MATLAB - Lesson 1.1



  • Is MATLAB useful for mechanical engineers?
  • How to get MATLAB on your computer.
  • There are free alternatives to MATLAB.

What is MATLAB?

MATLAB is a high-level programming language built for scientists and engineers in academia and industry. MATLAB is relatively user friendly and provides many out of the box tools and resources relevant to mechanical engineers for math, controls, data analysis, data manipulation, data acquisition, and more (full list of toolboxes).

This software has built in functionalities like plotting and statistical analysis that many other popular programming languages do not, which makes it attractive to engineers who are more focused on the problem rather than the computer science happening behind the scenes. For example, MATLAB offers a "mean" function to compute the average of a set of data. The user can simply use this function without specifically adding and dividing individual numbers.

What Is MATLAB Used For in Mechanical Engineering?

While MATLAB is capable of all of these and more, this topic will only cover the essential utilities, while presenting practical examples. These essentials can be further used to figure out the more advanced utilities.

  • Data manipulation - Math operations, statistics, linear algebra, vector and matrix manipulation, optimization, etc.
  • Data Presentation - Plotting/graphing (2D/3D), animation (2D/3D), graphical user interface (GUI) application, remote deployment, etc.
  • Hardware Communication and Control - Sensor reading, actuator control, signal processing, signal generation, etc.
  • Media Processing - Computer/Machine Vision, audio recording/playback, frequency analysis, etc.
  • And much much more...

How Can I Get MATLAB Onto My Computer?

MATLAB is a is a proprietary language held by its parent company MathWorks, which means you, your school, or your company needs to pay for a license to use it. You can see buying options and pricing on MathWorks, but they do offer a student version.

If you do buy MATLAB and have the option to include toolboxes for a discounted price, you should consider doing so. A student version can be downloaded for as low as $49 (as of Jan 2018). MATLAB is highly modular, meaning that various and specialized toolboxes that can be added to the core software. Some toolboxes come standard with MATLAB, while others have to be purchased. Some of the toolboxes are fundamental (such as the Symbolic Math Toolbox) to common uses like solving equations.

Free MATLAB Alternatives

Not every engineer or engineering company is able to afford a software license to use MATLAB. The list below shows only the most popular numerical analysis software alternatives to MATLAB. In most cases these alternatives offer nearly identical commands and syntax/code structure.

  1. Octave Online: fastest to use, no setup/install required
  2. Octave: most common alternative, closest thing to MATLAB
  3. Some other options: SciLab and FreeMat

Finding More Information and Help on MATLAB

Complete documentation and examples on MATLAB commands can be found on We will go over how to use documentation more in later lessons. A good and complete MATLAB overview can be viewed on Wikipedia.

Next Lesson

In the next lesson, we will write a simple “Hello World” program just to show you programming is not that scary!