What Is Design in Mechanical Engineering? (With Types)

Indeed Editorial Team

Updated 27 March 2023

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Mechanical engineers are doers and innovators. They design, create, build and shape the world around us and the world of our future. Design is a key branch of study in mechanical engineering, as it is the process of designing parts, components and products with an understanding of design constraints and the environment. In this article, we explore the question What is design in mechanical engineering?, the types of mechanical design, why design is crucial for mechanical engineers and career possibilities.

What is design in mechanical engineering?

Design in mechanical engineering refers to creating, designing and building new machines that improve the efficiency of existing ones. Some of the biggest human achievements, from smart cars to the international space station, were possible because of the innovative design and unique thinking of the world's top mechanical engineers. As a mechanical engineer working in design, you can create solutions to solve a specific problem or address a particular human need.

Design is a crucial branch of study in mechanical engineering and requires a good knowledge of various subjects, including:

  • mathematics

  • engineering mechanics

  • kinematics, statics and dynamics

  • theory of machines

  • strength of materials

  • engineering drawing

  • workshop processes

Related: Top 10 Jobs for Mechanical Engineers

Basics of mechanical design

Whether building a machine from scratch or modifying an existing component to make it better, mechanical engineers must have a sound knowledge of machine design. To design a component or product that is efficient, consider these three key factors:

  • Feasibility: With feasibility, you can check if you are able to manufacture the product within the existing constraints.

  • Efficiency: Efficiency helps you understand if your design can achieve the necessary objectives and goals.

  • Testing: With testing, you are evaluating if the product meets the design criteria across scenarios.

Related: Who Is a Design Engineer? A Comprehensive Career Guide

Why is design important in mechanical engineering?

As a mechanical engineer at your workplace, you are responsible for ensuring that the final product meets the various functional requirements. Mechanical design plays a crucial role in helping mechanical engineers design the framework of a product and the structure of components to achieve the desired objectives. With a proper mechanical design, it is less likely that the product has to experience a redesign in the future.

For example, teams of mechanical engineers may individually design various components of a car. Sound knowledge of mechanical design helps mechanical engineers:

  • select the suitable materials for the product

  • design the best shapes for a product

  • calculate load dimensions and strength of the materials

  • provide detailed drawings to aid the manufacturing process

Related: Mechanical Engineering Skills: Examples and Definition

10 types of design in mechanical engineering

Mechanical design, also referred to as machine design, is classified in these 10 ways:

  1. New design: This design requires technical skills, problem-solving expertise, analytical skills and creative thinking. Mechanical engineers who create, draft and build new designs are in high demand across industries and workplaces.

  2. Adaptive design: In this process, the engineer focuses on adapting existing designs. The primary goal here is to make minor modifications or alterations to existing product designs.

  3. Development design: This involves modifying an existing design into a new product or idea by using new materials or following a new manufacturing method.

  4. Rational design: This design relies on mathematical formulae based on the principles of mechanics to create new designs.

  5. Empirical design: Empirical design relies on empirical formulae based on past experiences and practice.

  6. Industrial design: Industrial design is one of the most well-known and commonly used machine designs. It involves the production of a mechanical component to address the needs of a specific industrial process.

  7. Optimum design: True to its name, it is often the best design to achieve a given objective under specified constraints.

  8. System design: System design is the process of designing the complex mechanical system of a complicated mechanical device like a car. It includes designing the various components of the system.

  9. Element design: Element design is the design of a specific element of a mechanical system like a piston, crankshaft, bearing, housing or connecting rod.

  10. Computer-aided design: This type of design includes the process of designing using computer software to assist in creating, analysing, modifying and optimising a design.

Critical attributes of mechanical design

Here are some attributes of mechanical design you may find useful to know:

  • It is a problem-solving process. Mechanical design is a powerful approach to problem-solving. During the design process, mechanical engineers approach the problem from various angles and build possible solutions in each step or phase.

  • It is purposeful. The design process always begins with a clear goal that a team can follow to find purpose in their work.

  • It is designing under constraint. During the design process, engineers must choose solutions that offer the desired results with the fewest negative characteristics. Designers must consider the various limitations, like cost, time and the potential absence or difficulty of specific tools or materials.

  • It is iterative and systematic. Mechanical design is a step-by-step process, with the steps sometimes being repeated and not always in the same order. The various stages include planning, modelling, prototyping, building, testing and improving existing designs.

  • It is social and collaborative. Mechanical design teams include several people with different expertise and varying experience. Designers have to regularly communicate with other team members and clients and use their inputs to refine the design.

Steps in mechanical design

In mechanical design, the design process often changes to suit a specific scenario, and professionals can manage this in several ways. The general structure of a design problem is:

  1. Identify the problem and define the aim. The first step is to understand the problem thoroughly and prepare a detailed statement of what needs to be achieved. It involves defining the aim, purpose or need for which the machine should be designed.

  2. Select the synthesis. This step involves selecting the possible mechanisms or technology to achieve the desired motion.

  3. Analyse the forces. Calculate the forces acting on each element of the machine and the energy generated or lost by each component.

  4. Select the material. This is a crucial step and involves choosing the optimal material for each member, or component, of the machine.

  5. Design individual elements. This step involves designing each machine element by considering the various forces acting on the components and the permissible stresses for the materials.

  6. Make modifications. If needed, modify the size of the individual members to agree with past experiences to facilitate manufacture. You may also need modification to stay within time and cost constraints.

  7. Create detailed drawings. In this step, the engineers provide detailed drawings of each component, along with assembly and manufacturing instructions.

  8. Complete manufacturing. This is the final step of machine design. Keeping with the specifications, the machine or component is manufactured on the factory floor or workshop.

Related: Which Is the Best Branch in Engineering?

3 crucial mechanical engineering factors

These factors can impact the success of mechanical design projects:

1. Understanding stress or force

It is important to know what type of environment the part will be in and the stresses it may experience each day. A mechanical engineer must do thorough research about operating conditions before creating their design. For example, a machine that performs well in cold environments may break down in hot and humid climates and vice versa. Mechanical engineers account for varying operating conditions in their design.

2. Understanding materials

After understanding the stresses of the operating environment, the next decision to make is to select suitable materials. Certain materials are more resistant to warping and corrosion, whereas other materials hold up better to friction and heat. The weight of the material you choose is also important. Design engineers have to consider all these details during machine design.

3. Understanding the manufacturing technology

Before the design is final, the engineering team must have a firm understanding of the available manufacturing technology. Very often, mechanical engineers work with the manufacturing team at the workshop to discuss the limitations and challenges of manufacturing technology at their disposal. Your design may look excellent as a CAD model, but if you are unable to manufacture it with available technology, then it may not be a good design.

Related: How To Become a Mechanical Engineer

Career possibilities for mechanical design engineers

A career in mechanical design requires a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering with proficiency in engineering design software like AutoCAD, Solidworks and Rhino. A mechanical engineering degree focusing on machine design, although completing a certification in engineering design can also provide you with plenty of opportunities across industries. A mechanical engineer with experience in mechanical design can find lucrative jobs in several sectors, including automotive, aerospace, national laboratories, product companies and many more.

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