What Is the Difference Between Mechanical, Civil and Electrical Engineering?

When we talk about engineering, it’s easy to forget that the profession is made up of very separate disciplines. The three main engineering branches are Civil Engineering, Electrical Engineering and Mechanical Engineering, and there are significant differences between them.

Civil engineers are concerned with the design, construction and maintenance of the built environment we see around us every day. They’re responsible for not only ensuring buildings are constructed safely and in the right way, but also creating the necessary infrastructure of bridges, roads, dams and railways. Civil engineering is traditionally subdivided into a number of further disciplines, which include environmental, geotechnical, construction, coastal, transportation, water resources, structural, material engineering and surveying.

Civil engineers work in both the public and private sectors. This means they could be undertaking infrastructure schemes for local government as well major projects for multinational companies, but also much smaller jobs for private individuals. Major projects which civil engineers have been heavily involved in recently include the 2012 Olympic stadium and Crossrail, which is extending the rail network beneath London.

The job of electrical engineers on the other hand, is to study electricity, electronics and electromagnetism and how they can best be applied. This means they design, maintain and improve products that are powered by or produce electricity. So electrical engineers are involved with the development and construction of large-scale electrical systems for power transmission and distribution, and control motors. Sometimes electrical engineers are also called electronics engineers, though electronics engineers are more specifically focused on using electricity to power electronics. This means that an electronics engineer might design the computer system for a car, while an electrical engineer would deal with the electrical systems that powered those electronics.

Of particular interest to electrical engineers currently is finding new ways to create and then use renewable power more efficiently in our daily lives. Consequently, they are increasingly involved in the development of solar, wave and wind systems and in the development of electric cars and their charging points.

Finally, mechanical engineers handle the design and construction of machines. This can see them working on all manner of engines and turbines for all kinds of applications – cars, lorries, ships, aircraft, pumps and fans, air-conditioning and refrigeration systems, building services, industrial plants and manufacturing processes.

So they need to know about many different specialist areas such as thermodynamics, fluid mechanics and mechanical design, as well as computer and electronics engineering, acoustics, noise and vibration control and increasingly medical bio-technology.

In this field, they use their expertise as the ‘motion specialists’ in a team that’s working to design, build and install artificial body parts. So they will work with doctors and biologists to create such things as artificial limbs that have to be designed to withstand the stresses of everyday life, using materials that are compatible with the human body.

Each of these three areas of engineering offers exciting opportunities for those in the profession. With new technologies, materials and ideas being developed all the time, this will lead to ever greater specialisation, with each branch becoming even more sub-divided and varied.