What’s it like to be a freelance mechanical engineer?

  • Escaping the rat race of a traditional working career may have its attractions but freelancing and setting out on your own can be extremely challenging
  • All freelancers will at some stage experience clients looking for price over quality
  • Many freelancers will fall by the wayside in their early days but those who persevere may reap the riches they desire
  • Building up your contacts and your customer base takes time and repeat business is the Holy Grail

Should you become a freelance mechanical engineer? Entrepreneurship can be very lucrative therefore it is no wonder many mechanical engineers think about freelancing/or building their own businesses. The latter has a tangible model and can be achieved provided the investment and the risk management is in place. The former is a little trickier with many failing to fulfill their high expectations. Without discouraging the passionate folks out there, we want to open an honest discussion about this prickly topic. A look into its feasibility and outcome – feel free to share any of your ventures!

freelance mechanical engineer

High wages don’t come easy

When you see many in the IT community working freelance and boasting large incomes it becomes very tempting to become a freelance mechanical engineer. You can’t help but look at the model you spent 20 hours to make so that a company could make more than 200 euros from it. Then wonder why you had to do this for some 20 other models within a month and get meek wages as a reward. The big bucks come when dealing directly with customers, missing out the third parties who skim off a regular income.

Experience is the key

After a year of meshing or using CAD to create convoluted plastic parts you will begin to feel very confident in your abilities. Tackling any piece of a car and turning a draft into a 3D model of any sort will soon become second nature. So why not do it while being your own boss and fattening your own pocket?

Maybe you have spent the last three years conducting thermomechanical analysis and debugging FE codes. Keeping up with a customer’s requirements is not easy. Following the new trends, utilising the latest software, you will feel pretty confident you can do this job for more clients. Earn much more from different businesses and even have a small team of your own. So why not open a consulting office, where you get to pick your wages, clients and hours?

Life as a freelance mechanical engineer

There are several reasons why freelancing does not work for everyone. Why sometimes it can turn into a type of slow torture and ultimate failure. However, first let’s examine first why people think of freelancing in the first place:

  • Earn better wages
  • Pick your hours
  • Be your own boss

There might be other reasons centred on a desire to create a label for themselves. Maybe an ambition to pioneer groundbreaking ideas and make a difference to the world. You may simply have had enough of the rat race and never enjoyed being part of a large corporation. Then again, speaking realistically, if an employee was able to massage their own ego or fulfil their dreams within a company, would they stop thinking about freelancing?

Investment

The very first challenge one might face when thinking about going solo is investment. This on its own sets mechanical engineers on a drastically different path than IT engineers. Coding doesn’t require software packages and licenses along with powerful servers to run them on. It doesn’t even trace whether a hacked license was used to run the code or write it, that is, if the industry cares about it in the first place.

Software packages

On the other hand, the businesses relying on mechanical engineering practice care A LOT about licensing. So even if you think you can begin your new career with a hacked license, think again. It will be detected and your career as a freelance mechanical engineer will be over before it started. Moreover, running complex calculations will require more power than a hacked package could provide. You need specialist software, the full package and access to regular software updates.

Licenses

Even if you have the funds for the right software, powerful servers and stations to work on, remember software licenses. Keep in mind that the licenses usually have expiration dates and renewal fees can often be hefty once the introductory offer is over. Finally, there will always be the issue of the customer’s preference. Don’t expect them to accept SolidWorks models when they want CATIA ones. Just because you can export your meshing as a generic file that can be read by different software this might not be enough. Your customers want value for money, they want a quality service and they will dictate in what format they receive the finished article.

Customers

Typically, when becoming a freelance mechanical engineer, people either have strong connections from previous work or they are able to sell themselves.  Finding businesses which require their skills sets is not difficult – signing them up is the tricky bit! When it comes to mechanical engineering there are two main paths to follow:

  • Using contacts from your work with a big corporation
  • Appealing to small businesses

The former typically doesn’t work with freelancers unless they are part of a consulting company, certified and up to speed with the required regulations. The latter might provide you with assignments but they may place cost over quality and might turn a blind eye to licensing issues. As a consequence your coveted work might go to a student in the dorm room or someone willing to go as low as it takes.

Skills

One of the greatest assets of being in an R&D office is feedback and consequently skills’ enhancement. Getting critical advice from fellow peers within the same environment, staying on top of your game and keeping up with the market is priceless. These are things that may not be provided as a freelance; feedback from customer may prove erratic. Comments will likely cover the output not the process or ways in which it can be enhanced – nothing like the formulated statements in engineering language.

You can always share your model privately, and ask for feedback, but if you don’t know the person or trust them, it could be a dangerous move. Finally, you will have to be extremely proactive in seeking to stay in the current of things, at least in the lines of your client’s business. All in all, you will have to give up the engineering culture which you grew up in and do your homework every day.

Time

At the end of a venture, you may have earned a client’s trust but at what cost? A humble recheck of what you have earned will demonstrate how freelancing can take a toll on your time. It’s true, you can wake up at 10am and not have to deal with anyone’s attitude. However, you will often spend your weekends on your computer, racing against deadlines or finding the next project to work on. You may think this is only teething issues while you get established. However, freelancing in the early days will be slow to take off, with few exceptions, and in the case of mechanical engineering it can be even more challenging.

Summary

During my career, I got to witness first hand three freelance offices dealing in CAD, FE modelling and maintenance and supply chain management. They had sketchy ways to go around the licenses, only dealt with small businesses and didn’t take any work that didn’t fit the packages they had. Most of them were “lucky” in getting the assurance of a commission before even going freelance. Whether it was a worthwhile price to pay, just to escape the straitjacket of a traditional working life, I will never know. The prospect of doing night shifts and working most weekends was too overwhelming for many to carry on. Life as a freelance mechanical engineer is not easy although over time the pressures can lift a little but you will always be on your own to a certain extent.

Leave a Reply

Skip to toolbar