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What does an engineering job actually entail?

  1. Mar 17, 2013 #1


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    I'm interested in studying engineering (specifically electronics and software). I enjoy designing and creating a solution to a problem but I'm wondering if this is the case with engineers in the real world?

    Do engineers normally build / test prototypes they design?
    Are you normally allowed to be inventive or is there a load of red tape to be cut through that makes this impossible?

  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 18, 2013 #2


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    Just one real-world example for you: I worked at a company with around 50 engineers. We were a mix of Electronic, Mechanical, Oceanographic, and Acoustic Engineers. One year an exceptional Engineering graduate was hired and joined my team working on a developmental project. There were two "prototypes" for testing and evaluation and our customer was paying "cost plus" for results that met their specifications. This new guy was so creative in finding solutions that the company soon gave him his own "padded room" with enough freedom to bounce off the walls. Although he rarely wore the same color socks he contributed to our company's projects hugely. The other engineers and, most importantly, the company bosses, recognized this talent. I think he's still there, bouncing off the walls of his office.
    Now, if this describes you, rest assured you will be "discovered" and will enjoy a long and fruitful career.
    May I suggest the "Summer Internship" jobs with a company that is doing the kind of work you like. You do the homework by choosing the company, then go there and ask for a chance to get some real experience during your summer break. This gives you some of the actual real-world expericence needed to make future decisions.
    Good luck, and remain curious.
    Cheers, Bobbywhy
  4. Mar 31, 2013 #3

    So you met with a prodigy. But you haven't described your own working experience.
  5. Apr 1, 2013 #4
    Why would you want him to talk about his own work experience if it's irrelevant to what trollcast wants to know?
    Last edited: Apr 1, 2013
  6. Apr 1, 2013 #5
    I guess it would help. What's it like being an engineer and all.
  7. Apr 1, 2013 #6


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    Anyone who is interested in “what’s it like being an engineer” may begin by reading and studying this overview from Wikipedia:
    “Engineering is the discipline, art, and profession, that applies scientific theory to design, develop, and analyze technological solutions. In the contemporary era, is generally considered to consist of the major basic branches of chemical engineering, civil engineering, electrical engineering and mechanical engineering. There are numerous other engineering sub-disciplines and interdisciplinary subjects that are derived from concentrations, combinations, or extensions of the major engineering branches.”
    Don’t forget to check out the “See also” and “References” sections.

    Another approach is to work on “Summer Internships” mentioned in my earlier post. This gives the opportunity to work side-by-side with engineers on real-world engineering teams doing real projects. This, in my estimation, is the best possible way to learn the answer to the above question before making a firm commitment regarding employment.

    I was a Field Engineer. Field Engineers fulfill service contracts on-site with the customer that is using the company’s products. These contracts are an important part of the company’s profit. My main objective was to advise and instruct our end-users to get maximum utilization from the system. Many companies consider the best Field Engineers should have been a part of the Engineering team during the research, development, and testing phases of the product system.

    You will be expected to learn every aspect of installation, operation, and maintenance of the system. As the on-site representative you are responsible for giving formal training courses to system operators and to maintenance personnel, providing constant on-the-job-training, troubleshooting and problem-solving, recommending modifications, installing approved modifications, giving feedback to correct errors in technical manuals, and maintaining a liaison between all customer support issues and the company.

    This requires effective communication skills with all levels of personnel. It is imperative that you never make up an answer. When a pilot, for instance, asks the Field Engineer a specific question, he may feel a sense of importance or of authority, and say things that are not factual. Young Field Engineers are sometimes tempted to show off and deeply regret their foolhardiness when the pilot discovers he was given incorrect information. (And it may cost lives or equipment in extreme cases). A Field Engineer's reputation with the customer may be destroyed and all confidence in him may be lost. Senior Field Engineers are quick to say “Let me check the manuals and get back to you.” Clear and concise activity report and incident report writing is mandatory.

    Personally you need to be adaptable and flexible. When you accept an international assignment and live and work in another culture you give up your familiar comforts and friends. You are you own boss and must work independently without supervision. You must learn how do your job in the new environment and how to get your personal needs satisfied within the cultural limitations. Your position is partly an ambassador of our country and partly a representative of the company, so your behavior is always on display. It is not your job to evaluate and or pass judgement on the customs of people in another culture. Even if you personally disagree with some social norm, for instance, the treatment of women, it is not for you to judge the correctness of the native social customs.

    If you do your company research properly you may even select the product you’d like to work with. Then you may walk into the interview at that company and simply say, "Here I am, ready to contribute my services in the field for the company's profit." Good luck.

    Last edited: Apr 1, 2013
  8. Apr 1, 2013 #7
    Thanks Bobby. What industry did you work in?
  9. Apr 1, 2013 #8


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    Real life engineering experiences can be quite diverse. I made my career as an "analytical" engineer. I did calculations and lots and lots of simulations. I almost never got my hands on (or even saw) actual hardware.

    Sound boring? Not at all. I spent lots of time modeling for training simulators (think of flight simulators). Those are some of the world's most expensive toys.

    I ended up doing software to integrate energy markets (economics) with grid operation (engineering) and tariffs (legal). To me at least, that's a tremendously fun sandbox to play in.

