Do engineers build things? 6 Things to Know!

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

To better understand the importance of building things as an engineer, I’ll go over 6 things you need to know.

#1 Growing up with a deep curiosity

Many engineers I know, got into engineering due to a deep curiosity for how things work. From a young age, they took apart devices to find what’s inside. Then, they either rebuilt the device, or made the device do something it shouldn’t.

I vividly remember taking apart my radios. I was deeply curious about how sound came out of these black boxes. To my surprise, I didn’t find little men hidden inside with microphones. Instead, I researched to learn about all the funky looking parts I had fondly discovered.

Not surprisingly, building things is a core attribute of future engineers. It’s like a kid who is deeply curious, when dissecting animals in a science class. These students often 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 product designs, require the skills of many specialized engineers. Then add in product complexity, and engineers can no longer directly take part in building. Instead, computers, machines, and highly skilled technicians do the building. The engineers would just supervise.

For example, many electrical engineers can wire together a basic electrical circuit. But no electrical engineer can alone assemble together a smartphone. There’s not enough time in the day to learn many different specialization skills.

Plus, the detailed assembly work requires precision robotics and mastery over many tools. With the latter, technicians train for endless years to master their craft.

#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

Most jobs don’t offer the opportunity to build things. Especially, in traditional engineering fields like civil, structural, and power.

If you do happen to find a position to build things, you’ll need to get in early. Because you need to master the required skillset and obtain the mandatory credentials. No different than how you need credentials and skills to do design work. It’s a liability matter.

Frankly, I wouldn’t want most engineers to build the bridges we drive over. Most lack the required experience and skills, and are not built to work with their hands to such a degree.

Engineers who remain involved in the construction and manufacturing process

Even if you don’t build things, you can still be a part of the construction and manufacturing. With most all my projects, I go to the construction sites to overview my design work. Then sometimes, I visit factories to watch the manufacturing of my specified equipment.

These roles are all part of the engineering process, but you’re not hands on. The work isn’t a cakewalk though. You may do real-time problem-solving in high-stress environments.

#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 both design and build, start your own business. You’ll have the chance to build many prototypes of your own designs to prove a concept. Of course, it depends on the industry you’re in.

Think of Nikola Tesla, a genius engineer, who built the following:

  • Tesla coil
  • Magnifying transmitters
  • Radios
  • Motors

Now, if starting a business isn’t for you, find a job where you can work with your hands. In certain fields like robotics, you can design and build all day. Check out somewhere like Boston Dynamics, where hands on work is a necessity.

The point is, certain types of engineers focus more on building things than others. And in the following position types, you’ll increase your chances of building things:

  • Application engineer
  • Manufacturing engineer
  • R&D engineers

Then there’s academia, where you can build all types of cool devices and systems.

#5 Make it your hobby to build things

If you can’t find a job to build things, the next best thing is to build on your own time. Make it a hobby to build awesome things. Then maybe your hobby turns into a business, and if nothing else, you’ll grow as an engineer.

Some people build rockets, while others build robots. Just find something you enjoy and be safe.

Another avenue is to do your own home repairs. You’ll learn a lot on various trades, which carry over to engineering, while saving money.

#6 Theory versus practicality

When I was a young engineer, I thought memorizing a bunch of theories and equations would level me up. Boy, was I wrong.

Now, I didn’t go and build full-scale power transformers and generators. But, I did do the following, which made me a better engineer:

  • Visited the field to investigate energized and de-energized equipment
  • In the field, reviewed how the design of all types of engineering relate together
  • Closely watched over the implementation of project designs in the construction phase
  • Visited factories, to learn about the manufacturing process of equipment
  • Read equipment cut-sheets, to better understand equipment operations

This real-world experience is critical for engineers, and is not found in textbooks. You NEED to venture into the real world to see and touch designs, to reach your full potential as an engineer.

In return, you better understand what good and bad design is. Because on paper, every design looks great. But in the real world, a design may be too costly or simply not practical. So if you can’t build, go observe!

I compare this to the coach of a sport’s team. All great 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. Just reading about the rules of the sport in a book will leave countless holes in your coaching.

“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. Because it’s two completely separate skill sets. I know some engineers who can’t even change out a lightbulb.

So for the most part, engineers don’t build things in their day job. But many engineers do build things on their own. And if you want to become a great 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 real world project implementation perspectives. It’s like trying to become the best chef, without ever stepping inside of a kitchen. Hands-on experience is the key to maximizing your success!

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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