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8 Jobs You Didn’t Realise Engineers Do|
Engineering covers an extraordinarily broad range of skills and knowledge.
One definition of engineering is using scientific principles to design, build and analyse objects, machines and structures. Where a mechanic might be able to build a car based on experience of how the parts fit together, an automotive engineer is someone with a scientific and technological understanding of why the parts fit together in that way. The same principle holds across just about any other engineering discipline: being an engineer means not just being able to build an object, but understanding the principles behind why the object is built in that way.
It turns out that this kind of understanding is vital across a wide range of different fields, and that means that people who have studied engineering have an astonishing array of possible careers open to them. In this article, we take a look at some of the stranger and more exciting jobs you might not have realised engineers could do.
Unless something changes considerably in the next few years – and don’t completely rule it out – being a Mars Rover driver is likely to remain one of the most niche jobs in the world, with only a handful of people working in this role at any time. But what you may not have realised is that the people who drive Mars Rovers such as Curiosity and the long-lasting but recently deactivated Opportunity frequently have an engineering background.
It’s a role that requires astonishing dedication, including living according to a Martian day (about 40 minutes longer than an Earth day) to make sure that the rover is operated in daylight. But it also represents a unique opportunity to expand the realms of human knowledge – and who could fail to be excited by a job that involves driving a robot around an alien world?
The process of operating a rover is hugely technical, including programming its movements and assessing the terrain so that the astonishing expense of the mission isn’t ruined by the rover driving into a crevasse it can’t get out of again. It also means navigating the 20-minute delay for commands to reach the rover, and the same delay again for the rover’s signals to reach Earth. This requires deep understanding of the rover’s hardware capabilities, its programming, and the physics of communicating between planets, among other things – exactly the skillset of an engineer.
It might be strange to think of food being engineered, but it makes sense when you consider it further. Much of our food production process is hugely technical.
Take a banana yoghurt as an example. The bananas on sale in the UK are almost all Cavendish bananas, which are seedless and therefore sterile, so grown from clones. This lack of genetic diversity means that the crops are vulnerable to disease; engineers play a role in keeping crops safe. The bananas are grown in countries like Costa Rica and shipped to the UK – again, food engineers figure out how best to transport them for maximum freshness and minimal damage. On arrival, the bananas are transported to a factory for use in yoghurt production. Engineering is a crucial component in designing production processes and ensuring that health and safety requirements are adhered to.
After that, the yoghurt needs to be put into pots – and designing those for storage and freshness is another engineering challenge – and sent to supermarkets, where more food engineering is required to maximise the shelf-life of products including the banana yoghurt. At the end of the process, food engineers work to minimise waste in food production. And that’s a vastly simplified view of the role of food engineers in a single product – just imagine how much complexity there is across food production as a whole, from standard products like yoghurts to particular niches like food for people in famines or high-energy foods tailored for the needs of athletes.
The development of machine learning is one of the most exciting trends in technology today, and it’s a field that’s only likely to grow. Machine learning is the concept that instead of needing to programme a computer to perform a specific task or series of tasks (e.g. “drive the car forwards”), it will instead be programmed in a way that enables it to perform tasks without specific direction (e.g. “drive the car to work”). While machine learning is still in its infancy, it means that countless tedious jobs could be automated, so they don’t have to be carried out by humans.
Making machine learning work means combining vast quantities of data with software that may look quite unfamiliar to a traditional programmer. The role of a machine learning engineer is to make this happen: to bring data, programming and customer needs together to develop a product. They have to understand both programming and data science, and be able to take a bigger picture view of the project as a whole. If that sounds like a demanding career, it is – the result, though, is that machine learning engineers are in demand and very well paid for the work that they do. And as a machine learning engineering, you’d have the opportunity to be working on a cutting-edge technology that could reshape the modern world.
The design and engineering behind children’s toys is exceptionally demanding. First, you’re working for multiple audiences: toys have to appeal to children (the end users) and their parents (the customers; the ones with purchasing power), and their requirements can be completely different. Second, products have to work to very high safety standards, in challenging conditions. Nothing gets stress-tested as thoroughly as a toddler’s favourite toy. It has to be able to withstand being thrown around, sat on, chewed and goodness knows what else. All the materials used have to be safe for the developmental age of the child – and the knowledge that their younger siblings might grab it and also need to be safe from potential injury. All that, and it has to be appealing and entertaining to play with.
