If you’ve ever interviewed for a mechanical engineering position, you faced the dreaded question with seemingly no right answer:
“So, tell me about your mechanical engineering experience.”
Even entry-level positions usually require 1-2 years of experience, which raises the old catch-22:
“I need a job to get experience, but I need experience to get a job.”
This often leaves recent graduates out in the cold, as most college jobs don't provide the experience that employers require.
While most mechanical engineering programs have senior design projects, many employers don’t consider these to be “experience.” Instead, they’d prefer to see industry ventures where success or failure impact bottom lines.
So, how do you go about building experience?
Well, there are two paths that the most successful mechanical engineering candidates follow:
We'll briefly talk about each pathway before we lay out 13 mechanical engineering project ideas to help you build your expertise.
Decades ago, making headway as a mechanical engineer meant getting an internship with a big-name corporation. That’s no longer the case.
For one, internships aren’t always an option, especially if you:
Attend college in a generally rural area where internships aren't available, or the number of engineering candidates dramatically outweighs the number of opportunities.
Don’t realize your passion for design projects and engineering until years down the road (don’t worry — about half of us will make a dramatic career change at some point in our lives).
Earn your Bachelor’s Degree in an entirely different subject area.
The alternative: Freelancing.
Freelance engineers have taken the industry by storm, though this pathway can be a little rougher than a standard internship. Let’s review the basics of freelance engineering and why so many professionals are making the switch.
Failing to land an internship can be a demoralizing experience for an up-and-coming engineer. Understandably, you might ask:
“If employers won’t hire me for a full-time gig, why would someone hire me as a freelancer without experience?”
An appropriate question, indeed. As always, the answer comes down to money. Hiring a freelancer is less risky than a contract employee and a far better option because:
Terminating a contract employee comes with higher unemployment taxes for employers and strict labor laws that they must follow.
Companies often face sudden spikes in workloads, but it doesn’t always make sense to hire a full-time engineer.
Full-timers cost employers extra in the form of vacation days, sick days, and insurance offerings.
Freelance engineers also bring a whirlwind of unique skills and creativity. Many firms bring freelancers on board to gain a new perspective on an upcoming project — without any attachments!
Independent contracting may lack stability (unless you find long-term clients with a continuous stream of projects). However, engineers wouldn’t be turning to job platforms like Upwork or We Work Remotely on a whim.
Engineers love working freelance because:
They Can Set Their Own Rates
No more settling for $15/hour in an entry-level position and working your way up the food chain. As a freelancer, you can set your own rate to maximize your earning potential throughout the week.
There’s a Sense of Flexibility
You choose your hours and the projects you accept. Of course, not having a higher-up hovering over your shoulder from nine to five is another crucial benefit.
There’s More Variety
A full-time internship delivers a sense of repetition that can be a detriment to engineers. Avoid becoming too locked down by broadening your horizons — new clients, expectations, and projects.
Most Jobs Are Remote
Not having an official office space might be a bummer, but working virtually means expanding your potential client base from a 20-mile radius to all 50 states (or even other countries).
Freelance engineering seems easy enough, but it’s not a 100% no-strings-attached opportunity. As your own boss, finding projects (and pay) is on your shoulders.
To find your next project:
Create a Profile on a Freelance Platform
The first step in finding freelance projects is creating a profile on websites like Upwork or We Work Remotely.
Be sure to include:
A full resume of your proudest pet projects: Freelance clients are much laxer about this than employers.
The title “mechanical engineer in training”: Don’t mislead your clients into thinking you’ve worked as a professional engineer if you haven’t.
Whether or not you have a Professional Engineer license: For legal purposes, check your state’s requirements.
A fair rate for your skill level and expertise: Check out profiles of people with similar experience and skills, then set a competitive rate.
A list of your engineering skills (ANSYS, SolidWorks): There’s nothing like a little profile optimization to earn your application a second look.
Look For Jobs
Choose “categories” of interest to you — basically keywords describing your ideal engineering project topics.
Choosing categories like thermodynamics, mechatronics, or kinematics will create an automated job feed on some platforms where you can see new jobs as they’re posted.
Your job searches can also give you a little inspiration for project ideas to try in your free time.
Apply For Jobs
Before you apply, read the description in its entirety!
Verify that the job is within your niche, hourly rate range, and skill level.
And then, provide as much detail about yourself as possible.
We’re talking about your degree (if applicable), experience related to the particular project, and anything that’ll set you apart from other applicants.
What makes you a good team player or the right man (or woman) for the job?
Additional courses (outside of school) can help you beef up your resume. Check out the interactive mechanical engineering courses we offer at RocketGear!
Freelancing is a fantastic way to get hands-on experience and earn a little money. But it does have its limitations.
To name a few:
You don’t earn any extra college credits.
You suddenly take on the role of a “small business owner.”
Clients are notoriously under-appreciative of non-college grads.
The hassle might not be worth it. That’s why many mechanical engineering students take the path of least resistance:
An engineering internship during their junior and/or senior years.
Jumping into the workforce while still attending a college of engineering (or even still in high school) might not have been in your original plans. But let’s talk about why internships might be the way to go.
Mechanical engineering internships might be a part of your university’s required curriculum. In that case, the clear benefit of pursuing an internship is that it’s the final stepping stone toward graduation.
Otherwise, internships can:
Teach You Vital Workplace Skills
A shocking number of STEM employers — 75% — find the soft skill gap one of the biggest roadblocks in hiring new employees.
Even a three-month venture at an engineering firm will teach you lifelong skills like collaboration, time management, and leadership.
Come With a Job Opportunity
Some engineering employers see interns as little more than low-cost hourly workers. But, reputable companies see the value in teaching critical skills to the next generation of mechanical engineers.
