University & Degrees

All you need to know about engineering

6 mins
January 17, 2022

What is engineering?

Snowboards, running trainers, computers and bridges - what do they all have in common? They all work because they were designed by engineers! 

In the 20th century, engineering quite literally electrified the nation. It took us into the sky and out into space. It gave us cars and highways, made our waters cleaner and safer and revolutionised the way we produce food. Today engineering is one of the biggest and broadest industries with almost 5.7 million people working in engineering in the UK. So…

We’ve all heard of the term engineering, and chances are we’ve seen some of it in practice whether that’s at our local car garage or watching an episode of Inside the Factory. But what is engineering, and how does it differ depending on the speciality?

In a nutshell, engineering is the use of science and maths to design or make things. Engineers usually design or build machines, structures, and other items, including bridges, tunnels, roads, vehicles and buildings. Some engineers use their skills to solve technical problems across a broad range of sectors, from manufacturing to pharmaceuticals, tech and food.

In the late 1800s, the engineering profession began to divide into particular disciplines, such as civil, mechanical and electrical engineering. In this article, we’re going to go into a bit more detail about the most popular types of engineering, so you can decide if it’s right for you. 

What do engineers do?

Engineers invent, design, evaluate, develop, test, modify, install, inspect, and maintain various products and systems, from buildings to software. As we said before, there are loads of different types of engineers, but the one thing they all have in common is the desire to innovate. 

Without engineers, we simply wouldn’t be where we are today; you wouldn’t even be reading this! Think about where you’re sitting (or standing) and consider how many things around you wouldn’t be around if not for the work of engineers. Did you boil the kettle to make yourself a cup of tea or use the microwave to warm up your lunch? Are you listening to music through the headphones of a smart speaker? You get the gist! Below, we’ve listed and summarised some of the things that engineers get up to.

Engineers design and develop:

  • tools that keep us safe and comfortable
  • technologies that entertain and connect us
  • systems that transport us across town or to elsewhere in our galaxy
  • devices that help detect, monitor, and treat illnesses and injuries and enhance our overall quality of life
  • infrastructures that make our lives run smoothly, from roads to the national grid
  • structures that shelter us
  • processes that deliver electricity, fossil fuels, and every other type of energy to power our modern lives

and that's not even close to an exhaustive list!

What is civil engineering?

Civil engineering is one of the oldest engineering disciplines and is the biggest sector within engineering as a whole! It deals with the built environment. Roads, railways, tunnels, buildings, bridges, airports, mines, dams, ports and harbours, water supply and sewerage systems, and flood mitigation works are all shaped by civil engineers.

Essentially, civil engineers design, construct, manage and maintain the infrastructure of modern society. Civil engineers combine theoretical and practical knowledge to master the planning, budgeting, management and analysis of projects large and small.

Civil engineers can work in a wide range of industries, including:

  • Construction
  • Water utilities 
  • Transportation
  • Landfill 
  • Geotechnology 
  • Sustainability

Civil engineering is an exciting and satisfying profession to work in because at the end of the day you can see the results - whether that’s a bridge, a skyscraper, a train station, or an international airport.

What is mechanical engineering?

Mechanical engineering focuses on objects and systems in motion, and it’s one of the most diverse engineering fields. Mechanical engineers research, design, build, test, maintain and improve all manner of things we use across our daily lives and society. 

The field requires a deep understanding of the core concepts of mechanics, thermodynamics (science that deals with the relations between heat and other forms of energy) and materials. Mechanical engineers use these concepts and principles, alongside computer-aided design tools and project management tools to deliver a wide range of products. These products range from power plants to renewable energy systems, electrical generators to robots, manufacturing systems to aircraft engines.

Mechanical engineers play critical roles in a wide range of industries, including:

  • Automotive
  • Aerospace
  • Biotechnology
  • Computers
  • Electronics
  • Microelectromechanical systems
  • Energy conversion
  • Robotics and automation
  • Manufacturing

…to name just a few!  