It’s a challenging job, but it’s also obviously a fun one. Becoming a toy engineer is hugely competitive and nearly everyone who gets into this field does so because they really love making toys. Another useful attribute to have is knowledge of child development, or indeed practical work experience with children – either would help you succeed in getting a role in this area, which would typically be with a large toy company such as Hasbro or Lego. And with a great deal of luck, your work might turn out to be the next big thing that parents are queuing to buy at Christmas.
April’s fire at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris has brought the importance of conservation into the spotlight, and naturally, engineers have a role to play. Ancient buildings that we want to preserve for their history or their beauty pose several engineering challenges. It may be that a structure has survived to the present day only because it has been inaccessible for most of its history, and complex engineering is required to ensure that modern-day access doesn’t lead to the destruction of the site that tourists have come to see. One example where this has failed is the caves of Lascaux, where microbial and fungal growths have spread due to human access, and which may now never again be open to the general public to preserve the paintings from complete destruction.
Other sites have been accessible for their entire existence but now face much higher numbers of visitors than they were ever designed for. Others still may be coming to the end of their natural lifespan, the materials used in their construction simply wearing out. And conservation engineers also have to balance to desire to preserve buildings in their historical state with the need to comply with regulations, ensure safety from fire and other possible sources of damage, and make historic buildings accessible to visitors. Specialist training and certification is available for engineers who are interested in exploring conservation as a career.
Have you ever been to see a band or singer perform in a huge stadium, where the stage has moved around them, and the special effects have been incredible? Or maybe you’ve seen a circus, dance performance, acrobatics show, or anything else that happened on a massive stage and left you astonished? If so, you’ll have seen the work of entertainment engineers: using cutting-edge technology to make live performances look incredible.
The competition is on for artists to make their performances ever more dynamic and exciting, and entertainment engineers have to make sure that everything runs flawlessly – and that no accidents occur. You might have heard the famous story of Van Halen insisting their rider included a bowl of M&Ms with the brown ones removed. That’s because their set was so technical that any deviation from their requirements could endanger their health. If the line in their contract about M&Ms had been ignored, then chances are something else in there, something intended to keep them safe, had also been ignored. It’s this combination of attention to detail and desire for spectacle that makes for a good entertainment engineer. And as a bonus, you’ll probably get to see some amazing shows.
Clothing is yet another aspect of daily life that we might not think about as requiring engineering, and the areas of fashion and engineering might seem worlds apart. But fashion engineering is both real and necessary. A fashion engineer is not the same thing as a fashion designer; where a designer might come up with a concept for a beautiful evening gown, the role of the engineer is to make that into reality.
Fashion engineers look at the materials and construction of clothing, especially in looking at how a design can be mass-produced. Fashion engineers therefore also work on fashion production, such as designing machinery or tools. Not all machinery is appropriate for all fabrics, and finding the right fabric for a garment can also be crucial – as you’ll know if you’ve ever decided against buying something because it was dry-clean only – and some fabrics take dyes more easily than others. The element of engineering in the world of fashion is more evident in fields like sportswear, where style is less important than the performance of the garment; for top sportspeople, it’s obvious how much of a difference the right footwear can make, but even something like clothing could help in shaving the crucial half a second from a time. In other fields still, what might be important is that a garment is hard-wearing, so the role of an engineer is in testing and developing fabrics, yarns and ultimately garments that will last a long time even under strain.
One of the most dangerous but also often most lucrative roles you can have as an engineer is becoming an engineer diver. This is someone who carries out engineering tasks underwater – something which is required in a variety of settings. A well-known setting is which engineer divers works is on offshore oil rigs, but they can also work on civil infrastructure such as bridges and dams, or on ports or ships. Engineer divers aren’t just required in civilian life, either; they’re frequently employed by the army. Army divers might use their experience in a wartime context, but they could equally use it in a humanitarian setting, in order to repair or at least stabilise underwater infrastructure in the aftermath of a natural disaster.
Engineer divers require a particular set of skills: not just engineering expertise and experience, but also competence as a diver, and the ability to work under pressure, often in dangerous conditions. Unsurprisingly, a high level of physical fitness is a must. All in all, it makes for a demanding combination. Being an engineer diver is very hard work – but it’s undeniably exciting too.
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