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From mechanical to structural engineering

From mechanical to structural engineering

From mechanical to structural engineering

Hi there,

I am a mechanical engineer and would like to get more involved with structural analysis of steel structures. I have many years of experience in FEM and stress analysis using Abaqus and would like to use this knowledge in civil and structural engineering. I have worked mainly in the automotive and aerospace industry for now. If you could help me with some of the questions to start with:

- Is it realistic to use my mechanical engineering knowledge and structural mechanics in structural and civil engineering? From what I can see in structural engineering FEM analysis are not that detailed and it is more a question of following the code you are using for design.
- what would be the most important aspect of structural mechanics when calculating steel structures? I can see that there is a lot of emphasis on the stability of structures. I have good experience in buckling and also in geometrical and material nonlinear analysis. Is there any other aspect that I would have to master for structural analysis.
- I have worked with EUROCODE, but am far from understanding it in detail. Any suggestions for a literature that would have a more "hands on" examples of steel structures being calculated by EUROCODE?

Many thanks,


RE: From mechanical to structural engineering

Personally I feel that many mechanical engineer's don't have the chops for structural consulting. And that isn't meant to be a shot at you guys, it's just my experience.

A large part of structural consulting is gut feelings and proper detailing. Yes our FEM type analyses could be considered rudimentary by many standards however it gives us the answers we need to make appropriate design decisions.

That being said, it's not unheard of, nor impossible to make the change. I do feel that with your background it would be tough for you to be profitable for the first while. In general (I can't speak to your locale) the fees for structural engineers is far lower than others. We therefore can't spend an exorbitant amount of time analyzing structures and finessing designs down to the perfect bolt size and spacing. Many times the design consists of canned details that we know will work in certain situations. There just isn't the fees or time to spend on jobs.

To me, the most important aspect of structural engineering is having an appropriate sense of scale. Does that 200 deep beam spanning 6m make you feel good? probably shouldn't. Does that 900 deep beam spanning 3m look right? Probably shouldn't. Also, general stability of structures is important, not in the finite details sense, i.e. buckling, for the most part, but overall stability of the structure. How am I going to keep the entire building from falling over is one of the first questions I ask myself when I get a new job.

But that's just my two cents.

RE: From mechanical to structural engineering

You certainly can make the transition, but there will be a learning curve. You most likely will also have to understand how to analyze concrete structures which is a whole new subject matter.

You are correct. On average, the FEA that a civil/structural would run is typically a bit less refined than what you would see in the Automotive/Aerospace industry. You will probably find that you will be using less solid and shell elements and more plate and 2D line elements. Stress analysis is typically not something that most structural engineers do. You could perform stress analysis on a complicated steel connection or a unique base plate, but a lot of analysis that we do is force based. There is certainly buckling analysis and dynamic analysis that needs to be run on the civil/structural side. You may deal a fair amount with geometric nonlinear analysis but probably less with material non-linearity. One thing that would be new would be running a dynamic analysis on a foundation while considering soil-structure interaction. But then again, there are some Structural Engineers that NEVER use FEA. That's not a bad thing, it's just the type of work they do doesn't require it.

The most important aspect to feel satisfaction, however, is to find the correct company to work for. If it's a large enough company, they will probably have dedicated engineers that run FEA analysis. If they pull in exciting work, the job may be fulfilling. If they do rather ordinary structures, then yes, you will find that it is going to be more "following the code for design." This should not be misconstrued as being easy, however, as design work has its own challenges. There is this whole artistic side to design that involves drawing and detailing and making irrevocable decisions.

In the US, some of the more innovative companies would be those like International Bridge Technologies, T.Y. Lin, Michael Baker, Magnusson Klemencic, to name a few. However, working for the bigger companies comes at a cost.

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