Do engineers build things? 5 Things to Know

Do engineers build things? Engineers don’t often build things. But engineers who do build things, are almost always better designers.

To clarify, by building things I’m talking about getting your hands dirty. Actually creating something physically.

Of course, a lot depends on the industry you’re in. Some fields of engineering by default have design work mixed in with building things.

While some positions only have you sit behind a desk staring at a computer screen all day.

To better understand this question, let’s dive deeper. I’m going to go over 6 things when it comes to engineers building things.

#1 Engineers growing up with a deep curiosity

Most great engineers I know got into engineering for a specific reason.

For many, this reason was a deep curiosity for how things work. So from a young age, you start taking things apart to find out how they work.

Anything with screws becomes a good victim.

You then tried to rebuild the object by making it work better. Or making it do something it shouldn’t.

I remember taking apart my toys and even radios. I was very curious about how the sound came out of this black box.

Taking the radio apart, I didn’t find a little man hidden inside. But it made me research to learn about all these funky looking components I had discovered.

So, building things is a passion at the core of most engineers.

It’s like a surgeon who enjoyed dissecting animals in high school science classes. These students more times than not become amazing surgeons.

#2 Specialization in engineering

assembling the mars rover at jet propulsion laboratory
Assembling the Mars rover at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (Photo Credit: Laurel and Michael Evans)

Most all types of work in engineering today has become highly specialized.

For example, a widget may need 5 different specialized engineers for the design.

Because of this, one engineer alone couldn’t build the widget even if they wanted to. Sure, you can build a sloppy version of the widget.

But it wouldn’t be something you could sell to the public.

I know many electrical engineers who can put together a basic electrical circuit. You know, to power an LED or make a small motor run.

But, I don’t know any electrical engineer who can build a smartphone on their own. No way!

There’s not enough time in the day to learn so many different specialization skills. Each line of work has become too deep with the knowledge required to learn.

Plus, you’ll need mastery over many different types of tools. This level of mastery requires years of practice.

All in all, this level of specialization has created unique factories. Factories that only focus on building certain things.

These factories then employ highly specialized technicians who run the machines. As well, they work with their hands.

#3 Working in the real world

Professional industrial welder welding metal parts in metalworking factory
Professional industrial welder welding metal parts in a metalworking factory

Once you start working as an engineer, you may only do design work inside an office. Even if you want to build things, you won’t have the opportunity in most jobs.

This is especially the case in traditional engineering fields. Think of the civil, power, and structural engineering disciplines.

Many hoops exist that you need to jump through to build anything of significance. In other words, you need qualifications.

No different than how you need credentials and skills to design something.

Specialists spend their lives learning how certain tools work to build things. Thus, as an engineer, you can’t devote enough time to build anything sophisticated.

And frankly, I wouldn’t want most engineers to build the bridges we drive on. They lack the required experience and skills.

Engineers who remain involved in the construction and manufacturing process

Even if you don’t actually build things, you can still involve yourself. I’m talking about overseeing construction and manufacturing.

For example, working on-site and directing the construction of a hydroelectric facility.

In this role, you’ll do work in every step of the project. You can guide the construction and solve problems as they pop up.

Now, this work isn’t a cakewalk. You’re doing real-time problem-solving in high-stress environments.

You won’t have the opportunity to delay your decisions like you would in the office. So, if you make a mistake, you may not have a second chance to correct it.

This in itself is a highly desirable skillset.

#4 Best work options to build things as an engineer

sandia national laboratory mechanical engineer work on a b-61-12 system
Sandia National Laboratory mechanical engineer adjusts a microphone for an acoustic text on a B-61-12 system (Photo Credit: Science in HD)

If you want to do both high-end design work and build, you should start your own business.

You’ll build many prototypes of your own designs to prove a concept. Of course, again it depends on what you’re building.

Think of Nikola Tesla, he built the following things:

  • Tesla coil
  • Magnifying transmitters
  • Radios
  • Motors

If starting your own business isn’t for you, then go work at a small business. If you’re not a traditional engineer, there’s a greater chance you’ll get your hands dirty.

In certain fields like robotics and circuits, you can design and build all day.

It’s very common to build your prototype robot with your small team. Then you’ll constantly tweak the hardware and software to create the perfect robot.

There are many jobs doing this type of work like at Boston Dynamics.

In this type of role, I find there’s no better way to advance your field than to do hands-on work.

My point is, certain types of engineers focus more on building things than others. For example, in these following position types you’ll more likely build things:

  • Application engineer
  • Manufacturing engineer
  • Engineers in R&D

Then there’s academia, where you can build all types of things. Especially if you’re enrolled in a PhD program, or you just work inside of a university lab.

#5 Make it your hobby to build things

If you can’t find a job where you build things, the next best thing is to build on your own time.

A typical hobbyist has a curious mind with a passion to build things. Even if they don’t get paid for their work.

So, make it a hobby to build awesome things.

Some people build simple rockets. While others build weird electrical circuits that do all types of cool things.

The list is endless of what you can build in your own garage. Simply find what interests you and start building. Just be safe!

What’s more, many engineers do their own home repairs.

Not only does this teach you a lot about many trades, but you save a lot of money. A win-win!

#6 Theory versus practicality

Because you know the math and fancy theories, it doesn’t mean you can actually apply them.

I’m talking about applying theories in a practical way in the real world to build things.

When I was a young engineer, I thought memorizing a bunch of theories and equations would take me far. That’s the farthest from the truth.

Now, I didn’t go and build full-scale power transformers and generators with my own hands.

But, I did do the following things, which made me a better engineer:

  • Went into the field and investigated operating equipment.
  • In the field, I reviewed how all types of engineering design relate together.  For example, the design of mechanical, civil, and electrical.
  • Watched over the implementation of project designs in the construction phase.
  • Visited factories to learn about the manufacturing process of equipment.
  • Read cut-sheets of many different types of equipment. This allows me to better understand how certain equipment operates.

I find this type of real-world experience is critical for engineers. I don’t care how many engineering textbooks you read.

You NEED to venture into the real world to see and touch designs, to reach your full potential as an engineer.

This will help you better understand concepts to then design better. And just as important, you learn not to overengineer designs.

Because on paper, every design looks like a good idea. But in the real world, a design may be too costly or simply not practical.

I’m not saying you need to become a master builder to be a good engineer. But having a clear view of the entire process of a project is a great asset to have.

Thus, learning about various project types from start to completion.

Imagine the coach of a sport’s team. Most of the coaches either played the sport at one point or were in direct contact with the sport.

This is the only way to learn all the nuances of the game. Reading about the rules of the sport in a book will never make you an exceptional high-level coach.

“Do engineers building things?” wrap up

You won’t find someone like Iron Man in the real world, who has mastered both design and manufacturing. It’s two completely separate skill sets.

I know some engineers who can’t even change out a lightbulb.

So for the most part, most engineers don’t build things in their day job. But many engineers do build things on their own.

If you want to become a better engineer, I highly suggest you get your hands dirty one way or another.

Because drawing lines on a computer screen or doing fancy computations in a program won’t cut it. You’ll never gain a real world-building perspective.

It’s like trying to become the best chef, without ever stepping inside of a kitchen. Hands-on experience is key!

Do you think it’s beneficial for engineers to learn how to build things? What do you think is the relation between designing and building?

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