What Is the Difference Between Electrical and Electronic Engineer?

At first glance, the differences between electrical and electronics engineers might seem so nuanced that it may feel easiest just to think of them as the same role. You wouldn’t be alone in doing this, but you’d also be wrong in assuming that there aren’t any significant differences that set the two disciplines apart.

Electronic engineering is actually a sub-category of electrical engineering, so whilst the theory and practice behind the two different approaches are very similar, they focus on different aspects of systems and items that use electricity.

An example of how this works is that an electronics engineer might design a computer chip, and an electric engineer would work to integrate that chip into the wider computing system. Or, an electrical engineer will figure out how to convert audio and visual data on a phone into electrical signals, whilst an electronics engineer will design the components and circuits that make the phone function.

Whether you’re considering specialising in one of the roles or you’re an employer looking to hire an electronics or electrical engineer, understanding what sets these two positions apart from one another is important. This post outlines the specifications and responsibilities, explains the key differences, and covers what professional scenarios are better suited to an electrical versus electronics engineer.

What is Electrical Engineering?

Electrical engineering is an engineering discipline that involves the design and creation of machinery, equipment, devices and systems that use electricity to function. It is based on electrical and electromagnetic theory and the application of these theories in a variety of different projects, from power generators and distributors to navigation and radar systems.

Projects in electrical engineering tend to be large scale, developing new methods or using existing ones to utilise electrical technology and optimise processes in infrastructure. Electrical engineers may also design product standards, maintain and repair electrical equipment, and enhance existing electrical systems or machinery.

Electrical engineering is quite a broad discipline, and there may be intersections with other sectors including robotics, transport, energy and systems engineering.

What does an Electrical Engineer Do?

The role of an electrical engineer involves having a broad knowledge of electrical processes and systems, along with understanding how to apply engineering principles and concepts to plans, projects and data as well as a range of machinery and equipment. Most electrical engineers work as part of a team that may include other engineers, technicians, and designers, but some field or commissioning engineers may work independently for most of their role.

In their day-to-day job, an electrical engineer might:

      • Plan and respond to project briefs from clients
      • Complete feasibility studies
      • Create circuit diagrams, 3D prototype models and project plans using digital software
      • Design new electrical systems and products which use these systems 
      • Interpret design specifications
      • Read technical plans
      • Study technical specifications and safety guidelines to ensure their work meets official standards
      • Estimate project costs
      • Develop project schedules
      • Attend team meetings or location inspection
      • Service electrical equipment and machinery
      • Diagnose problems with electrical equipment and machinery and find solutions
      • Write equipment or system test guidelines
      • Write project reports and reviews

What is Electronics Engineering?

Electronics engineering is a sub-sector of the electrical engineering discipline. It involves the design and development of electronic circuits and the components of electronic devices and products, using electrical and electromagnetic theories and engineering knowledge.

Projects performed by electronics engineers tend to be smaller scale, focusing on products like phones, GPS devices, broadcast or communication equipment and audio-visual items. They are more likely to work on individual aspects of engineering projects than electrical engineers, focusing on designing and installation elements of circuits and systems like resistors, capacitors, diodes, integrated circuits and inductors.

As well as being a key part of the wider electrical engineering sector, electronics engineers may also work in computing, robotics, manufacturing and transportation industries.

What does an Electronics Engineer Do?

An electronics engineer’s role will involve having a good understanding of general electrical principles as well as more specific experience and knowledge of electronic components and how to control and manipulate the flow of electrical energy. They may work in tandem with software developers who are designing the systems that their products will run on, or may be part of a team of electrical engineers and technicians as part of a larger project.

On a day-to-day level, the role might include:

      • Brainstorming ideas and solutions to client or customer briefs
      • Interpreting design specifications
      • Working with other engineers to design electronic elements of new devices or products
      • Designing circuit diagrams using 3D digital software
      • Finding improvements for existing electronic components
      • Running tests on new circuits and devices
      • Writing technical specifications
      • Designing test and maintenance protocols and producing documentation for these
      • Creating interfaces for new products 
      • Ensuring new products and systems meet required safety regulations
      • Diagnosing problems with electronic systems or components and finding solutions

What’s the Difference between Electrical and Electronics Engineering?

Whilst there is a lot of overlap between these two industries, there are several key differences between electronics and electrical engineering.