    Most astronauts are engineers. Once again, the point is that the spectrum of activities is broad.
  10. Apr 3, 2013 #9
    So you worked on flight simulators? That's cool. :cool:
    I would like to do computing and work with hardware at the same time.

    I think both of you have a lot of passion for your work, which is very important.
  11. Apr 3, 2013 #10
    I second that. I work as a mechanical engineer for a company that makes UAVs. I do some structural testing on some components, but we never get to take the drones out to fly. A bunch of the people I work closely with are stress analysts who hardly ever "get their hands dirty" with hardware. It really just depends on what you're good at, what you want to do, and if you have the skill set that you need to do what you want.
  12. Apr 4, 2013 #11
    that sounds like extreme specialization.
  13. Apr 4, 2013 #12


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    tade, I worked for a Defense Contractor. The system described in post number six above was a helicopter-borne anti-submarine sonar detecting and ranging set. My company was the manufacturer. Our Navy and several foreign Navies use these products for defense. Yes, it is highly specialized.

  14. Apr 4, 2013 #13
    It's just that they're really good at what they do, have had some experience in that area already, and get paid a lot for it, so you wouldn't want them to spend their time doing something else. I'm sure they like doing that kind of work, but that's not to say they couldn't do anything else. If you were a really good chef, I wouldn't hire you to wait tables, even though you could do it. See what I mean?
  15. Apr 6, 2013 #14
    That sounds top secret. :smile: I think I would enjoy working on such a project.

    I see. But are there times when you wish you could take the drones out for a spin? :rolleyes:
  16. Apr 6, 2013 #15
    can an engineer become also a technician at the same time? Most of your work involve theoretical design but is doing ideal work also important? Because of some unknown losses/disturbance might be added to your system. Since virtual simulation today are a little inaccurate compared to reality, How do you know that you are doing it right?
  17. Apr 7, 2013 #16
    the technicians will probably complain to the guys doing the computations.

    most firms wouldn't give them flexibility
  18. Apr 9, 2013 #17
    Hahaha only every single day. :tongue: The government would shut us down hard if we did, though. But I guess we can still dream...

    Yes. Doing simulations is a huge part of engineering. In fact, finite element simulations are almost required in industry. You get to see how things will react before you build it. It's what has allowed engineering to come so far in the last 50 years.

    We don't really. We design things with "fudge factors" and overengineer things to give us some cushion and we can model everything all we like in sophisticated programs, but we just don't know how it will perform exactly. That's where testing comes in. After all is said and done, that's what gives us the hard reality. Once we figure out how it will actually behave, we write documentation and teach the technicians how to maintain the system.
  19. Apr 9, 2013 #18
    You know what they say: be a technician.

    Because you get to have fun and the engineers have to clean up after you. :tongue2:

    You might not wanna discuss your top secret military research. Look at what happened to Shane Todd. :bugeye:
  20. Apr 9, 2013 #19


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    Fun for all

    Some guys who do simulations needed data to validate their models. We sent them out in the field to do rocket triggered lightning experiments. They shot rockets trailing a wire up into thunderstorms, then observed the results.

    One of the engineers remarked, "this is so much fun I can't believe you're paying me to do this."
  21. Apr 9, 2013 #20


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    The theory guys would say you have that backwards. The real world isn't smart enough to understand their equations :biggrin:

    Serious answer: this has changed a lot in recent years. Originally, things were designed using theory and calculations, but you proved they worked properly by testing them. But the bad news is, you can't test something until you have actually built it, and if it doesn't work you often don't have enough time or money to fix it properly.

    Then somebody had a better idea: instead of testing the finished product, you do tests to find out how good your simulations are. When you know that, you only design things that you know how to simulate accurately.

    You still do a lot of tests to check out the simulations, but they are usually much better planned and executed than a "last-minute panic" to get the product shipped to the customer.

    Of course you do still test the finished products, but you don't expect anything to fail. When I started as an engineer, a project would plan on building 25 or 30 prototypes for testing (costing $millions each) and it was no great surprise if several were totally wrecked. Now, if a project leader says he needs 4 prototypes for testing, somebody is going to say "why can't you do it with only 3."
  22. Apr 9, 2013 #21


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    That somebody was Charles Proteus Steinmetz, 1865- 1926. He established that method for designing the power grid. After all, the national power grid is not something you can prototype.

    Steinmetz's followers at General Electric in Schenctady were so successful using those analytical methods that more than 50% of all the world's patents 1925-1965 had a Schenectady inventor.
  23. Apr 9, 2013 #22
    :biggrin: i like that.
  24. Apr 11, 2013 #23
    I understand your concern. I'm being careful not to divulge any proprietary secrets or methods. From what I've experienced, that's just a general engineering practice.

    This is right on the money. The better the analysis tools get, the less prototypes have to be built. When I worked in carbon-fiber composites, this really saved us on cost. Every now and again you had to do some testing, but the results weren't surprising, unless there were manufacturing defects.
  25. Apr 11, 2013 #24
    Yeah. So do you think it's more than just suicide?
  26. Apr 11, 2013 #25
    Yeah. So do you think it's more than just suicide?
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