She'll make point five past lightspeed. She may not look like much, but she's got it where it counts, kid. I've made a lot of special modifications, myself.
- Han Solo, Star Wars
Some people switch between different ships like they were plastic utensils. Not even revering their ships as favored tools, but as something needed right now to get a job done, only to be tossed away when something else shiny comes into view. Others, however, form a more personal bond with their ships and want to customize them and tailor them to fit their needs, replacing the default modules for more powerful, faster or more efficient versions. Tweaking your modules over time will allow you to make your ship much better than stock, but that's not enough to allow your ship to "make the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs," figuratively speaking. That's going to take some special modifications. You're going to have to make some special modifications, yourself.
Enter the Engineers. The Engineers are the best, most renowned R&D techs in known space. They may be a bit... eccentric, but they are the only ones that can guide you to improving your ship in truly custom and "special" ways. These upgrades aren't "off the shelf" upgrades, but a joint research project between yourself and your selected Engineer, resulting in one-of-a-kind enhanced modules. There is a certain amount of randomness that comes into play, which can be a positive thing... or a not so positive thing. You'll have an idea of how good or bad the side effect might be, but you'll only learn what you get through experimentation.
There are several Engineers out there, but there are only five that are known to everyone, initially: Elvira Martuuk, Felicity Farseer, Tod "The Blaster" McQuinn, The Dweller, and Liz Ryder. There are several other Engineers out there, but you'll get the opportunity to be introduced to them once you've reached tier 3 or 4 upgrades with another Engineer. And, yes, of course, they'll have their own requirements for getting an invite and their own demanded "tribute" before they'll deal with you. My best advice is to select one of the five above that fits your desired upgrades and has the easiest requirements for you to meet and get started. Keep yourself informed of what the others are looking for and be watchful for ways to "double up" on meeting requirements for multiple engineers, to speed things along.
Getting to Know You:
But, let's not get ahead of ourselves. You're not going to even meet the Engineers without an invite, which you won't get unless you impress them. Luckily for you, while they might not necessarily be "easy" to impress, they are at least predictable in what will get their attention. Take Elvira Martuuk, for example. She's all about exploration. She won't deal with you unless you've traveled at least 300 light years away from where you started your career. Think you may have done that already? Check in your Stats panel and you can see. It's not how much you've moved around, but how far you've actually managed to get from home, so you might not have gone nearly as far as you might think. Personally, I figured Elvira was a good fit, since she was a specialist in FSDs, Thrusters and Shields, which are things I'm interested in upgrading, and because of the different challenges to even getting an invite to meet with an Engineer, simply logging some flight time in a consistent bearing seemed easy enough to do. I made this easier by fitting my ship with a fuel scoop, allowing me to travel great distances without needing to find a station to refuel, and a secondary fuel tank, allowing me to travel great distances without needing to find a suitable star to scoop fuel from. While I was at it, I scanned every star I shifted to, building up a lot of astronomical data and, by the time I got back to a station after accomplishing my grand journey and sold my astronomic data, I instantly achieved a high enough rank in Exploration to get an invite from Felicity Farseer, as well.
Once you've got your invite, you will, inevitably, need to show up with a gift before you can work with your Engineer of choice. In my case, Elvira Martuuk required a tribute of three tons of Soontil relics, which required its own fifty-something hop quest to go pick up, not to mention having to juggle modules a bit and reinstall a cargo bay big enough to carry the relics. Oh, and in case you're not a fan of flying around with large amounts of cargo, I did discover that you can actually deliver them via multiple trips, if you prefer; you don't have to (even be able to) carry all three bays of Soontil relics in the same trip.
Once you've completed your initial "tribute" mission for the Engineer, you can access them when you're at their workshop and select a module that you have installed on your ship and use one of their blueprints to upgrade it. You'll only have access to tier 1 upgrades, at the beginning, but as you increase your standing with an Engineer, through gifts and building upgrades, you will unlock access to higher tier upgrades. But, it's not just a matter of selecting a blueprint and building it. You'll also need materials.
These materials can be a challenge to collect, possibly requiring you to break out of your comfort zone a bit. For example, for the blueprint I wanted to build, I needed Arsenic, which requires me to do some mining, which I've done before, but it also requires me to collect some Atypical Disrupted Wake Echoes, by using a Wake Scanner, which I had to pick up and learn to use, and two Chemical Processors, which I could obtain either by salvaging them from destroyed ships (remember how I said I try to avoid combat?), investigating Signal Sources (yeah, pirates like hanging out around these)... or managing to find a mission that just happens to randomly select them as a reward. Arsenic's not going to be a fast acquisition, Atypical Disrupted Wake Echoes aren't going to be too quick either, but Chemical Processors are going to pose a big problem for me. The best suggestion I've seen is that you can hang out around Federal Security ships and help take out pirates, then try to scoop up some Chemical Processors from their remains. So much for my comfort zone...
More Alive Than Ever:
Along with the Engineers part of the Engineers DLC, there are some additional changes. Most notably is that the missions interface has been restructured. It used to be that you had to have achieved a certain rank before you could attempt a mission. Now, you can still see what rank the mission is intended for, but you can attempt the mission even if you're not there, yet. True, the risks are higher, but the rewards are, as well.
Additionally, there have been a lot of voice assets added to the game, adding some personality to the various stations that you visit, whether it's an exotic sounding woman on the Comms, an Irish sounding man, a woman who sounds country enough that she must have grown up on a farm or a robotic sounding male voice, you feel like the voice on the other end of the Comms has their own life, their own story. It helps to break a monotony I hadn't realized was there.
Time to Get to Work:
As you can see, crafting those "special" modifications for your ship are going to take time and resources... and the resources are going to take time, too. So, if you're ready to make your ship your ship, there's no better time than the present to get started. You'll need Elite: Dangerous: Horizons to have access to Engineers so you can work towards your highly customized ship. Better hurry, because you'll want access to those upgraded modules before they release Multicrew (in the Horizons Season), when you can share that snazzy ship with friends. Also, the upcoming Commander Creation feature (also part of the Horizons Season) will put a face with the name, so you'll be able to use that amazing ship to bolster your reputation and recognition. Finally, the Ship-Launched Fighters (yup, in the Horizons Season, too) will allow larger ships to store their own short-range fighters, to help protect your sweet ship from others or to let you pack more firepower for attacks.