My Career in Three Objects
Current Position: Energy Systems Consultant, Mott MacDonald
Graduation Year and College: 2018, Newnham College
Energy Systems Consultant, Mott MacDonald
My Career in Three Objects; A solar car, an ergonomic mouse and the Minto Principle
Although my career has been short so far, I have had a few roles. From running a solar car team, to research contracts and consulting in the energy sector, I have learnt from each role a bit more about the type of work I enjoy and my strengths and weaknesses.
I have been fortunate to find great role models and informal mentors, who have helped me to make important decisions and enabled me to explore new areas, take risks and challenge myself.
Among all this, three objects have particularly shaped my career so far.
Object 1: The 'Evolution' Solar Car
Object 2: An ergonomic mouse
A basic item can be used to
Object 3: The Minto Principle
Almost any obje
All in all, the main thing that these three objects have taught me is that, in engineering, nothing is always as it seems. By considering how something may be used in a different way, what may seem like a complicated problem to solve can actually have a simple solution!
Current Position: Technical Team Manager, Fatigue and Fracture Integrity Management, TWI Limited
Graduation Year and College: 2008, Churchill College
Technical Team Manager, Fatigue and Fracture Integrity Management, TWI Limited
My Career in Three Objects; Instron Universal Testing Machine, Bolt Cutters, Milky Bar
The majority of my working life so far has been at the company I currently work for, TWI, which specialises in welding and joining, and other associated technologies. I did, however, spend some time working in the Royal Navy and with the Ministry of Defence straight after university.
Welding and joining is vital in almost all engineered structures so I am lucky enough to deliver technical projects across a wide variety of industries and sectors. No one project is the same as another, which keeps me on my toes and engaged!
My main expertise is in mechanical testing, specialising in fracture toughness (a material's ability to resist crack propagation) and structural integrity assessment, which takes up most of my time. However, I am also involved in delivering various TWI training courses and supporting its education outreach programme.
Object 1: Instron Universal Testing Machine
This type of machine has taught me that when it comes to solving engineering challenges, you should view everything from different angles and perspectives. Just because something is designed for a certain job doesn’t mean it can’t be adapted to meet other needs!
I have been working in the area of mechanical testing for a decade and the universal testing machine is the one that I rely on the most to be able to deliver work for my clients. Although it is a simple push-pull machine, with an enquiring and creative engineering mind it can be made to perform all manner of tests.
Although simple tension and compression tests using the standard grips are its bread and butter, by designing and manufacturing suitable jigs and fixtures, all manner of tests can be carried out. Projects I have worked on over the years using this type of machine have included:
Bend tests to measure the fracture toughness of a material for oil and gas pipelines;
Torsion fatigue and shear testing of pins for nuclear applications;
Surface friction tests on bolted metal assemblies for structures operating in severe environments;
Dynamic load tests on waste transport containers;
Testing niche engineering components to destruction for the defence sector.
Object 2: Bolt Cutters
A basic item can be used to solve a complex problem!
While I was studying for my A levels, I participated in the Engineering Education Scheme. This is a national programme, where teams of sixth form pupils work with engineers from a local company over the course of a year, to solve a real-life problem. Our team of five worked with two engineers from Sellafield to develop a manual method of attaching lids to drums of radioactive powder, so they could be temporarily stored. Our final solution used bolt cutter handles with a modified set of jaws, to deform the lids so they curved under the lip of the drum opening. We also developed another set of jaws to allow removal of the lids when the time came the empty the drums.
Our efforts were handsomely rewarded, as we made it to the national finals, attending an exhibition and awards dinner in London. We ended up placing second in the final (so close!) and it is an experience I won’t forget. This scheme really helped me develop so many skills required of a good engineer, and gave me a great foundation to build on, first at university and subsequently at work. I think back fondly every time I use or see a pair of bolt cutters!
Object 3: Milky Bar
Almost any object can be used to demonstrate the importance of engineering!
Ever since I began working as an engineer, I have been enthusiastic in promoting the profession to children and young people. I have been a STEM Ambassador for over ten years, and have organised hundreds of outreach events, from lunchtime careers talks to full-on practical project days, and reached thousands of potential engineers. A lot of my initial interest in the profession came from these types of events when I was at school, where I was able to interact with real engineers, and I have always wanted to ‘give something back’ since I started working as an engineer myself.
I have picked a milky bar as one of my objects because it has played a part in a large number of these outreach events. TWI have run a ‘welding with chocolate’ workshop for many years and I became heavily involved in delivering this in local schools when I joined the company. It uses chocolate to demonstrate the principles behind welding and structural integrity and has proved hugely popular with children of all ages, as you can imagine! Every time I see one of these bars, I remember all of the workshops I have run, and look forward to those to come in the future. To find out more about the workshop please check out this link.
