Mechanical engineering covers a diverse range of engineering fields with five major areas of study: solid mechanics and dynamics, fluid mechanics, thermodynamics, mechanical design, and engineering management. Examples of more specialized areas of work are acoustics, aerodynamics, biomechanical engineering, combustion engines, energy conversion systems, environmental engineering, material science including fracture and fatigue, robotics and vehicle design.
The undergraduate program initially exposes students to a wide range of topics covering the fundamentals. Advanced courses and electives provide more specialized knowledge and emphasize applications. Many courses include experimental laboratories to give students hands-on experience with current engineering and measurement equipment. Throughout the program, several courses are devoted to mechanical engineering design. Working on individual and group projects, students apply engineering principles to challenging design projects and develop communication skills through oral and written presentations as well as preparation of drawings for fabrication in the department's machine shop. Computers are used extensively in the program; students are involved in programming and in using engineering analysis and design packages.
Areas of Study
Solid Mechanics and Dynamics
Mechanical engineers are involved in the design of structures and mechanical components to safely withstand normal working stresses. Many structures and machines are also subjected to additional stresses caused by vibrations, for example, due to the imbalance in a compressor or engine, and these effects can be critical for their safe use. Stress analysis predicts the internal loads in a component and allows the designer to select materials and shapes suitable for the service the component will experience. Traditional materials such as steel and aluminium as well as recently developed materials such as ceramics and fibre-reinforced composites are considered to optimize the component's performance.
Fluid mechanics is concerned with the motions of liquids and gases and the machinery that causes that motion (e.g., pumps) or uses it (e.g., windmills). Applications include acoustics, aerodynamics, meteorology, pollutant dispersion, pumps, fans, turbines, pipelines, and lubrication. Mechanical engineers with a specialization in fluid mechanics, design, and improve a wide range of fluids-related equipment as well as investigate concerns related to the flow of water and air in the environment. Another major area of work for mechanical engineers with a fluid mechanics background is in the aerodynamics industry designing everything from wings to jet engines.
Applied thermodynamics is the study of energy conversion from one form to another. A typical application is electricity production. Energy from the combustion of fuels like coal, oil, or natural gas is used to heat a fluid such as air or water, and then the fluid is expanded through machinery to produce mechanical work and drive a generator. The electricity produced is an easily transported form of energy that can be used at locations remote to the original energy source. Mechanical engineers with a specialization in thermodynamics design and improve power plants, engines, heat exchangers, and other forms of equipment. Specific examples include heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems for living space and industrial processes, use of alternate fuels in engines, and reducing pollution from internal combustion engines.
The design process starts with recognizing a need for a new product, device, or industrial process and then carries on to defining the problem to be solved, gathering necessary information, performing the required analysis and optimization, building prototypes, and evaluating different concepts. There is usually no single correct solution for a given design problem as different designs may all solve the same problem. Some designs are better than others, as they may be lighter or more efficient or cost less, so that by constant refinement and iteration throughout the design process, acceptable designs can be made.
Many engineering graduates spend a significant part of their career as managers of plants, companies, or other engineers. Engineering management bridges the gap between engineering and management. These engineers deal with areas such as management of engineering processes, engineering economics, operations management, quality improvement, quality control, and the use of computers in business.
Biomedical Option in Mechanical Engineering
Applications of mechanical engineering to biomedical problems range from understanding the intricacies of fluid flows in the heart and lungs to the design of artificial joints, implants, orthopedic devices, and medical equipment and instrumentation. Exciting opportunities exist for innovative solutions to numerous health care problems by applying knowledge contained within the discipline of mechanical engineering. Such solutions typically require interdisciplinary teams for which the broad background in fundamentals obtained in mechanical engineering is an asset. Examples include the ever-increasing use of mechanical systems to assist or replace various portions of the anatomy, and the application of system modeling and design methods in areas from diagnosis to aids for rehabilitation.
For students considering a career in this expanding area, the Department of Mechanical Engineering offers two choices within its program. Both include all the broad core of mechanical engineering studies which are enhanced by the biomedical options. Both provide a good preparation for graduate studies in the biomedical engineering field. The first, which is available to all students, replaces the elective courses in the regular program with a stream of essential introductory courses in biomedical engineering and a course in biomechanics.
The second is a degree option, for a limited group of students in the cooperative engineering program, that includes a number of additional required courses and a four month clinical placement at a hospital or research institute. The overall length of the program is the same as for the regular co-op programs in the department. The additional courses are specified to provide a well-rounded introduction to biomedical engineering and biomechanics. Electives can be chosen from an approved list of courses to suit the interest of the individual student. Students completing this option will be granted a degree in Mechanical Engineering (Biomedical). With a suitable choice of electives (supplemented by at most two additional courses), students will also be qualified to apply to the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry at the University of Alberta.