The first of these comes from the technical difference between the terms ‘electric’ and ‘electronic’. Electrical devices and machinery convert electrical energy into other kinds of energy, such as heat, movement or light, whereas devices that are electronic control the flow of electrons to perform their designated functions.

Scale is the next key difference between electrical and electronics engineering. Electronics engineers are concerned with the individual components of electric machines and devices, such as resistors, diodes and capacitors, and tend to work on much smaller projects for smaller products. Electrical engineers, on the other hand, usually develop large systems, equipment or machines that use electrical power to perform tasks or operate networks, involving a much broader range of elements than just electronic components.

A more nuanced difference that is important to know about electrical versus electronic engineering is that projects involving electrical circuits will only use these circuits to power electrical machines, whereas electronic circuits have processing capability and can make decisions and perform a variety of tasks depending on their input.

An electrical device is known as ‘passive’ because it doesn’t generate any power, only stores or releases it, whilst an electronic device is usually ‘active’ because it controls the flow of electrons.

The electrical branch of engineering primarily deals with the production and distribution of electricity, whether in its pure form or converted to a different type of energy. Electronic engineering is more concerned with the circuits and components that make up these systems that transmit and store electrical energy.

Whilst a lot of electronic engineers study a general electoral engineering degree, there are also specific electronic engineering courses available that are significantly different. In an academic sense, electrical engineering students will study engineering principles and topics, covering electromagnetism, machinery, power systems and motion control. Electronic engineering students will learn about the components and circuits used in a wide range of modern technology, covering computer hardware, electrical power systems, communication and optoelectronics.

When Do You Need an Electrical Engineer?

If you’re the employer of a company that produces or designs large-scale systems, machinery or equipment that runs on or deals with electricity, an electrical engineer is the best choice between the two different roles. Electrical engineers come up with overall solutions to electrical problems or design briefs, and are qualified to work on a range of different projects in sectors like energy, transport, automotive and telecommunications.

How to Find Electrical Engineers

The easiest way to recruit electrical engineers is to write job adverts and then advertise them through your company’s career opportunity network/page or on a jobs site. This way you can reach potential candidates who are actively searching for jobs and specify what experience and skills you’re looking for, which saves a lot of time later in the interview process.

Another good way to find electrical engineers is through a recruitment agency that can source and screen candidates for you and have a good understanding of the kind of employees you’re looking for. Electrical engineers work in a range of different industries and working with a specialist engineering recruitment partner like KO2 means that you’ll be able to find candidates with experience in your company’s sector.

When Do You Need an Electronics Engineer?

Electronics engineers are required if you are a company that produces smaller-scale electrical products or devices, in comparison to larger systems and machinery. If you’re hiring for a project where specific electronic components need designing and integrating into a system, or a brand new device is being produced, an electronic engineer is much more suited than a general electrical engineer for their knowledge and experience with the individual aspects of an electronic product, circuit or device.

How to Find Electronics Engineers

Electronics engineering is an area of the industry that has seen an increase in demand in the last five years or so, and recruiting for the role can be a difficult process if you’re looking for uniquely talented engineers. The most conventional way to recruit for this role is by advertising the positions you have available on job sites or through your company’s hiring department, but some businesses also headhunt electronics engineers with specific experience in certain areas and approach them directly to offer a job.

Using a specialist engineering recruitment agency like KO2 is also an excellent way to find electronic engineers, especially if you’re searching to fill roles in embedded systems, software development or mechanical design. Working with an agency that has unique insight and experience in your company’s sector is the best way to ensure that you’re sourcing candidates who are going to be right for the role and your business, and it makes the hiring process much smoother.

Summary

To those without any experience in the engineering industry, understanding the electronic engineer vs electrical engineer debate can be very confusing. There are many areas in which both roles overlap, and because one is a subsection of the other, some people simply refer to electronic engineers as electrical engineers to make things simpler.

However, the two disciplines are different, and if you are hiring one or the other it is important to understand which areas of expertise you will be getting to ensure the right people are recruited for the right roles and projects.

If you’re an employer in the embedded systems industry that is looking for specialist help with hiring electrical and electronic engineers, get in touch and find out more about how our recruitment agency can help you.

Chris Oddy

About the Author

Chris is an award-winning recruitment consultant who has specialised in the electronics and embedded systems sector since 2008. Chris is passionate about technology and customer service.

 

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