world’s problems.

Is Engineering a Science?

This then leads to the question, "Is engineering a science?". In some regards, yes, engineers study problems and find solutions, but it is better to consider engineering as the practical application of science and mathematics. Engineers have to follow scientific and mathematical principles in their field, often using the latest developments to drive innovation forward to solve new problems.

Where Did the Term Engineering Come From?

The term ‘engineer’ comes from the Latin ‘ingeniare’, meaning to create or devise, and ‘ingenium’, which has the same roots as the word ‘ingenuity’, meaning cleverness.

Originally the term was once exclusively used to refer to those in charge of military equipment, but as technology advanced and diversified, the meaning of the term ‘engineering’ has broadened to include hundreds of applications, many of which we will cover later in this article. 

A Threaded Hex Bolt and Gears Laid Out on Graph Paper.

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What Is an Engineer & What Does an Engineer Do?

An engineer is a person who uses scientific and mathematical principles to design innovative solutions to problems for a wide variety of applications. From city construction to the manufacture of prosthetics, their role includes the research, design, manufacture and testing of their solutions.

What an engineer does often relates closely to the specific engineering discipline they have chosen, as the sector is too broad to be completely covered by a single individual. In fact, many engineers often only work on very specific parts of their chosen field, for example, an aerospace engineer may only work on aircraft engine blades.

Another example is precision engineers, like those at Accu, who focus on manufacturing mechanical components to narrow tolerances. The ‘precision’ part relates to the accuracy of the measurement of parts when manufactured so that they are best suited to their applications for function or aesthetic reasons.

A Female Engineer at Her Workstation Assembling a Project.

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Exploring the Diverse Engineering Disciplines

As you may now have worked out, engineering is an incredibly broad sector, encompassing a variety of application-specific career paths that differ considerably in their role in global development. 

There are so many engineering types that offer diverse options for students, and while there are probably too many to mention in a single list alone, we have covered the most popular.

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1. Mechanical Engineering

Mechanical engineering is most likely the first type of engineering you think of when someone says ‘engineer’. But what is a mechanical engineer? Well, it encompasses the design, analysis, and manufacturing of mechanical systems, from intricate gears that synchronise movements to robust engines that propel vehicles.

This is often considered the original form of engineering as it was the term used to describe the manufacturing of many factory machines in the Industrial Revolution. Nowadays though, mechanical engineers translate their in-depth understanding of scientific and mathematical principles to construct physical apparatus.

Some Nuts and Bolts Arranged To Illustrate What Components Mechanical Engineers Work With.

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2. Electrical Engineering

So then, what does an electrical engineer do? The answer involves exploring their core foundations, which span from a deep knowledge of electricity and how it can be used, stored and generated.

From supplying your home with power along the grid system to reverse engineering motors and manipulating magnetic forces to generate the power that flows throughout it. Without electrical engineers, we'd still be using candles and fire to light and heat our homes. Nikoli Tesla, Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison are some very well-known famous electrical engineers to name just a few.

An Electrical Engineer Working on a Distribution Board.

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3. Electronic Engineering

In a digitally interconnected era, electronic engineering is an ever-growing engineering discipline that is responsible for the design and manufacture of electronic components.

Take a moment to look around and you’ll notice the staggering impact this type of engineering has on our society today. Phones, laptops, smart speakers, and TVs are all developed by electronic engineers. That is by no means the limit though, for example, electronic precision engineers play pivotal roles in medical and aerospace technology and without these pioneers, the International Space Station couldn't exist.

3.1. Software Engineering

While not a physical engineering discipline, software engineering sometimes takes a large amount of the spotlight in electronic engineering as it is the bridge between users being able to interface with the electronic components.

Consider robots, which require programming to carry out their desired functions and send instructions to their physical components. As technology continues to drive forward the role of electronic engineers is vital to the development of society.

A Close Up of a PCB That an Electronic Engineer Is Working On.

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4. Civil Engineering

From towering skyscrapers to intricate transportation systems, civil engineering shapes our urban environments. Civil engineers construct structures taking into account their use, environment and their impact on it.

Many of the great wonders of the world were made by what we would consider civil engineers: the Great Wall of China, the Eiffel Tower and the Pyramids of Giza to name a few. Interestingly, civil engineers take an understanding of mechanical engineering and apply it to building structures; a combination of two types of engineering.

4.1. Structural Engineering

What is structural engineering? And is it vastly different to civil? Yes and no, it is effectively a sub-discipline inside civil engineering concerned with designing the materials used in buildings and structures.

For example, structural engineering focuses on manufacturing and constructing the steel and concrete frame of a building for structural integrity whereas civil engineers take this understanding and apply it to the design of the building.

A Concrete Bring With Motorcycles Going Over It To Illustrate What Civil Engineers Can Build.

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5. Chemical Engineering

Behind every process that transforms raw materials into refined products, chemical engineering orchestrates the symphony of molecular reactions. This discipline plays a crucial role in industries ranging from creating plastics to energy production. Think of companies like BP who manufacture a whole range of products relating to chemicals to help us in our daily lives such as petrol and diesel.

Looking forward, a key hurdle to overcome for all chemical engineers in this context is developing a sustainable and renewable fuel to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. Something which Accu sees as a huge priority with our commitment to net zero by 2030.

5.1. Biomedical Engineering

As a branch of chemical engineering, biomedical engineering focuses on how chemicals and devices interact with biology. Be it for humans, animals or organisms, biomedical engineering delves deep into creating synergy between organic and engineered matter.

From medicine and cosmetics to medical equipment such as pacemakers, biomedical engineers all had a part to play by employing their understanding of chemical, electronic and mechanical engineering.

