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The work of a mechanical engineer begins with research and development. A private aerospace company, for example, may need to develop a more fuel-efficient aircraft engine, or engineers employed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) may be asked to create a cooling and heating system for a space exploration vehicle. A mechanical engineer working in the research department explores the project's theoretical, mechanical, and material challenges. The engineer may conduct experiments to gather necessary data and acquire new knowledge. Often, an experimental device, such as a flight demonstrator, or system is developed. A mechanical engineer may be assigned to oversee the design, development, and testing of the flight demonstrator, which will test and validate various technologies during orbital flight, reentry, and landing of the space vehicle or other vehicles or technologies.
The design engineer takes information gained from research and development and uses it to plan commercially useful products, for example, photonic systems. The aviation industry uses such systems of lasers for gyroscopic compasses; military uses include systems for avionic platforms, navigation, defense, and search and rescue missions. After the product has been designed and a prototype developed, the product is analyzed by testing engineers. Engineers working for the military, for example, could fine-tune a "photon pistol" capable of shooting the secret code to launch defense missiles. Design and testing engineers continue to work together until the "photon pistol" could send its particles of light accurately and to some distance along fiber optic cables. Once the final design is set, it is the job of the manufacturing engineer to come up with the most time- and cost-efficient way of making the product without sacrificing quality. The amount of factory floor space, the type of manufacturing equipment and machinery, and the cost of labor and materials are some of the factors that must be considered. Engineers select the necessary equipment and machines and oversee their arrangement and safe operation. Mechanical engineers often need to work closely with other specialists such as chemical, avionics, electrical, and industrial engineers to finish the project.
Some types of mechanical systems, such as a telescope used for space and planetary exploration, are so sophisticated that mechanical engineers are needed for operation and ongoing maintenance. With the help of computers, maintenance and operations engineers use their specialized knowledge to monitor complex production systems and make necessary adjustments.
Mechanical engineers also work in marketing, sales, and administration. Because of their training in mechanical engineering, sales engineers can give customers a detailed explanation of how a machine or system works. They may also be able to alter its design to meet a customer's needs.
In a small company, a mechanical engineer may need to perform many, if not most, of the above responsibilities. Some tasks might be assigned to consulting engineers, who are either self-employed or work for a consulting firm. At large government organizations, a mechanical engineer may just focus on one of the above responsibilities.
Other mechanical engineers may work in a number of specialized areas. Energy specialists work with power production machines to supply clean and efficient energy for space and aircrafts. Application engineers specialize in computer-aided design systems. Structural analysts may monitor the static, fatigue, and stress damage to mechanical systems of military aircraft or spacecraft.