There are some disciplines of engineering that are so narrowly focused that there are only a few options for career paths – and a just 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.

Mechanical engineering vs. industrial engineering

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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 revolves 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. 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.

Degrees in Industrial Engineering

What exactly is industrial engineering? This branch of engineering, sometimes called industrial and systems engineering, focuses on improving the performance, productivity and efficiency of a process, organization or system. There is some overlap between industrial engineering, particularly when applied to a field like manufacturing, and mechanical engineering. However, industrial engineering can also apply to situations such as increasing productivity and reducing waste in business settings beyond manufacturing and machines.

Undergraduate industrial engineering degree programs require core coursework in manufacturing systems design, production systems planning and statistics, the BLS reported. ABET-accredited programs include a focus on learning the experimental, analytical and computational practices needed to integrate systems that include real-world variables such as energy, information, materials, people and equipment. A student who graduates from an accredited industrial engineering program will have the skills needed to design and implement these complex systems and to find ways to optimize existing systems.

While there are distinct industrial engineering programs, many industrial engineers have an education in general engineering, mechanical engineering, manufacturing engineering or electrical engineering.

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.

Mechanical and industrial engineers both earn a median annual wage of $85,880, according to the BLS. The highest paying employer of mechanical engineers is the field of scientific research and development services, which pays a median wage of $98,530 for skilled mechanical engineers. Among industrial engineers, computer and electronic product manufacturing is the most profitable field, offering a median wage of $94,120.

More than one in five of the 288,800 mechanical engineers in the United States work in architectural and engineering services. Another 13 percent work in machinery manufacturing, 12 percent work in transportation equipment manufacturing, seven percent work in scientific research and development and seven percent work in computer and electronic product manufacturing. Among the 257,900 industrial engineers in America, 18 percent work in transportation equipment manufacturing, 13 percent work in scientific and technical services, 13 percent work in computer and electronic product manufacturing, eight percent work in machinery manufacturing and six percent work in fabricated metal product manufacturing.

The BLS predicts jobs for mechanical engineers to grow by nine percent and industrial engineers to grow by 10 percent over a decade, resulting in 25,300 and 25,100 new jobs, respectively.