An Operating Theatre With Robotics and Surgeons To Illustrate What Chemical and Biomedical Engineers Create.

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6. Aerospace Engineering

What is aerospace engineering? It propels us beyond the confines of Earth, designing and manufacturing aircraft and spacecraft allows humans to explore beyond our known reach. Every time you travel on holiday by plane, you are riding aboard the product of aerospace engineers, who designed the engines, fuselage and structure of the aircraft.

Aerospace also covers endeavours above the atmosphere; engineers create satellites, rockets and rovers to carry humanity forward to the future. Much like other branches of engineering, aerospace engineering consists of a combination of mechanical, electronic, software and much more.

A Photo of the Earth From the Inside of a Space Station.

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Nurturing Engineering Interest for the Future

In recent years, it has become evident that engineering's complexity often discourages young people from delving into careers within the industry, creating a gap in knowledge and enthusiasm. The problem lies in a lack of understanding and interest in subjects related to engineering, and a lack of belief that engineering is a viable and rewarding career path for children.

The 2017 report by EngineeringUK found that fewer than 30% of pupils aged 11-19 know what engineers do, and concluded that too few students are choosing to study subjects related to engineering.

In step The Royal Academy of Engineering, known for operating numerous workshops in schools to encourage students into the industry as well as supplying students with useful resources to develop their grasp of engineering principles. Fundamentally, it seems the current syllabus does not offer children the introductions they need to enter the demanding world of engineering, something The Royal Academy of Engineering wants to change, so those doors remain open for them in later life.

The UK government is aware of this skill gap, and the 2018 Year of Engineering was a year-long campaign intending to introduce underrepresented demographics to the world of engineering by spreading the message of what it means to be an engineer.

Young people, particularly young women, are underrepresented in the engineering industry, which has led to a problematic skills gap as fewer and fewer trained engineers are available to fill roles in an industry with a high demand for skilled workers. To combat this problem, the UK Government aims to entice 186,000 young recruits per year into the industry until 2024.

An Engineer at His Workstation Learning About CAD.

In closing, engineering is not just a field but a catalyst for human progress, driving innovations that shape our world in myriad ways. Far from a monolithic discipline, engineering is a diverse array of specialities, each with its unique role in advancing global development. As the industry grapples with a skills gap and underrepresentation, initiatives from educational institutions and the government are imperative to nurture interest and understanding in the next generation.

The future of engineering lies not just in groundbreaking technological advances, but in an inclusive, data-driven approach that solves both existing and unforeseen challenges. With its roots deeply entrenched in scientific rigour and creative ingenuity, engineering remains a cornerstone in building a sustainable, technologically advanced future.

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Q: What are some interesting facts about an engineer?

A: While there are endless facts about engineers, here are just a few:

  • Leonardo da Vinci, known for his art, was also an engineer and inventor with designs that were ahead of his time.
  • The term ‘engineer’ comes from the Latin ‘ingeniare’, meaning to create or devise, and ‘ingenium’, which has the same roots as the word ‘ingenuity’, meaning cleverness.
  • Some engineers specialise in fields that didn't exist a decade ago, like bioinformatics or renewable energy engineering.
  • Engineers are critical in disaster recovery efforts, working to restore utilities and build temporary shelters.

Q: What is the simple definition of engineering?

A: What is engineering? Engineering is the application of science and mathematics to solve real-world problems.

Q: What are the 4 main types of engineering?

A: While there are many different engineering types, there are 4 main branches which are:

  • Mechanical Engineering: Focuses on the design, analysis, and manufacturing of mechanical systems.
  • Civil Engineering: Concentrates on building and maintaining infrastructure like roads, bridges, and buildings.
  • Electrical Engineering: Specialises in electrical systems, components, and applications.
  • Chemical Engineering: Deals with processes that convert raw materials into useful products.

Q: Which engineering is hardest?

A: The difficulty of an engineering discipline often depends on individual aptitude and interests. However, Aerospace and Biomedical Engineering are often cited as challenging due to their interdisciplinary nature, combining principles from various fields of engineering and requiring a deep understanding of both engineering and other scientific disciplines.

Q: What type of engineer is Elon Musk?

A: Elon Musk is primarily known as an entrepreneur rather than a traditional engineer, although he has been deeply involved in the technical aspects of companies he has founded or led, such as SpaceX, Tesla, and Neuralink. He studied Physics and Economics but plays a key role in engineering decisions at his companies, making him a de facto multidisciplinary engineer.

Q: What is the most common engineer type?

A: Mechanical engineering is often cited as the most common type of engineering, given its broad applications ranging from automotive to manufacturing industries.

Q: What skills do engineers need?

A: In addition to a degree in your relevant engineering field, the skills that will be paramount to your success are:

  • Problem-Solving: Ability to approach complex issues and find feasible solutions.
  • Technical Proficiency: Mastery of the scientific and mathematical concepts that the specific engineering field demands.
  • Teamwork: Engineers often work in interdisciplinary teams and need strong collaboration skills.
  • Communication: Ability to convey complex technical ideas clearly to both technical and non-technical stakeholders.
  • Project Management: Skills in planning, organising, and overseeing projects are often essential.
  • Software Skills: Proficiency in industry-standard software tools, such as CAD for mechanical engineers, is increasingly important.

Q: Is being an engineer a good job?

A: Being a precision engineer is generally considered a fantastic job due to high demand, competitive salaries, and the opportunity to work on projects that have a tangible impact on society. The profession also scores high in job satisfaction surveys, particularly when engineers feel their work contributes to broader goals, such as sustainability or technological advancement.

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