Day in the life of
Mechanical Engineer – Tom Hartley
I’m a Freelance Engineering Designer who provides mechanical, structural, and related design consultancy services to other businesses in the manufacturing, engineering & construction sectors. I worked for various companies on a staff basis between 2004-2012 before going freelance.
I was always creative at school, counting art, graphics, and D&T among my favourite subjects. I chose a career in engineering to avoid wasting my high grades in maths & science (which I excelled at despite not really enjoying too much).
When teachers & family tried to push me to study maths or science at university, I resisted. I looked instead for creative design-based courses also having a good amount of maths & physics. I ended up applying and getting offers to study:
- BA Architecture at Sheffield University
- BSc MDes Product Design Engineering at Brunel University
- MEng Manufacturing and Mechanical Engineering at Warwick University
- MEng Product Design & Manufacture at Loughborough University
I opted for the MEng at Loughborough because it was the most creative design-focused engineering degree I could find. Essentially a 4-year Manufacturing Engineering & Product Design course – plus a year’s industrial placement – it had a high level of overlap with the university’s Mechanical Engineering course.
So I entered the world of work with a product design background and let the work gradually direct my development towards the kind of mechanical engineering design that I specialise in today.
Work life as a Mechanical Engineer
Mechanical engineering is such a broad field that you still have many choices over the kind of work you do day-to-day. Some mechanical engineers develop deep knowledge in one or two specialisms (e.g. pressure vessel engineers, hydraulic engineers, machine designers). Others develop knowledge that is broader but not as deep. I’ve aimed towards the latter, paired with strong transferrable skills that I can apply across a wide range of engineering sectors. As a result, my work as a mechanical engineer is varied, challenging, and fulfilling.
At my first company – a manufacturer in the materials handling sector – I developed designs for new products and improved existing products. Things like ramps for forklift trucks, access & work platforms, and lifting equipment. Mostly of welded steel or aluminium construction, my designs would be manufactured downstairs in the factory almost as soon as I had completed them. And being a small family-run firm with few engineers meant I was given a lot of responsibility. My day to day responsibilities included things like:
- Control & maintain the businesses CAD system, technical drawings library, production costing (BOM) database, and “catalogue dealer” pricing agreements.
- Adapting existing “standard” designs into “special” designs to meet customer’s bespoke needs.
- Provide engineering design support to the shop floor and quality departments. For example, troubleshooting technical queries from the shop floor or inspecting & approving components & materials from suppliers.
- Running longer-term design development projects, such as redesigns of existing standard products aiming to reduce the overall cost of manufacture.
My next job was at a large multi-national engineering design consultancy. There I worked in a design office with many other engineers on projects in the nuclear power industry (primarily decommissioning activities). There everyone’s job was a lot more specialised, and there was a lot less interaction with suppliers & manufacturers. Most of the engineers didn’t even do their own 3D modelling or drawing – there was a whole department of draughtsmen there to do that! – though luckily, I was allowed to continue doing my own modelling & draughting. My responsibilities tended to be directed more towards individual projects, which would last anything from a few weeks to several months. E.g. Small cranes, conveyors, transfer bogies, storage tanks, and oil pipeline closures were just some of the pieces of equipment I developed designs for.
These projects usually followed a rigorous engineering design process, covering:
- Initial research (information gathering) & problem definition (writing a design brief).
- Concept design (coming up with initial ideas & designs for review).
- Embodiment design (fleshing out the better concepts for a more in-depth review).
- Analysis & verification (modelling & simulating design performance and compliance with regulations, codes & standards).
- Detailed design (producing accurate 3D models & technical drawings to manufacture from).
I now own my own company and rent a desk in a local coworking office, where I work as a freelance engineering designer and provide a range of services that include:
- Mechanical Engineering Design
- Structural Design
- BIM / 3D Coordination Modelling
- FEA Engineering Analysis & Code Checking
- Software Engineering
- 3D Modelling & Draughting
As a freelancer, I’m not just responsible for the fee-earning engineering design work but also for sustaining a profitable business (i.e. its administration, marketing and other business activities). So, in addition to the engineering, also on my mind are questions like:
- What does my sales pipeline look like & what should I be doing to win more work?
