How to become a freelance engineer

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I dipped my toe in the freelance pool as an independent designer in 2007, the same year I graduated from college with a degree in a mechanical engineering.

As you know, 2007 was an awesome year to graduate. Jobs were plentiful! (cough cough, "there were no jobs") So what is a fresh grad, or even a seasoned engineer, to do when it comes time to join the freelance herd? Crowdsource, my friend!

During my senior year I worked for a community college, helping with day-to-day tasks for a new entrepreneurship program. In one of the hosted classes, I learned about the basics of starting a portfolio which led me to Elance.com. Back in the day, Elance.com was saturated with requests for quotes (RFQs) for graphic design and data entry services. However, there was a tiny sliver of CAD and product development work to bid on. So I decided to take the money I was going to spend on grad school and invest in an LLC, business insurance, business cards, a laptop with a sick graphics card, and a basic CAD program. Then I held my breath and dove head first into the world-wide web.

I knew I needed a portfolio of projects to build my business. But I also knew it wasn't going to be easy since I was young and inexperienced. Crowdsourcing websites were my ticket to find clients. The websites offered me a plethora of design opportunities from easy to difficult projects. I started bidding and winning the simple projects like designing caps and containers. Voilà, a business was born.

Fast forward six years and now look at crowdsourcing. It is booming! But don't be scared, all you have to do is login, set up a profile, bid on projects, and deliver.

Here are four websites that can help kick start your freelance engineering career:

ELANCE.com This crowdsourcing website is packed with freelance jobs. They even have a dedicated category for engineering and manufacturing projects. There are on average about 400 jobs available across subcategories such as product design, electrical, CAD, architecture, mechanical, civil & structural, and contract manufacturing.

GURU.com Guru.com is a website I joined back in 08'. I recommend it because the platform is easy to use. Unfortunately, it looks like their CAD requests are not as plentiful as other websites. There are currently about 100 requests for CAD across similar subcategories as Elance.com

ODESK.com Odesk.com has gained users looking for CAD and engineering services since they started in 2005. They have about 300 requests for CAD and engineering projects, and 100 for engineering and technical design projects. (Update January 28, 2014: Elance and Odesk have merged and will be hosted on Elance.com.)

CADCROWD.com This Canadian company is new to the space, but it definitely caters to the engineering profession. It currently has less than 20 open CAD design projects. But the site is only about CAD/3D jobs, so it has industry-focused subcategories such as furniture, marine, medical, automotive, and then some.

QUICK TIPS

Please note the crowdsourcing model is not for everyone. If you are making over $100 an hour, you might be offended by project posters who say they only have $40 for a complete design with twelve custom parts. You might also be offended because you are competing with people who are willing to bid as low as $40 for that project. But if you are a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed designer willing to make price cuts, crowdsourcing is a quick way to build your portfolio and pick up new clients.

Also, project posters don't know everything. There is a learning curve for posters just entering the product development world, and there seems to be more of these newbies posting projects lately. Crowdsourcing, crowdfunding, and 3D printing has opened the product development arena to midnight inventors and Joe Shmoes who sometimes have unrealistic expectations. For instance, if a poster makes a request for CAD files that can be directly taken to a manufacturer, guess what, it is unlikely to work without a prototype. Keep your reputation clean by explaining to this potential client the steps involved in product design. They will more than likely appreciate your open response, and you might even earn their trust which is the quickest way to win a project.

THE FUTURE OF ENGINEERING

What will crowdsourcing do to CAD design and other engineering services? My immediate reaction is commoditized engineering services, aka the lowest bidder wins. Elance.com has commoditized IT and graphic design services, and now crowdsourcing site MFG.com has commoditized manufacturing services. So I assume an uptick in engineering freelance projects on crowdsourcing sites would do the same to basic engineering services. But will there be an uptick of engineering projects?

We found there is a shortage of engineers in the United States, so the only other option is to outsource the work to other countries. One of the easiest ways to outsource is through crowdsourcing, so yes, that would mean an uptick of engineering opportunities on the web.

In addition, it's hard for companies to justify hiring a full-time engineer when a project will only last six months. This wave of temporary work could mean manufacturers will look to the web to post project-based, freelance opportunities. If they can't find domestic freelance engineers on these web sites, manufacturers will have to open the bidding to engineers in other countries. Many countries have lower hourly rates compared to US rates, therefore engineering services could become commoditized.

