If you’ve always been fascinated by designing and building machines, structures, and devices, then the thought of having to choose between being a mechanical designer or engineer may have occurred to you.
While their titles sound similar, there are significant differences in job responsibilities, educational requirements, and salaries. Understanding these differences can help you decide on a suitable career path.
In this article, we explore the roles of mechanical designers and mechanical engineers and compare both careers in every way possible.
Understanding the Role of Mechanical Engineers
Mechanical engineers are professionals across several industries including acoustics, aeronautics, robotics, ergonomics, healthcare, transport, telecommunications, nanotechnology and construction—to design, develop, and test mechanical systems, machines, and devices. These professionals are there from the conceptualization of a project to the end, creating solutions that meet technical requirements.
Depending on the specific industry they work in, other job responsibilities of a mechanical engineer include:
- Conducting research and development activities to identify and implement new materials, technologies, and manufacturing processes that can enhance the performance, efficiency, and durability of mechanical systems.
- Preparing and interpreting technical drawings, blueprints, and specifications.
- Analyzing and evaluating the performance of mechanical systems and components using tools such as Finite Element Analysis (FEA) and Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) to identify areas for improvement and optimize designs.
- Conducting tests and experiments to determine the strength, durability, and performance of materials and components
- Conducting cost-benefit analyses to evaluate the feasibility of new projects or products.
Understanding the Role of Mechanical Designers
Mechanical designers work closely with engineers and clients to understand project requirements and constraints, and then develop detailed designs that meet technical specifications and industry standards. In other words, they produce technical diagrams and schematics based on the specifications and plans of mechanical engineers.
The role of mechanical designers can also expand to providing guidance and support to other team members, such as junior designers and drafters, to ensure that they follow best practices and adhere to project timelines.
Mechanical Designers Vs. Mechanical Engineers: What’s the difference?
Although mechanical designers and mechanical engineers have some overlapping responsibilities, here are some major differences to watch out for:
Mechanical designers are responsible for creating detailed designs and blueprints for mechanical devices and systems. They use computer-aided design (CAD) software to develop and test prototypes, and they may work with engineers to refine designs based on feedback.
On the other hand, mechanical engineers are responsible for designing, developing, and testing mechanical devices and systems. They also work with CAD software, but their job involves more complex analysis, problem-solving, and project management.
Ultimately, mechanical engineers have a broader scope of work, encompassing the entire product design process, including research, conceptualization, design, prototyping, testing, and manufacturing. Mechanical designers, on the other hand, focus mainly on the design and drafting aspects of product development.
According to data from the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual wage for mechanical engineers in the United States in 2021 was $95,300. The lowest 10 percent of mechanical engineers earned less than $60,750 per year, while the highest 10 percent earned more than $136,210 per year.¹
The BLS does not provide separate salary data for mechanical designers, but similar professions such as drafters and engineering technicians have median annual wages ranging from $49,300 to $62,790. According to PayScale, the average salary for a mechanical designer is around $63,441 per year.² However, it is worth noting that mechanical designers may earn more or less than these figures depending on their level of experience, education, and specific job duties.
Mechanical engineers need a mix of skillsets for effective job delivery including:
- An understanding of engineering principles and their application in the design of mechanical systems.
- A strong foundation in mathematics, physics, materials science, and manufacturing processes.
- The ability to analyze and interpret data to optimize designs and improve performance.
- Proficiency in programming languages for designing and analyzing control systems.
- Strong problem-solving skills to identify and solve complex technical problems
On the other hand, mechanical designers need the following skills to succeed at their jobs:
- Proficiency in computer-aided design (CAD) software to create detailed 2D and 3D models.
- Strong spatial visualization skills to create and manipulate complex designs.
- The ability to work collaboratively with engineers and other designers to achieve project goals.
- Attention to detail to ensure that designs are accurate and meet project specifications.
- Knowledge of manufacturing processes and the ability to create designs that can be easily manufactured.
- Strong communication skills to effectively convey design concepts and ideas to team members
- Ability to prioritize tasks and manage time effectively to meet project deadlines.
Mechanical engineers typically require a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering or a related field. This degree program typically covers a broad range of topics related to mechanics, thermodynamics, materials science, manufacturing processes, and design principles. If you aim for a higher position beyond entry-level, you may need to obtain licenses or certifications to further demonstrate your expertise.
Here are some common options:
- Professional Engineer (PE) License: A PE license is required for mechanical engineers who want to offer their services to the public. The license is granted by state licensing boards after meeting certain education, experience, and examination requirements
- Certified Manufacturing Engineer (CMfgE): Offered by the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME), this certification recognizes an individual’s expertise in manufacturing processes and systems.
- Certified Energy Manager (CEM): Offered by the Association of Energy Engineers (AEE), this certification recognizes an individual’s expertise in energy management.
- Certified Reliability Engineer (CRE): Offered by the American Society for Quality (ASQ), this certification recognizes an individual’s expertise in reliability engineering.
- Green Building Engineer Certification (GBE): Offered by the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), this certification recognizes an individual’s expertise in green building practices.
Mechanical designers, on the other hand, may have a degree in mechanical engineering or a related field, but it is not always required. Many mechanical designers have an associate degree or certificate in drafting or a related field.
Mechanical designers typically work in an office environment but may occasionally visit manufacturing or testing facilities to observe prototypes and gather data.
Mechanical engineers on the other hand may work in a variety of settings, including offices, laboratories, manufacturing facilities, and construction sites. They may also travel to meet with clients, suppliers, or other stakeholders.
According to the BLS, mechanical engineering jobs are projected to grow at a two percent rate from 2021 to 2031, with an average of 17,900 openings each year.
Which Is the Better Career Option?
Neither mechanical design nor mechanical engineering is inherently a better career option—both have their unique advantages and challenges. The choice between the two depends on your personal interests, skills, and career goals.
If you enjoy creative problem-solving, have a good eye for detail, and enjoy using CAD software to develop detailed designs and blueprints, a career in mechanical design may be a good fit for you. Mechanical design may also be a good choice if you prefer a more collaborative work environment and want to work on a variety of projects in different industries.
On the other hand, if you enjoy analyzing complex problems, developing and testing mechanical systems, and managing projects from start to finish, a career in mechanical engineering may be a better fit for you. Mechanical engineering may also be a good choice if you enjoy working with advanced technologies and want to specialize in a particular field such as robotics, aerospace, or energy systems.
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- U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Occupational Outlook Handbook”. https://www.bls.gov/ooh/architecture-and-engineering/mechanical-engineers.htm. Modified last February 6, 2023. Accessed March 22, 2023.
- Payscale. “Average Mechanical Designer Salary”. https://www.payscale.com/research/US/Job=Mechanical_Designer/Salary. Accessed March 22, 2023.