- What expenses do I have going out, and how do they affect my cash flow?
- What enquiries do I have that need following up or quoting?
- Are my accounts (sales, expense records, and taxes) up to date?
- Do I have all the resources I need available to deliver the work I’ve taken on?
- Are my existing clients happy, and what can I do to improve customer satisfaction?
- Is my company website, blog & social media up to date, & what needs doing in that respect?
My Typical Day
My typical day now starts around 5 or 6am, where I lay awake in bed thinking. First, I plan the things I want to achieve that day, so I’ll be able to write a to-do list as soon as I arrive at the office. Then I begin brainstorming or problem-solving some aspect of whatever client project I’m currently working on. I come up with ideas; analyse them against requirements & constraints; run what-if scenarios; discard the non-starters and memorise the best ideas to investigate later.
At 7am, our baby daughter needs to get up & feed, so I take turns to do that with my wife, which takes until around 8:30. Then I usually check emails and do business admin at home before driving to my office in the city. I try to be at my desk to start client work by 9:30, but some days I might have arranged a client visit or some sales calls, so may not get to my desk until 11 or 12!!
Once at my desk, I boot up the laptop & load my applications. Outlook, Solidworks, a project management database, maybe an engineering calculation or report or two, plus my music player. Then I go get a cup of coffee before jotting down my day’s to-do list on a post-it. I might then get distracted a little longer by more emails or a spot of LinkedIn or web browsing. By around 10am (on a good day), I’ll be free to get started on some real engineering design work!
When I’m well into a design project, I will typically have on my screen:
- Technical references – design brief, client documents, datasheets, standards, etc.
- 3D geometry models – usually a baseline/reference model plus the current design iteration.
- Hand calculations – for working out & optimising key design parameters.
- Analysis models – if the problem is complex, I might create a stress analysis model to simulate performance and determine the best values for key design parameters.
- Project management database – a design development system that I made in MS Access, which controls work breakdown structures/plans, project inputs, outputs, communications, and memos.
I work iteratively across all of the above, developing them all simultaneously, side-by-side. This is a well-known work methodology called “concurrent engineering”. I find this a more effective & faster approach than the alternative sequential approach whereby many different engineers and technicians work on the same design one after the other (which takes ages and is fairly inefficient and error prone as a result of all the communication & coordination that has to be done to work effectively that way).
Once I’ve started on engineering design client work, I’ll become uber-focussed – getting into a state of flow hopefully – and work right on through until at least 6:30pm (distractions permitting). Hopefully, I’ll have managed to cross off all the things I’d written down on my to-do list at the start of the day. E.g. This may include developing a set of components to a certain point or any number of other things really. After all, design by nature is an iterative and unpredictable process that very rarely has a guaranteed solution.
After 6:30 I’ll close down the laptop & head home (hopefully in time to give the daughter her bottle & put her to bed). Even after “close of business”, though, I’d wager that most dedicated engineering designers never really switch off from their work. We’ll continue brainstorming & testing ideas in our heads, or we’ll search for potential solutions for problems that arose that day. Then we lie awake in the night running clients’ designs through our heads and questioning whether something has been overlooked or could be done better!
That’s a typical “office day”, but also its quite common as an engineer to require days away from the office on site visits & such like. These can be anywhere relevant to the work you’re doing, and might include: clients’ offices or factories, construction sites, training providers, software or equipment vendors, parts & materials suppliers, offices of other designers working on the same project, and trade shows or industry conferences etc.
Pros – Mechanical Engineering Design
- Mechanical engineering design is exciting and incredibly varied as a career path. You’ll create new designs, see them get built and then go into operation for the benefit of your end client.
- Mechanical engineering design combines creativity, design & technology with maths and the sciences. So it is a good option for those who are strong in both these areas.
- There is a widening skills gap in engineering with high demand for mechanical engineers. This means that talented engineers shouldn’t have difficulty finding reliable, well-paid employment. And it also means that those capable of it can be given a high level of responsibility at a relatively young age.
- As a mechanical engineer, you’ll likely get to see things and visit places that you wouldn’t as a member of the public. E.g. I’ve had many behind the scenes tours around things, including suspension bridges, nuclear power plants, port rail loading facilities, car factories, and many different manufacturing facilities.