If you mesh well with their goals, you might receive a full-time job offer on your way out the door!
A word to the wise:
Not all internships pay. And some of them pay very poorly.
However, the average hourly pay for mechanical engineering interns is in the range of $15-20/hour.
Fluff Your Resume
A 4.0 GPA and a litany of A’s will keep you in the running for a job (well, that’s if your competition barely scraped by).
Having internships on your resume, especially one at a reputable company, could keep your application at the top of the pile.
If you’re a third or fourth-year student, applying for an internship during your junior year can set you up for a lifetime of engineering success. Here are a few innovative ideas for finding mechanical engineering internships:
Scour the Job Sites
Many companies will list paid (and unpaid) internships on sites like LinkedIn, Indeed, or Monster. Be sure to search for keywords related to your niche of interest (i.e., thermodynamics, kinematics, mechatronics).
Talk to Your Professors
Most engineering professors were once (or still are) members of the industry themselves. So, ask your professors if they know of any internship openings or have any connections to help you get your foot in the door.
Attend Career Fairs
While many employers are reluctant to hire new college grads, others see the value in training the next generation of engineers. Find out when your college is hosting its next career fair and attend.
And don’t forget:
Dress to impress!
Hobbyists and first-year mechanical engineering students are notorious for being selective when it comes to choosing projects.
The final decision comes down to a few things:
Do I have the right resources?
How long will it take?
Is it easy (or at least manageable)?
And, most importantly: Does it look fun/cool?
But now, you’re on a quest to convert your passion into a paying career. And when employers value industry skills over final prototypes, your focus takes a hard swing to the project’s objectives.
What skills will you nurture or prove with this project?
So, whether you’re looking to narrow down your choices for final year projects or you just want some hands-on experience, this list of mechanical engineering projects should lead you in the right direction.
Manual wheelchairs provide the gift of mobility to injured and disabled patients. But, upper-body weakness could render a standard wheelchair useless without a person willing to assist.
In this project, you’ll learn about basic concepts like automation, fabrication, and emission-free devices.
Hand drills are the lifeblood of the construction industry. But, they also lack the precision and flexibility needed to secure a clean hole every time.
In this project, you’ll tinker with Solidworks components and assemblies to infuse rotating hinges to give this drilling machine 360-degree flexibility.
See also: Introduction to Mechanical Engineering With SolidWorks
Standard scissors function well for basic cutting needs. But when precise measurements are crucial and cutting becomes tedious, it makes more sense to turn this task over to automation.
In this project, you’ll gain experience with Geneva mechanisms and affirm your understanding of pneumatics.
With an ongoing push to reduce carbon footprints, manufacturers are turning to emission-free (i.e wind and solar) power.
In this project, you’ll develop a solar-panel-powered motorized e-bike while experimenting with automotive concepts like suspensions, power generation, and shock absorption.
Without a doubt, CNC machines are now a staple in the manufacturing industry, and demand is soaring with each passing year.
In this project, you’ll use Arduino to build this three-axis CNC machine, controllable via coding.
Clean energy is the “new normal,” and wind energy is one of the most cost-effective and efficient alternatives.
In this mechanical mini-project, you’ll create a windmill power generation tool that puts your knowledge of power supplies, microcontrollers, and coils to the test.
Traditional bending machines are a hassle to work with and require four hands. In this project, you’ll learn about machine design basics, like hydraulic actuators, mounts and joints, and machining frameworks.
As a mechanical engineer, simplifying the manufacturing and design process might fall onto your plate, so this is a great project to help you prepare for that task.
A manual warehouse trolley will thrive until it meets a two-story building with a delivery on the second floor.
In this project, you’ll design a stair-climbing trolley in Solidworks that examines simple mechanical components while analyzing factors like load analysis.
Building your experience as a mechanical engineer means expanding your boundaries and experimenting with more challenging projects.
In this mechatronics project, you’ll build a motion-controlled robotic arm while testing your knowledge of accelerometers, resistors, and oscillators.
As the automotive industry turns to clean energy for fuel, there’s also an ongoing push to generate energy in new ways.
In this project, you’ll develop a regenerative braking system that’ll teach you the dynamics of automotive concepts like friction and electricity generation.
Building prototypes might be the most exciting part of engineering, but mechanical design skills are on every employer’s list of must-haves.
In this project, you’ll develop and simulate a CAD model speed breaker to gain a general understanding of concepts like thermal stress analysis.
Gear trains are a staple in the engineering industry for transferring motion from one moving part to another.
In this project, you’ll learn the basics of mechanical gear train design, with topics ranging from gear ratio and assembly to shafts and bearings.
Who said mechanical engineering can’t have a fun twist?
With the LEGO Mindstorms core set, you can collaborate with other engineers-in-training while developing practical skills like critical thinking and basic computer programming.
Collaboration is a great skill to possess, too!
Now, let's reanalyze our initial catch-22 — the need for experience to get a job and vice versa.
Most mechanical engineering interviews are about perception.
If there’s nothing more than school assignments and a capstone on your resume, most employers will file it directly into the wastebasket. However, if your resume shows that you’ve been pursuing independent projects and possibly even doing some freelance work, you’re sure to catch the hiring manager’s attention.
The ability to turn a vision into a SolidWorks model or prototype is far more valuable than a bachelor’s degree sans experience.
So, take another look at the project list above.
Choose one, two, or thirteen project ideas that make you the ideal candidate for your dream job. And before you buy the kit, or block off your weekend, ask yourself this one question:
How will this project add to the narrative I’m trying to tell on my resume?
If it doesn’t, move along.