Every Engineer Should Know How To Turn A Wrench

A lot of engineers have never worked on a car before. Or as mechanics say, they’ve never turned a wrench. I’ve graduated with some bright engineers that didn’t know the difference between a socket wrench and a torque wrench. That has always surprised me. My father was a mechanic and he taught me to fix cars before I could even drive. These skills have helped me tremendously as an engineer not only on the job but in getting jobs as well.

Mechanics vs. Engineers

Before I was an engineer, I was an auto mechanic. I remember lying under a car on the cold ground trying to avoid oil drips, thinking “Who in their right mind designed this crap?!”

Well, engineers did. This is the perpetual fight between mechanics and engineers. Engineers design it so mechanics can’t fix it and mechanics despise engineers because they have to fix it. I’m exaggerating a little bit here but there is some truth to it. If you’ve ever had to change a part on your engine that didn’t exactly have a lot of room to get it out, it does make you wonder.

Once you get into engineering, you start to realize that there are a lot more important factors that go into design than ease of access. I’ve dealt with engine design only a little but I know that it’s one of the biggest challenges automotive engineers face. Think of everything you are packing into that tiny space under your hood. Not only do you have the whole mechanical powertrain, you need to include a smart braking system, a power generation system, a cooling system, and an emissions system that monitors itself constantly.

Not only is this difficult enough already, but it needs to be as light as possible, as cheap as possible, and as reliant as possible. There are emissions and safety standards to meet as well. Not only is there an onboard diagnostics system built into every car, there is a wide array of sensors to detect failures and leaks.

So ease of access doesn’t rank too highly on the list of priorities for automotive engineers. Although it certainly does rank on there somewhere and that’s why engineers should have an idea of what the next guy to work on it is in for when they design something.

Learn How Its Built In Order To Design It Better

The thing about all of this progress we’re making is that so much stuff has been done before. Think about it this way. Newton spent his whole life inventing calculus. He did a lot of other things as well but calculus was one of the big ones. It’s what he’s known for and calculus was his life’s work.

Now think back to modern times. Students start being taught calculus as young as 14 years old! If you’re an engineer, you’ll mostly likely learn calculus by your sophomore year at the latest. And guess what? Nobody is going to praise your name because you learned calculus. It’s expected of you. This means that you need to work harder in order to even get to the point where you get a chance to invent something new.

You need to learn calculus before you can expand on calculus. As an engineer, you need to learn how existing things work, so you can invent better ways to make them work. Or you need to learn how things work in order to find out what nobody has thought of yet. What can you invent that has yet to be discovered? What is something you always wished existed? Maybe you don’t know yet. That’s why you need to get your hands dirty in order to really see what is out there.

Not only this but sometimes other designs give you good ideas. Use other people designs for inspiration. You could spend a week thinking of the best way to make the front wheels of a vehicle drive AND turn. Try it out if you don’t already know. Then compare it to how an actual steering system on a car works and see how you did. Odds are that the existing ones are far better. They’ve had almost 200 years of testing to get right.

This is just an example to show you that before you start designing, it’s wise to do a little research. I still make this mistake all of the time at work, but when a machine breaks, I rarely think to ask someone else if they have seen that problem before. Instead, I go about diagnosing the problem myself. Sometimes I figure it out. Sometimes I have to ask for help. In any case, it usually turns out that another engineer has seen a similar problem before and can guide me in the right direction.

Now if that problem ever arises again, I’ll know what to do about it. Just like how my knowledge of fixing cars applies to problems on the job.

Can Help You Out At Home

Working on things lets you know how things work on other things. Most parts like gears, fittings, and enclosures don’t vary that much from an industrial setting to a home setting except in durability. A bearing is a bearing. Yes, bearing design is a science in itself but operationally they don’t change very much. Your car has bearings and so does your skateboard. If you know how one works, you know how the other works.

Same with fittings and hoses. If you can change a radiator hose on your car, you can install a toilet. You should also have a general understanding of fluid mechanics from college so you should know how to diagnose leaks, and how a fluid system acts if there is air trapped inside of it.

You become more self-reliant. You won’t have to call a plumber to fix a leak, an electrician to install an outlet, or a cable guy to setup a TV. Learn how to fix a seemingly simple thing, and you’ll learn how to fix the more complex things.

Many of you probably played with Lego’s as a kid, or took apart a broken toaster when you were younger to see how it works. Well, if you’ve never turned a wrench, do something similar now. Learn how the little things work. Next time something breaks on your car, do a little research online to see if other people with a similar make and model of car have had similar issues. You may find that the fix is doable yourself. Save a few bucks and learn something new by doing it yourself.


There is a lot to gain by doing the hands-on work yourself. After all, how can you design something new if you don’t know how the old stuff works? Try getting your hands dirty once in a while and you’ll be surprised at what you learn.

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