- Mechanical engineering design is a career with a good balance between working alone and working in a team. There are times when you’ll need to leave your desk to get out on-site and collaborate with others. And there are times when you’ll be able to stay at your desk with your headphones on, tinkering away on your latest designs for hours (or even days) on end!
Cons – Mechanical Engineering Design
- It’s not easy to do well – anyone can come up with a complicated & inefficient solution. Good engineering designers resolve complex problems with simple, elegant & efficient solutions that best balance all the identified requirements & constraints.
- Never-ending – design is not like maths or science, where you know you’ve finished once the objective / provable answer has been found. It can be tempting to keep developing & improving a design until all your time (and more) has been eaten up, which can lead to exhaustion or burnout. Those who’ve done a large D&T or art project at school should be familiar with this.
- Inadvertently specialising – it is easy to get pigeon-holed as being good at a few areas of mechanical engineering. E.g. If you design for a steel fabricator that only makes gates, you could easily find yourself not getting exposure to many areas of mechanical engineering. You’d be at risk of not really developing and applying much of your academic knowledge/study.
- Lack of recognition – mechanical engineers tend not to receive the same level of professional recognition as architects, doctors, lawyers, and accountants, despite putting in as much (if not more) academic study and CPD. In the UK, any business can claim to be an engineering designer but not an architect. It is also pretty common for many not to know the difference between a Chartered Engineer and a car mechanic or boiler repair technician.
- Poor systems & bureaucracy – construction & engineering information management systems tend to be slow & outdated. So engineers frequently find themselves doing more detective than design work. Also, most engineering firms’ preferred means of project communication tends to be email & meetings. Excessive bureaucracy could mean you’ll be lucky if you get to spend more than 50% of your time doing “actual design engineering” at your desk. This is actually the main reason I set up my freelance business.
Advice to aspiring Mechanical Engineers
In my view, engineering design is best suited to imaginative problem-solvers and optimisers who work diligently & systematically. People who get hands-on and create whenever they get the opportunity. For me, this has included at one time or another: drawing, playing guitar, cooking, woodworking, coding, DIY and building with construction sets (Lego, Meccano, Knex etc).
At school, I always considered English classes irrelevant, only much later realising just how important they actually were. Being able to write accurately & concisely is super important in engineering. Learning about visual communication and graphic design is really useful too. It will make your reports & presentations more readable, with a good layout and supporting figures, charts and illustrations.
Computing skills are also invaluable. Being able to select, install and configure software, produce clean code, make well-structured databases, and use all the advanced features of Word, Excel & Powerpoint (including automation/macros). I also think being able to type accurately and faster than you can write is a great skill to have, as it means you’ll naturally prefer to record things on the computer first, rather than on paper and then having to type up notes later.
I’d say carefully consider the pros and cons before deciding upon mechanical engineering as a career path. Or perhaps do what I did and opt to study a more generic engineering design course first. Then develop a specialism after you’ve been in professional work for a while (you’ll be much better placed by then to decide what specialisms you’ll enjoy most).
I was kind of directed/forced down the university route by those around me when I was at school, not realising there were options like apprenticeships and technical colleges. Nowadays, I think apprenticeships are probably the best route. Not least because degrees cost £10k per year in the UK.
By doing a junior role in an engineering firm you’d learn a lot more than you think from the technicians and engineers around you. And you’ll understand every math & engineering concept you apply at work much better than when you memorise them at school to regurgitate for exam purposes. Even now, I sometimes find myself applying a new concept at work and thinking, “oh so that’s what they were trying to teach me in physics, why didn’t they just put it simply like that?”.
There’s sometimes a perception that mechanical engineering is decreasingly relevant nowadays, its prime being over a century ago. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Whilst first principles and mathematics remain largely the same, many new fields are being explored and progressed through mechanical engineering: Additive Manufacturing, Biotechnology, Composites, Healthcare Engineering, Low Carbon / Net Zero, Nanotechnology, Robotics, Sports Engineering, Sustainable Engineering, to name a few.
perform engineering duties in planning and designing tools, engines, machines, and other mechanically functioning equipment. Oversee installation, operation, maintenance, and repair of equipment such as centralized heat, gas, water, and steam systems.