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The NSPE stresses the importance of licensing and makes several points about the seal being important.

Only a licensed engineer may prepare, sign and seal, and submit engineering plans and drawings to a public authority for approval, or seal engineering work for public and private clients.

https://www.nspe.org/resources/licensure/what-pe

Only a licensed engineer, for instance, may prepare, sign, seal and submit engineering plans and drawings to an public authority for approval, or to seal engineering work for public and private clients.

...

Only PEs can sign and seal engineering drawings;

https://www.nspe.org/resources/licensure/why-get-licensed

However, I'm having trouble understanding specifically when a seal is required and who or what enforces necessary use of the seal. Is there a general approach for this across any given discipline or project?

I could imagine these sources of "rules" for using a seal.

  • Regulation
  • Legislation
  • Insurance requirements
  • Other contractual obligations

If the question is too broad and needs to be narrowed, here's an example...

I worked on an FDA regulated Class III medical device. I read the relevant titles/sections of the CFR and do not recall any mention of using the PE seal. I do not recall any of our hardware design documents or outputs being sealed. I worked on the device control software and I know that none of our software designs, design controls, or outputs were sealed.

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  • $\begingroup$ Some of the specifics are part of the laws in the individual state. These usually refer to which flavor of engineer is responsible for what items. Is that what you are asking? Or are you asking for something along the lines of, "How complicated of a design can be done without a seal?" $\endgroup$ – hazzey Jun 8 '17 at 14:44
  • $\begingroup$ The legislation you mention / quote will probably have a definition of the scope of what should or should not be sealed. What do they say? $\endgroup$ – Solar Mike Jun 8 '17 at 14:52
  • $\begingroup$ I was asking in general and maybe the question, framed by my ignorance, is too broad? For any given project, how do you know what & when to seal and by what rule, legislation, or authority? $\endgroup$ – Anthony Mastrean Jun 8 '17 at 19:52
  • $\begingroup$ Ah, here's a state document that's pretty loose, purporting to answer the question, "When do I use my seal?" engineers.texas.gov/enforce_faqs.htm#seal $\endgroup$ – Anthony Mastrean Jun 9 '17 at 13:02
  • $\begingroup$ I'm not based in the US, but from what I gather from US engineering fora ist that a seal is required for structural and civil engineering works, mostly. $\endgroup$ – mart Oct 14 '19 at 14:07
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Disclaimer: This only applies to one state, but it is likely that other states have similar language.

In Illinois, the law that defines what a Professional Engineer is has this clause:

No officer, board, commission, or other public entity charged with the enforcement of codes and ordinances involving a professional engineering project shall accept for filing or approval any technical submissions that do not bear the seal and signature of a professional engineer licensed under this Act.

So in this case, the law that creates the Professional Engineer also forces public entities to require technical submissions to be sealed. It appears that private companies are on their own as to what they require. The term "technical submissions" is also pretty broad.

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In general, an engineer seal is required for "permitting" purposes to ensure the quality of the design and the qualification of the person overseeing the design process/effort.

A "permit" is required when the end product of the design affects the property and personal safety of its end-user(s). It is issued by the authority (all levels of the government and associated agencies) that is responsible for providing safeguards in the specific field of engineering. The permit requirement is usually made through regulations in the form of ordinances and codes, which will stipulate the requirement for sealing by the professional engineer.

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