Design Engineers reviewing a new design before sending drawings for prototyping.

What is a Design Engineer?

design engineer is an engineer focused on the engineering design process in any of the various manufacturing processes like designing machined parts, sheet metal formed parts, injection molded parts, thermo formed parts, 3D Printing (otherwise known as additive manufacturing), cold formed (drawn) parts, etc. Design engineers tend to work on product parts that involve designing with the use of CAD – Computer Aided Design.

The design engineer usually works with a team of other engineers and other types of designers (e.g. industrial designers), to develop conceptual and detailed designs that ensure a product functions, performs, and is fit for its purpose. They may also work with marketers to develop the product concept and specifications to meet customer needs, and may direct the design effort. In many engineering areas, a distinction is made between the “design engineer” and other engineering roles (e.g. Manufacturing Engineer, Process Engineer, Quality Engineer). 

When an engineering project involves public safety, design engineers involved are often required to be licensed – for example, as a Professional Engineer (in the U.S and Canada). There is often an “industrial exemption” for engineers working on project only internally to their organization, although the scope and conditions of such exemptions vary widely across jurisdictions.

Design Engineer Duties

Design engineers may work in a team along with other designers to create the drawings necessary for prototyping and production. However, with the advent of CAD and solid modeling software, the design engineers may create the drawings themselves, or perhaps with the help of many corporate service providers.

The next responsibility of many design engineers is prototyping. A model of the product is created and reviewed. Prototypes are either functional or non-functional. Functional “alpha” prototypes are used for testing; non-functional prototypes are used for form and fit checking. Virtual prototyping and hence for any such software solutions may also be used. This stage is where design flaws are found and corrected, and tooling, manufacturing fixtures, and packaging are developed.

Once the “alpha” prototype is finalized after many iterations, the next step is the “beta” pre-production prototype. The design engineer, working with an industrial engineer, manufacturing engineer, and quality engineer, reviews an initial run of components and assemblies for design compliance and fabrication/manufacturing methods analysis. This is often determined through statistical process control. Variations in the product are correlated to aspects of the process and eliminated.

The design engineer may follow the product and make requested changes and corrections throughout the life of the product. This is referred to as “cradle to grave” engineering. The design engineer works closely with the manufacturing engineer throughout the product life cycle.

The design process is an information intensive one, and design engineers have been found to spend 56% of their time engaged in various information behaviors, including 14% actively searching for information. In addition to design engineers’ core technical competence, research has demonstrated the critical nature of their personal attributes, project management skills, and cognitive abilities to succeed in the role.

The design engineer is the creative force and initiator behind a the launch of a new or improved product. Though difficult at times it is always a very rewarding career path when they see something they conceived out in the marketplace.