What Is the Difference Between a Degree in Mechanical Engineering and a Degree in Industrial Engineering?

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There are some disciplines of engineering that are so narrowly focused that there are only a few options for career paths – and just a couple thousand Americans working in those disciplines. Then there are broad engineering disciplines like mechanical engineering and industrial engineering. These branches of engineering employ hundreds of thousands of Americans. They allow plenty of flexibility and options for different job duties and titles.

Practical applications of these branches of engineering exist in just about any field you can imagine. If you would rather have a broad set of skills and versatile work experience than a more specialized education and career path where opportunities might not be so plentiful, it may be worth your while to consider degrees like mechanical and industrial engineering. Before you commit to one of these programs, though, it’s important to understand the differences between these fields so that you can choose the right major for you.

industrial engineering vs mechanical engineering

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Industrial Engineering vs. Mechanical Engineering Coursework

When you study any area of engineering, you’re in for a lot of science- and math-heavy coursework. An engineering curriculum builds upon a foundation of mathematical and scientific concepts, including laboratory courses in the life, natural and physical sciences. For both mechanical and industrial engineering majors, a sequence of calculus courses is typically required, as are classes in differential equations and potentially linear algebra. As science courses go, physics is generally considered the branch of science that is most relevant to mechanical and industrial engineering, since this is the science that deals with the motion of matter. However, students might also study chemistry and potentially biology, especially if they have an interest in industries pertaining to biomedical applications such as healthcare and pharmaceuticals.

The engineering classes you take in college will most likely be divided into your core engineering coursework, which is more general in nature and may apply to all types of engineering majors, and the coursework that is specific to your major. Core engineering classes might include introductory coursework in engineering and problem solving, the mechanics of fluids and solids, thermodynamics, engineering statics and dynamics, electrical devices and systems, materials science and engineering economics. Design projects and courses are a good way to prepare students for the demands of real-world industry practice, regardless of whether they’re pursuing a degree in mechanical engineering or industrial engineering.

Mechanical Engineering Education

The field of mechanical engineering refers to applying science and math principles to solve problems related to just about any object that can move. This includes machines and robots, but also less obvious “objects,” like the human body. The curriculum of a mechanical engineering degree program includes studies in all of the subjects engineers need to know in order to design and build machines, tools and devices that relate to machines and moving objects.

Mechanical engineering degree programs that have earned accreditation from ABET (the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology) include coursework in science, engineering principles and mathematics such as differential equations and multivariate calculus. The core curricula of ABET-accredited programs revolve around learning to design, model, analyze and build the physical components, systems and processes used in solving problems by building or improving mechanical or thermal systems. Control, materials, instrumentation, solid and fluid mechanics, heat transfer and thermodynamics are among the major concepts covered in mechanical engineering programs.

If you choose a mechanical engineering major, expect to encounter classes in the fundamentals of mechanical engineering design practices, machine theory and design and computer-aided mechanical design. Mechanical engineering students often take laboratory courses in which they explore materials, fluid mechanics, instrumentation and data acquisition, mechanical vibrations and thermodynamics, combustion and energy conversion.

Mechanical engineers must gain hands-on experience in design and manufacturing, often through internships or cooperative work programs, as well as learning in the classroom and the laboratory, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported. Mechanical engineering is among the broadest engineering disciplines, with applications in automotive, biotechnology, manufacturing, environmental control, automation and many more fields, so students’ options for internships in this field are almost endless.

Degrees in Industrial Engineering

What exactly is industrial engineering? This branch of engineering, which is also referred to as industrial and systems engineering, emphasizes the improvement of performance, productivity and efficiency of organizations and their processes and systems. 

The fields of industrial engineering and mechanical engineering overlap in some areas, especially pertaining to their applications to the manufacturing industry. Industrial engineering work looks beyond machines and manufacturing processes to address opportunities for increasing productivity and the flaws in processes and systems that waste time, effort and materials. 

According to the BLS, bachelor’s degree programs in industrial engineering typically require coursework in core areas such as production systems planning, manufacturing systems design and statistics. It’s best for industrial engineers to choose ABET-accredited degree programs, which are required to emphasize learning of the experimental, analytical and computational practices needed to integrate industrial systems. These systems encompass the real-world variables that arise in industrial settings, including energy, equipment, materials, information and people. Graduating from an accredited industrial engineering program will give students the skills needed to design and implement these complex systems and to find new ways to optimize existing systems.

In a bachelor’s degree program in industrial engineering, students are likely to start their major coursework with an introduction to industrial engineering course and subsequent classes in engineering database systems, human-machine systems and manufacturing systems and techniques. Required coursework that may surprise industrial engineering majors are classes in quality assurance and logistics and supply chain management. These courses are a good reminder that industrial engineering roles take a more comprehensive look at industrial problems and processes rather than focusing on the aspects of mechanical design specifically.

Most mechanical engineers come from an academic background in mechanical engineering, but the same can’t be said for industrial engineers. While there are distinct industrial engineering programs, many industrial engineers come to this field with an educational background in general engineering, mechanical engineering, manufacturing engineering or electrical engineering, according to the BLS.

Jobs in Mechanical and Industrial Engineering

Because fields like mechanical and industrial engineering are so broad, it can be hard to narrow down what job opportunities fit into each discipline. There is quite a lot of overlap between job titles and job duties. For example, mechanical and industrial engineering careers range from design engineer to supply chain engineer and from operations engineer to product safety engineer. Both branches of engineering require professionals to draw from their extensive knowledge of science, math and engineering theory in order to analyze and implement solutions to problems. Generally, industrial engineering combines business with engineering principles to improve profitability, while mechanical engineering focuses more closely on designing and building mechanical devices that solve problems.

