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Design Engineer

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 of existing ones.

Starting from an idea or a brief for a product or from a practical problem that needs to be solved, they use their creativity and engineering skills to find a design that meets the requirements, taking into account factors such as strength, safety, reliability, cost of development and manufacture. Designs may be drawn by hand in the early stages, but are usually developed on computers, using special design packages.

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 and spend much of their time at a specially designed workstation, operating a computer-aided design (CAD) system.

Salaries range from about £28,000 to over £50,000 a year.

Design engineers should:

  • be creative and good at solving practical problems
  • have good IT skills and spatial awareness
  • have a good understanding of engineering principles
  • know the qualities of metals and other materials.

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. They work in a wide range of engineering industries, the food and sports equipment industries, television and postal services and designing the technical aspects of many other industries and services.

Most design engineers take a degree in an engineering subject, such as materials, civil, mechanical or electrical engineering. Some courses, such as product design and industrial design, are aimed specifically at practical designers, who may not have full engineering qualifications but often work alongside engineers on the human aspects of design. Many degree programmes include an industrial placement.

There are also relevant foundation degrees or Higher National Certificate/Diploma (HNC/D) programmes. The Diplomas in engineering and manufacturing and product design may be relevant for this area of work. Apprenticeships may also be available.

New recruits often train alongside experienced design engineers, as well as working towards further qualifications leading to professional engineer status.

The skills learnt as a design engineer can be useful in other fields, such as research and development, other engineering roles and product design.

 

What is the work like?

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, eg 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:

  • strength
  • safety
  • reliability
  • efficiency
  • 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 (rapid prototyping).

During the design 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.

Hours and environment

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.

Salary and other benefits

These figures are only a guide, as actual rates of pay may vary, depending on the employer and where people live.

  • Starting salaries for graduate engineers may be up to £28,000 a year, or more.
  • Experienced engineers can earn over £40,000, depending on their professional status.
  • Senior engineers may earn over £50,000 and may work at board level.

Pay rates have been increasing steadily in recent years reflecting the general shortage of engineers at all levels.

Skills and personal qualities

Design engineers should:

  • be creative and good at solving practical problems
  • be able to do complex calculations
  • have good ICT skills and spatial awareness
  • have a good understanding of engineering principles
  • be able to explain things clearly in writing and face to face
  • be able to read and prepare engineering drawings
  • know the qualities of metals and other materials
  • be knowledgeable about manufacturing processes and construction methods
  • work well as part of or leading a team, but also on their own.

Interests

It is important to:

  • have an interest in how things look and work
  • enjoy finding practical and innovative solutions to design problems.

Getting in

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 (IED) 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.

Entry routes

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 GCSEs (A*-C), or equivalent qualifications. Applicants should check with individual universities and colleges. Students may follow a BA Hons 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/D) programmes.

The Diploma in engineering and the Diploma in manufacturing and product design may be relevant for this area of work. These may lead to Engineering Technician or Incorporated Engineer status. See further details on their websites.

Apprenticeships and Advanced Apprenticeships provide structured training with an employer and, from August 2009, pay at least £95 per week. A recent survey found that the average wage for apprentices was £170 a week. 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 on the Apprenticeship page on this website, from a Connexions personal adviser or at www.apprenticeships.org.uk

Training

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.

Getting on

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.

Further information

EngineeringUK. Website: www.engineeringuk.com

Enginuity. Website: www.enginuity.org.uk

The Engineering Council (ECUK). 020 3206 0500. Website: www.engc.org.uk

The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET). 01438 313311. Website: www.theiet.org

Institution of Engineering Designers (IED). 01373 822801. Website: www.ied.org.uk

SCENTA - careers information in science, engineering and technology. Website: www.scenta.co.uk

The Science Council. 020 7922 7888 Websites: www.futuremorph.org and www.sciencecouncil.org

SEMTA (the Sector Skills Council for Science, Engineering and Manufacturing Technologies). 0845 643 9001. Website: www.semta.org.uk

Women's Engineering Society. 01438 765506. Website: www.wes.org.uk

Women into Science, Engineering and Construction (WISE). 020 3206 0408. Website: www.wisecampaign.org.uk

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