What is chemical engineering?

Chemical engineering is the science of converting/altering a substance's chemical, biochemical or physical state. Chemical engineers are responsible for developing economic and commercial processes to convert raw materials into useful products. For example, petrol, plastics, and synthetic fibres such as polyester and nylon all come from oil and a chemical engineer could tell you how!

Chemical engineers apply engineering skills to chemistry in order to…

  • help mitigate pollution
  • optimise waste management
  • refine fuel products
  • make energy systems more productive 
  • revolutionise agricultural processes
  • work hand-in-hand with manufacturing operations to consider the broader environment.

Chemical engineers tend to work in laboratories, processing plants, engineering design offices, corporate head offices and research institutions such as universities. As a chemical engineer you could work in any of the following industries: 

  • gas and oil extraction
  • nuclear 
  • power generation and processing
  • pharmaceuticals
  • chemicals
  • fibres and polymers
  • food and drink
  • plastic and metals
  • pulp and paper
  • toiletries.

What is electrical engineering?

Electrical engineers create, design and manage electricity to help power the world! They are problem-solvers who apply the physics and mathematics of electricity, electromagnetism and electronics to process, harness and transmit energy.

Electrical engineers work with all kinds of electronic devices which transform society, from the smallest pocket devices to large power stations and supercomputers. They use a diverse range of technologies and help with the design of a broad range of systems - including telecommunication systems, electrical power stations and satellite communications and even household appliances.

In the emerging field of microelectronics, electrical engineers are also involved with designing and developing small-scale electrical systems and circuits in computers and mobile devices.

Electrical engineers are in high demand across many industry areas, including:

  • Mobile networking
  • Building and manufacturing
  • Construction and trades
  • Renewable energy
  • Global Positioning System (GPS) technologies
  • Banking and finance
  • Management and consulting

What is software engineering?

Software engineering is the branch of engineering that applies scientific and mathematical principles in order to create computer software. Simply put, it’s a set of instructions and data which tell the computer what to do and how to work. It refers to a huge variety of programs, procedures and routines which govern the operation of a computer system.

Software engineering involves working out what the software requirements are, i.e., what does the software need to be able to do? Then come the processes involved in design, development, testing (for bugs*) and maintenance.

*A bug: an error, flaw or fault in a computer program that causes an incorrect or unexpected result.

Examples of computer software include:

  • Operating systems and applications: word processing, spreadsheets, accounting, database management, graphics, computer-assisted design (CAD), computer-assisted manufacturing (CAM), audio, video, media and games.
  • Networking and communications: World Wide Web (WWW), voice over Internet Protocol (VOIP), instant messaging and email.
  • Utilities: file handling, disk management, device drivers, archiving and backup systems.
  • Programming languages: editing, compiling and debugging.
  • Security: antivirus, firewalls, encryption and user authentication.

How much do engineers make?

Engineering is an in-demand industry and has been identified as an area with a skills shortage across the UK, meaning there are lots of grants available for people wishing to study engineering. How much an engineer can earn varies significantly depending on a range of factors, including:

  • Location - city-based engineers tend to make more as this is where the biggest employers (with the most cash!) tend to be based.
  • Industry - for example, the oil and gas and tech industries typically pay more than the transportation industry.
  • Specialism/discipline - for example, chemical engineers tend to make electrical engineers (with most professions the more study needed to get qualified or skills/knowledge shown, the more money made!)
  • Sector - in most cases, the private sector pays more
  • Experience - the more experience you have, the more money you make!

Having said all that, the average annual salary for an engineer is £48,000, with junior engineers expecting an average starting salary of around £24,000. For experienced engineers in lucrative sectors, salaries can exceed £150,000.

How do you get engineering work experience?

A lot was jam-packed into this article but hopefully, you’re one step closer to working out whether you want to be an engineer. If you think engineering is right up your street, why not take your first steps into the exciting world of engineering by completing our engineering virtual work experience - you’ll get to test your knowledge and question the experts!

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