How Does a Mechanical Engineer Find a Niche in the Auto Industry?
Posted: 12/Feb/2018

Perhaps you’re a mechanical engineer or engineering student interested in an automotive engineering career, and in the course of your research you do an image search on “automotive engineer.” The stock photos that come up might show a team of white-coated engineers examining a massive F1 racer engine, or a young well-dressed man smiling into his laptop screen with a shiny, disassembled Lamborghini in the background. “This looks cool and fun!” you might think. And most importantly, not at all boring or dull.

Like most stock photos these far-fetched examples are not at all accurate, but fortunately for mechanical engineers, there are gratifying career opportunities in the automotive field. So how does an engineer find his or her niche in automotive industry? And, what is beyond all the engines, laptops and six-figure supercars?

How Mechanical and Automotive Engineering Relate?
First, to state the obvious: Mechanical engineers employed in automotive are not the same as automotive mechanics. Non-engineer laypeople often mix up mechanical engineers working in automotive and automotive mechanics. Automotive mechanical engineers usually work for manufacturers at many points in the manufacturing chain, designing and testing parts and systems. Auto mechanics, by contrast, are employed in garages and dealerships and perform repair and maintenance operations on individual vehicles. Thankfully, professional engineers rarely mistake the two.

In short, automotive engineering is a subset of mechanical engineering. Despite the revolutionary advances in automotive technology over the past decade or so, cars and other vehicles are still predominantly mechanical. While fuel sources may be gradually shifting from fossil fuels to electric, solar or hydrogen, vehicles still convert this energy into torque to drive a vehicle.

Of course, a car’s engine is not the only mechanical part. Vehicles are enormously complex and consist of thousands of individual parts, many of which are mechanical. Think of all the inconspicuous mechanical components in an automobile cabin: latches, seatbelt systems, seat adjustment hardware, levers for opening the trunk, hood or gas cap and many more. All of these components require design and testing, which is performed for major manufacturers by mechanical engineers.

As far as training and education, automotive engineering is usually offered as a minor or specialization to a mechanical engineering degree. These programs add specialized courses on powertrain design, body and chassis systems and crash testing to the existing mechanical engineering curriculum. Many institutions — like the University of Michigan, Kettering University in Flint, Michigan, and Ohio State University — also offer masters degrees strongly geared toward automotive engineering. Students in these programs study more advanced topics such as fuel cell design, emissions and vibration monitoring and automotive bioengineering.

The Day-to-Day Job
Like many other fields, engineers entering the workforce are often shocked at how little hands-on engineering work is involved. After years of heavy mathematics, thermodynamics and mechanics courses, entry-level engineers in many fields spend their days in meetings, writing reports, keeping documentation and assimilating to corporate culture.

Many working engineers profess that their education mainly taught them how to reason, think and solve complex problems. Even if they never apply 90 percent of the book learning they performed in school, this learning laid the foundation for effective and creative problem solving. Automotive engineering is no different.

Budding engineers may be tempted to romanticize the automotive track as one in which they’ll be designing the next great innovation, whether this is a powerful new engine, fuel system or chassis. But the reality is that there is a limit to career paths within automotive, and many roles simply focus on designing, maintaining and testing safe, acceptable parts. A young mechanical engineer shooting to design a groundbreaking supercar bound for an auto show floor may wind up with the role of front seat engineer on an unglamorous domestic sedan. Working on these components is incredibly important for maintaining a safe and ergonomic vehicle, however.

It’s also important to note that auto manufacturers tend to operate conservatively. The major auto manufacturers are responsible for producing millions of vehicles that meet copious safety and emissions standards, so the status quo usually wins out. That said, it takes large numbers of dedicated engineers to integrate multiple mechanical systems into a quality vehicle, which is an exciting prospect in itself.

Simply put: The vast majority of automotive engineers won’t be helping to disrupt the industry or even working on an engine, but they will likely find a decent amount of hands-on, important work to do.

Choices for Education
As stated earlier, a mechanical engineering student bent on working in the automotive field may have the opportunity to specialize in an automotive track or minor. That said, a student looking to keep his or her options open or with a less certain career trajectory would be wise to earn a straight mechanical engineering degree. Mechanical engineers are in demand in an enormous variety of industries, including automation and control, robotics, optics, alternative energy, manufacturing, materials and more. Many of these – especially automation and alternative energy – are growing rapidly and show few signs of letting up.

Students interested in automotive who choose not to specialize in their degree program can supplement their education through other activities geared toward automotive enthusiasts. Formula SAE, which is operated by SAE International, challenges engineering college students to design, build and test their own small Formula-style racecar. The 2017 North American Formula SAE Competition in Brooklyn, Michigan, saw 120 teams totaling over 2,200 students race each other in their custom vehicles. Joining a professional organization like SAE can be a great way to get a foot in the door in automotive, too.

Similarly, the U.S. Department of Energy sponsors a number of Advanced Vehicle Technology Competitions, challenging student teams to apply advanced technology to existing designs. Participating in programs like these while obtaining a mechanical engineering degree is a great way to gain hands-on experience in automotive engineering without formally specializing. They teach students how to effectively work as a team and integrate multiple components into a cohesive vehicle – a cornerstone of automotive engineering.

The automotive industry has undergone major innovations within the past decade, but mechanical engineers are still going strong in that market. Whether working with engines or latches, design or testing, they keep major manufacturers and their suppliers churning out safe and reliable vehicles.

By:Jonathan Fuller