Mammalian cells are the preferred host for the manufacture of a wide range of biopharmaceuticals, but production costs are high owing to low productivity. A range of rational engineering strategies have been pursued in order to increase volumetric product titres from mammalian cells, such as delaying apoptosis, manipulation of the cell cycle, and improving metabolism and protein processing. Unfortunately, outcomes from these strategies have been mixed, with few instances where significant improvements in product yield have been achieved. This article reviews and contrasts many of the engineering strategies attempted to date, highlighting the variability and context specificity in outcome. The paper argues that this is a reflection of the complexity of mammalian cells, and that a deeper understanding of the biology underpinning protein production for biotechnological purposes is required.