WHAT'S GOING TO BE COMMODITIZED NEXT?

Engineers can now say to graphic designers and other commoditized-service professionals, "I feel ya!". But the truth is, this low-bid-wins model has been happening forever. Unless you own a company that holds a monopoly on a service, you have to compete with other businesses and cost is always a determining factor. Crowdsourcing was easily adopted by graphic design professionals because their project timelines are short, they can work remotely, and because the profession was familiar with 'contest bidding'. For example, graphic designers are always asked to compete in logo-design contests. A contest could mean submitting a price to complete the logo, or submitting a portion of the design or even the entire logo design for the chance to win a lump sum. So even if they do the work to create a logo, they don't know if you will be reimbursed. And if they simply submit a price, chances are the lowest bid will win.

Manufacturers and engineers are familiar with this model because of government contracts, aka government contests. More than likely, government contracts go to the lowest bidder. The difference now is buyers can quickly and easily capture and compare more quotes via the internet before doling out money. CADcrowd.com understands that quoting is a contest, they don't call the submitted proposals 'projects', they call them 'contests'. So now that engineers compete in digital low-bid-wins contests, I wonder which profession is next? You wouldn't ask a doctor to enter a contest to operate on you...or, would you?

Discuss this Blog Entry 9

Clemente (not verified)
on Apr 24, 2013

Lindsey, I liked your post. I always have seen freelance just for graphic designers and IT professionals, but this could be also an opportunity for those who want to design but live in outsourced-manufacturing countries where companies don't look professional for design tasks. I will wait your next post, hope you share more of your experience as a engineering freelance.

RDEACC (not verified)
on May 11, 2013

Well written with comprehensive details. Thank you Ms.lindsey for the flow in your writing. My best wishes and regards.

Art (not verified)
on Jul 19, 2013

Was the first CAD program you bought AutoCAD? Are most or the companies requiring Solidworks or Inventor now?
Enjoyed your article.

Thanks.
Art

on Jul 19, 2013

Hi Art, it was Solidworks. Free 3D modeling programs were not available online like they are today, otherwise I would have looked into using a version. I was taught Solidworks in college, and most of the manufacturers I worked with also use the program. I've seen industrial design firms go from using Inventor, Rhino, and Pro/Engineer to Solidworks. I used AutoCAD at an internship, but only to take the files and manipulate them into 3D models in Solidworks.

Mike L (not verified)
on Aug 2, 2013

Lindsey, Thanks a lot for the great post. Your comments are really timely for me personally as I'm being forced out of the traditional engineering environment by health problems. Did you try any attempts at cold calling potential customers or did you mainly stick to the crowdsourcing type sites?
Mike

on Aug 5, 2013

Hi Mike. At the start of my freelance career I was fresh out of college so I stuck to crowdsourcing to build my portfolio. After I felt my portfolio was good enough to post online, I reached out to manufacturers, industrial design firms, and other networks to let them know I was available for contract work.

Mathew Jones (not verified)
on Sep 18, 2013

Hi Lindsey,
I'm also very keen on becoming a freelance designer. I have a BSC in mechanical engineering which i earned whilst working as a Design engineering apprentice at a massive automative company.
As you can imagine I already have a very extensive port folio of very complex and intricate assmblies.
My problem is that I dont want to bore myself with work that people from freelancing websites would want.
How can I become a sub contracter for other large companies where I can be treated like an executive and work on large, interesting projects?
Regards
Mathew

SENGOGA DESIRE (not verified)
on Apr 23, 2014

This really clear and guiding to those of us who were looking foe ways to grow in freelancing as engineers.Thanks a lot for sharing your experiences we look forward to learn from you.

on Oct 1, 2014

A freelance engineer looking and complete engineering projects paid as an independent contractor and not an employee. In most cases, you will have the same level of training to become an independent engineer would like to become an employee in this field.

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Lindsey Frick

Lindsey serves a Associate Editor for Machine Design since 2012. She holds a Bachelor of Science in mechanical engineering from Cleveland State University. Prior to joining Penton, she has worked in...
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