What Makes an Engineer?

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Engineering is an incredibly broad term. Look up the definition of an engineer and you’ll find something like ‘someone who designs, builds, or maintains engines, machines, or structures’. Although this may be a fairly accurate description of one type of engineers, it might be limited when describing any other engineer. Because of the great diversity of people, cultures and tasks involved with engineering, it is hard to find one unanimous definition. However, an engineer will have certain shared characteristics, perform similar tasks and think alike with any other engineer. In this article we are going to investigate what makes an engineer.

Curiosity and Intuition

One thing that almost all engineers have in common is how they think about and perceive the world. An engineer is curious in the extreme, thinking about how things work, why we do things a certain way and if there is a better way to do it. This perception is driven by mathematical and scientific understanding of the world. We then use this understanding to see how things and actions are, which is interconnected to form a complex system of interactions. It’s this curiosity and intuition which drives us, and to a large extend, modern technology and innovation forward. This natural curiosity is often a natural instinct, but can also come about by exposure and training in engineering principles.

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What an engineer spends their time thinking about largely depends on what background discipline they come from. Mechanical engineers may be fascinated by the inner working of car engines, civil engineers by the stability of complex structures. As a chemical engineer, my natural curiosity is not as active when engaging with the everyday world. It tends to come out when learning about industrial processes such as manufacturing or power generation.

An Engineer Does

An interesting parallel to observe is to compare an engineer and a scientist. Although the two can work in similar fields, exposed to similar things, they both do very different things whilst being commonly reliant on each other. An easy way to sum this up is stating ‘an engineer does what a scientist dreams up’. This leads onto the next defining characteristic of an engineer. An engineer does. By that I mean an engineer is active not passive, they will persevere to act instead of think.

An engineer demonstrates their ability to ‘do’ in a number of ways. This could include the design of systems, machines and equipment, coming up with solutions to problems and implementing them, or coming up with workable ways to optimise things, to do them better. This makes the engineer valuable to all the continued operation and success of industry. This involves designing, problem solving and optimising industrial systems such as manufacturing plants or construction sites.

Engineers Create the Future

Engineering is responsible for pretty much every aspect of modern society. Look around the room you are sitting in, you won’t find anything which isn’t the product of engineering, be that the desk you are sitting at, books scattered about the place or computer/laptop you are sat at.  All of it is a result of mass production and engineering. Going forward, future innovation and changes in technology and society will also be a result of engineering. Right now throughout the world, engineers are persevering to design sustainable energy production, new consumer products or home technology innovations.

This leads me to my last and final characteristic of what makes an engineer. Probably one of their least recognised traits is their desire to shape the future. This will differ from person to person, engineer to engineer. However almost all engineers will admit to some small altruistic part of themselves, one that seeks to create a future as defined by what they can imagine. It’s that desire and motivation that will keep human kind developing and will create a better future for all of us.

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