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Electrical and Electronics Engineering: What’s the Difference?

October 15, 2019 by Sam Holland

People tend to think of electrical engineering and electronic engineering as the same. Even more confusing is the fact that many engineering graduates leave the university with a joint degree in both fields. However, several differences exist between the two disciplines...

Things to Know About Electronics Engineering

Electronics engineering is a subfield of electrical engineering: it deals with electronic circuits and devices and the systems that utilise them. It also covers very-large-scale integration (VLSI), which we’ll cover later.


What Do Electronics Engineers Do?

Electronics engineers design and test the electronic circuits behind a wide range of applications in industrial, communications, transportation, and more. For their work, they utilise mostly passive electronic components (such as resistors, inductors, capacitors, and diodes), which are integrated into PCBs. Unlike electrical engineers, they primarily work with low voltage (between 50 to 1,000V for AC and 75 to 1,500V for DC).


Areas of Specialisation in Electronics Engineering

Electronics engineering is divided into several subfields, which include (but are not limited to) telecommunications, robotics, and computer engineering:

Telecommunications engineering: this deals with the systems and devices that enable data and voice communications, such as fixed-line telephones and cellphones, fibre-optic cabling systems, and digital satellite systems. Telecommunications engineers design, build, test, and troubleshoot communication systems equipment.

Robotics engineering: this deals with the design and manufacture of robots (and robotic systems) for industrial automation, healthcare, agriculture, transportation, and more. The idea behind robotics is to see robots that perform duties that are dangerous, complicated, or generally too tasking for humans to achieve efficiently.

Robotics engineers spend much of their careers designing, configuring, and testing robots, alongside designing the software systems that control them.

Computer engineering: this combines computer science with electronics engineering to develop hardware components and software programs for computers and/or computer-based systems.

Computer engineering is a very broad subfield that encompasses software and firmware development, analogue and digital systems, mixed-signal circuits, microcontrollers, VLSI chips, and more.

The aforementioned field of VLSI, moreover, is a special area of computer engineering that deals with the building of small-footprint integrated circuits that hold thousands, even billions, of transistors on a single chip. Computer engineers design, test, integrate, and innovate computer and computer-based software and hardware systems.


A close-up of chip electronics

A close-up of chip electronics. Image credit: Pixabay.


Where Do Electronics Engineers Work?

Electronics engineers work in all kinds of industries that utilise electronic circuits and computerised systems, e.g., defence, nanotechnology, healthcare, radio, and satellite communications, etc. They may also work in teams that comprise engineers from other disciplines.


Things to Know About Electrical Engineering

Electrical engineering deals with the production, transmission, and application of electrical energy. Similarly to electronics engineering, it is a broad field: it involves work on electronic systems, power systems, electromagnetism, and much more.

Indeed, electrical engineers operate in a great many industries and facilities, including power distribution stations, automotive plants, and aerospace facilities. And as virtually every type of organisation requires some form of electrical system or machinery, electrical engineers must be on-hand to design and maintain such technology.


Electrical Engineering Duties

Electrical engineers design, test, and troubleshoot all kinds of electrical devices and equipment. Unlike electronics engineers, electrical engineers can work with anything—from low voltage to high and extra-high voltage (i.e. several thousands of kilovolts). For their work, electrical engineers utilise test and safety equipment, such as digital multimeters, insulation testers, and personal protective equipment—e.g. high-voltage insulation gloves and safety shoes—and so on and so forth.


Areas of Specialisation in Electrical Engineering

Electrical engineering is divided into several subfields. These include:

Power systems engineering: this is a core field of electrical engineering that deals primarily with the generation, utilisation, transmission, and distribution of electric power, as well as the equipment and machines involved.


An example of electrical power transmission technology: an outdoor electrical substation

An example of electrical power transmission technology: an outdoor electrical substation. Image credit: Pixabay.


Power systems engineers typically hold a bachelor’s or master’s degree in Electrical Engineering.

Instrumentation and control engineering: this covers the art and science of operating and maintaining instruments used to test, measure, and control several process variables within an industrial environment.

Instrumentation and control engineers may utilise electronic components and devices that test for pressure, temperature, speed, volumetric flow through pipes, and more.

Systems engineering: this integrates management and engineering techniques to design and manage systems of varying complexities over lifecycles.

Systems engineers utilise systematic thinking and problem-solving methodologies, such as system architecture, system modelling and simulation, reliability analysis, and, of course, decision making.


An electrical engineer taking notes
An electrical engineer taking notes. Image credit: Pixabay.


Ultimately, electrical engineering and electronics engineering are branches of the same root. In many cases, engineering students at the university take up the same courses for the first few years before they decide to specialise in one or more aspects. Graduate electrical and/or electronics engineers usually hold a 4 or 5-year bachelor’s degree. Practising or licensed engineers may use the title of ‘Eng.’ or ‘Engr’ (and so on) in their names.

Both fields require a highly analytical mind, an aptitude in mathematics, and problem-solving skills to scale through. Throughout their careers, electrical and electronics engineers alike will apply proven theories and principles to solve real-life challenges and continuously learn on the job. And as is so often the case in such technical roles, the relevant software skills are also critical to building a successful career in both fields.

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