For both mechanical engineers and industrial engineers, a bachelor’s degree is the most common level of education. O*NET reported that 83 percent of mechanical engineers and 59 percent of industrial engineers reported a bachelor’s degree as their highest level of education. Among mechanical engineers, an associate’s degree was the next common level of education, reported by 7 percent of the workforce, followed by some college but no degree, which 5 percent of mechanical engineers have. For industrial engineers, some college but no degree is the second most common level of education reported, accounting for 16 percent of the profession, and 11 percent of industrial engineers have a master’s degree.

Industrial Engineering vs. Mechanical Engineering Salary

Mechanical and industrial engineers both have a high earning potential, especially compared to the $41,950 median salary that the BLS reported for all occupations in the United States in 2020. However, as engineering salaries go, engineers in these two disciplines make somewhat less than the $96,310 average for engineers as a whole. Of the two professions, mechanical engineers earn slightly more. The BLS reported a median annual salary of $90,160 for mechanical engineers in 2020, compared to $88,950 for industrial engineers. Among mechanical engineers, the highest-paid 10 percent of workers earned more than $141,060 in 2020, while the lowest 10 percent of the profession made under $58,410 per year. For industrial engineers, practitioners in the lowest 10 percent of earners made less than $57,950, and those in the highest 1o percent of earners made upwards of $136,930.

For mechanical engineers, the scientific research and development services industry is the best paying of the occupation’s top employing industries. The 5 percent of mechanical engineers employed in this industry made a median wage of $104,260 in 2020. Working in computer and electronic product manufacturing, as 8 percent of the field does, puts your median wage at $97,180. The transportation equipment manufacturing industry, which employs 12 percent of mechanical engineers, paid a median wage of $92,650. The industry that employs the most mechanical engineers, architectural and engineering services, paid a median salary of $91,590. For the 14 percent of the occupation that works in machinery manufacturing, the median wage is $82,190.

Both mechanical engineers and industrial engineers earn the most money working in New Mexico, where the BLS reported that the average salary in 2020 was $117,180 and $113,920, respectively. Washington, D.C. is the next best paying area for mechanical engineers, with an average annual wage of $115,860. Maryland, California and Louisiana complete the list of the top five highest-paying states for mechanical engineers, each paying average salaries above $100,000. For industrial engineers, Washington State is the second-highest paying location, based on its average salary rate of $111,310. With an average wage of $111,300, Montana isn’t far behind. Other top-paying states for industrial engineers are Wyoming, where the average pay rate was $109,640 in 2020, and California, where industrial engineers earned a mean annual salary of $108,130.

Industrial Engineering vs. Mechanical Engineering Job Outlook

The BLS also predicts future employment based on past and current economic and market data. For the decade from 2020 through 2030, the BLS anticipated job opportunities to grow twice as fast for industrial engineers as for mechanical engineers. However, the projected growth rate for both of these professions is positive.

For mechanical engineers, the BLS expected jobs to increase by 7 percent during this decade, putting the growth rate on par with the average job growth expected across all occupations in America. Since there were already 299,200 mechanical engineers working in the United States as of 2020, even this average growth rate is likely to lead to 20,900 new job roles by 2030.

The 14 percent growth rate that the BLS has predicted for industrial engineers is much faster than the average rate of growth, which bodes well for students pursuing this path. If the BLS was correct in its predictions, another 40,000 new jobs for industrial engineers would be added to the 292,000 jobs that already existed in 2020.

For mechanical engineers, the demand for work automation machines and the hybrid and electric car industries are driving growth, the BLS reported. Industrial engineers, whose work tends to lead to cost savings for companies and organizations, opportunities are especially plentiful in industries like manufacturing and healthcare.  

Choosing Between Mechanical Engineering and Industrial Engineering

There are a lot of similarities between mechanical engineering and industrial engineering, which can sometimes make choosing between the two options particularly difficult. The difference in earning potential between mechanical engineers and industrial engineers was only a little over $1,000 per year as of 2020, and both occupations have a favorable job outlook.

It may help to think about your personality, strengths and skills, as well as what you would like your future career to be like. Both mechanical and industrial engineers need to be creative and have skills in math and problem-solving.

An important quality that you need for mechanical engineering but not necessarily for industrial engineering is mechanical skills. Mechanical engineers need to be comfortable putting mechanical processes and the principles of engineering to work in their designs, the BLS reported.

On the other hand, critical thinking is a skill that, while valuable in just about any occupation, is strongly tied to success in industrial engineering. Not all industrial problems can be solved with machinery, and industrial engineers are skilled in analyzing issues of inefficiency and lost productivity and developing the most effective solutions to these issues. Communication skills like speaking and writing are also particularly important for industrial engineers. While almost all types of engineers will need to communicate professionally in some capacity, industrial engineers often interact with many different parties, from scientists and other engineers to company managers, technicians and production personnel.

Being a good listener is an asset to either field. Success in engineering, whether you’re designing a machine or just a system to better accomplish a goal with less waste, requires you to thoroughly understand the problem. Often, the best way to really understand a problem is by listening to the people for whom you’re trying to solve the problem. 

Additional Resources 

Top 10 Highest Paying Engineering Careers

What Is the Benefit of an Industrial Engineering Degree Vs a Supply Chain Management Degree?

What Are the Benefits of Pursuing a Degree in Mechanical Engineering?

Are There Sub-Sections Within Mechanical Engineering at a Bachelor’s Level or Do I Need to Wait to Go for a Master’s to Find Specific Study Within the Field?