Everything we use, from cars to computers and toys to telephones, has to be designed before it can be manufactured. Design engineers are responsible for making sure products work safely and efficiently and can be made economically, whether they are new products or improvements to existing ones.
Some design engineers work on a wide range of items. Others may have particular knowledge and skills, for example related to electronic or mechanical functions. Others may specialise in innovation within a particular product range, such as aircraft or domestic products.
Design engineers usually start from an idea or a brief for a product, or from a practical problem that needs to be solved. They then use their creativity and engineering skills to find a design that meets the requirements taking into account factors such as:
- Cost of development and manufacture
- Impact on the environment
- Manufacturing methods
- Availability and cost of materials
Designs may be drawn by hand in the early stages, but are usually developed on computers, using special design packages. Design engineers may then work with craftspeople to build prototype models, which they use to test the practicality of the design. They may also be involved in discussions with marketing and production people to improve, develop and often refine the design. Increasingly, modelling is done using 'virtual' systems on computers driving printers that deposit (or catalyse) material in layers to form three-dimensional objects that can be used for making prototypes.
During the designing process, the design engineers work with the production engineers and managers responsible for the production and manufacturing of the finished product.
Design engineers may specialise in any engineering discipline, mechanical, electrical, electronic, manufacturing or structural and they usually work in a team alongside other engineers and engineering technicians.
Design engineers usually work 37 to 40 hours a week, Monday to Friday, but may work overtime in the evenings or at weekends if there is a project deadline to meet.
They are normally based in a design or drawing office, or in a design section of a larger open plan office with other engineers and technicians.
They often spend much of their time at a specially designed workstation, operating a computer-aided design (CAD) system. The system may link with other designers in the team (perhaps in other parts of the world), to manufacturing areas through computer-aided manufacture (CAM) or to an external customer or client.
Some jobs involve travel to customers' premises or visits to manufacturing sites in the UK and elsewhere.
Starting salaries for graduate engineers may be up to £28,000 a year, or more.
Around two million people are employed in engineering-related work, and there are engineering companies in almost every part of the UK. There is currently a shortage of qualified and experienced design engineers.
Design engineers work in many engineering industries, including building services, electronics, shipbuilding, aerospace, power generation, railways and the manufacturing of vehicles and consumer goods. They also work in the food and sports equipment industries, television, postal services and designing the technical aspects of many other industries and services. Environmental engineering is a developing area and design engineers are increasingly involved in designing products that can be recycled, use fewer materials and consume less energy.
Design engineers may work directly for manufacturing companies or in engineering design consultancies. They may be self-employed, or work on a contract basis for specific projects or periods of time.
The Institution of Engineering Designers website lists sources of job vacancies. Jobs are also advertised in sector publications such as The Engineer and Engineering. The magazine Eureka also has a vacancy section. Several newspapers carry specialist jobs sections for engineers.
Most design engineers take a degree in an engineering subject such as materials, civil, mechanical or electrical engineering. All degrees recognised by the engineering profession are required to cover the design aspects of their specialism. There are also some courses, such as product design or industrial design, aimed specifically at practical designers who may not have full engineering qualifications but often work with engineers on the human aspects of design, such as aesthetics and work interfaces. Many degree programmes include an industrial placement.
Entry requirements for an engineering degree course vary, but generally they are at least two A levels, normally including maths and a science subject, and five GCSE's (A*-C), or equivalent qualifications. Applicants should check with individual universities and colleges.
Students may follow a bachelors honours degree route, with a top-up specialist course later, or a unified Masters course, to lead to recognition as a Chartered Engineer after appropriate experience and training. More practical students may wish to take an ordinary bachelors degree leading to recognition as an Incorporated Engineer.
There are also relevant foundation degrees or Higher National Certificate/Diploma (HNC/HND) programmes.
The Diploma in engineering and the Diploma in manufacturing and product design (available in September 2009) may be relevant for this area of work. These may lead to Engineering Technician or Incorporated Engineer status.
Apprenticeships may also be available.
Apprenticeships and Advanced Apprenticeships provide structured training with an employer. As an apprentice you must be paid at least £95 per week; you may well be paid more. A recent survey found that the average wage for apprentices was £170 a week. Your pay will depend on the sector in which you work, your age, the area where you live and the stage at which you have arrived in the Apprenticeship.
Entry to Employment (e2e) can help to prepare those who are not yet ready for an Apprenticeship. In addition, Young Apprenticeships may be available for 14- to 16-year-olds. More information is available from a Connexions personal adviser or at www.apprenticeships.org.uk.
There are different arrangements for Apprenticeships in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Many employers provide training on the job for new graduates. This may include an induction into the company's procedures. New recruits often work alongside experienced design engineers.
For professional registration, candidates should apply to the appropriate institution, which will provide advice and support to guide them through the process.
UK professional engineering qualifications are recognised and accepted around the world.
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Design engineers should:
Many design engineers continue their development by taking postgraduate degrees.
Promotion prospects depend on the size of the company, but there may be opportunities to move into roles such as senior design engineer or project manager. Many experienced engineers move into senior management roles later in their careers.
The skills learnt as a design engineer can be useful in other fields, such as research and development, other engineering roles and product design.
Engineering Council UK (ECUK),
246 High Holborn, London WC1V 7EX
Tel: 020 3206 0500
Engineering UK, Weston House,
246 High Holborn, London WC1V 7EX
Tel: 020 3206 0426
Enginuity careers website: www.tomorrowsengineers.org.uk
Institution of Engineering Designers (IED),
Courtleigh, Westbury Leigh, Westbury, Wiltshire BA13 3TA
Tel: 01373 822801
The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET),
Michael Faraday House, Six Hills Way, Stevenage SG1 2AY
Tel: 01438 313311
SEMTA (Science, Engineering and Manufacturing Technologies),
14 Upton Road, Watford WD18 0JT
Tel: 01923 238441
Women's Engineering Society
Tel: 01438 765506
Women into Science, Engineering and Construction (WISE)
Tel: 020 3206 0408
Additional resources for job seekers and those already in a job.