All in all, the main thing that these three objects have taught me is that, in engineering, nothing is always as it seems. By considering how something may be used in a different way, what may seem like a complicated problem to solve can actually have a simple solution!
Current Position: Retired; still doing the odd (i.e., occasional) lecture and some pro bono project management, CUEA Committee Member
Graduation Year and College: 1967, King's College
Retired; still doing the odd (i.e., occasional) lecture and some pro bono project management, CUEA Committee Member
My Career in Three Objects; Goliath, Early Computers and ZAM.
I joined the Army aged 16 and after University served in the Royal Engineers and various Staff jobs in 15 countries (including 2 years as CO of 39 Engr Regt based at Waterbeach). Went into Higher Education in 1987 as Bursar of Bristol University, then Director of Estates at the University of Cambridge, during its major expansion in 1997-2005. I was then seconded to work for the UK Government as Director of construction policy for the UK. I have since lectured in the University of Cambridge, and also in UCL and UWE as Visiting Professor, and in various countries, on sustainability in construction.
Object 1: Goliath
By the start of the 1970s, British military forces were operating in Northern Ireland to prevent terrorist violence such as the placing and detonation of bombs. Many such bombs were found by security forces and then were defused by a robot called ‘Goliath’. This was operated by a bomb-disposal soldier, who, from a safe distance, operated the robot’s camera, tracks, and arms, so as to remove the detonator. The saving of so many lives by these robots strongly reinforced our early thinking of how robotics would change work and lives. And now I wonder: will robots almost entirely replace soldiers, sailors and airmen this decade, 5-6 decades on from then?
Image credit: SSPL via Getty Images
Object 2: My first work-computer
In 1972 I was working in high-dam design and construction with the Snowy Mountains Engineering Corporation (now SMEC) in Australia for a 186m high earth-fill dam, the highest dam in the Southern hemisphere. The site was a very deep valley, the catchment area 115 miles long. We had to do vast calculations as to how much clay (for the impervious core), sand, gravel and rock would be needed for the dam. The mind boggled, but then it cleared as it as realised that the new computer, which filled a huge double-room, would be able to process the many thousands of punch-cards, one for each spot on the ground where we’d taken a level. It worked well, though one card had a decimal point wrong so the computer was convinced that for a 5 metre area the ground plunged 100 metres down. The computer took over 5 hours to read the cards and run the programme. My Engineering course at Cambridge, in 1964-7, was, I was told, the last course on which computers were never mentioned, far less taught.
Object 3: Object Name ZAM.
In 1975, when I was doing a military MBA, I bunked off a lot of lectures and did, with enough academic support, a research project into how to weld plates of a Zinc/ Aluminium/ Magnesium (ZAM) alloy, which had a high strength to weight ratio and so was wanted to armour the underside of helicopters for military operations. Trouble was that plates of this alloy couldn’t be welded by electric, gas or any other means of welding. So, in the middle of a rugby pitch, I set up at a small angle the two plates to be welded on top of a large, very heavy iron plate, and above the alloy plates a layer of low-explosive (fertiliser and diesel mix) with a detonator at one edge. The explosion spreading from the detonator (at as little as 500m/sec) caused a sinusoidal wave at great heat which welded the two ZAM alloy plates together. After many tests, I got angles optimised. This experience, (not enthusiastically popular with those in bedrooms adjacent to mine, in which I was, perfectly safely, mixing the explosive!) gave me a fascination with metals which I pursued.
Current Position: Semi Retired; Deputy CTO at Lilium, Germany; Director at Gooch & Housego PLC; CUEA President
Graduation Year and College: 1974, Corpus Christi
Semi Retired; Deputy CTO at Lilium, Germany; Director at Gooch & Housego PLC; CUEA President
My Career in Three Objects; Typhoon, Type 45, Lilium Demonstrator
I joined BAe Systems as an Apprentice in January 1971, then spent many years working for the company - but was fortunate in that time to move and change jobs with the company very frequently, giving me tremendous opportunities to grow and learn while also giving me financial stability and making my moves simple and low risk. After 38 years with BAeS and experience in the US and Asia as well as UK / Europe, I then moved into what was expected to be retirement, but turned into a fascinating - and continuing - series of full and part time jobs.
Object 1: Eurofighter Typhoon
I first worked on what became Typhoon when it was only a vague concept, then moved in and out of the project over many years as it developed. As the UK Programme Manager I began to be exposed more and more to international collaboration and developed friendships in Germany, Italy and Spain, then in 1996 was appointed as MD / CEO of the Eurofighter Company based in Germany, which allowed me to relocate to Munich with my family and to take on leadership of the programme. After three years in-post I returned to the UK, spent some years in other jobs, then returned for a second tour in Germany this time as Eurofighter COO. Among the highlights of my time with Eurofighter were negotiating the development and production contracts, signing the production contracts, and choosing to name the aircraft Typhoon - but under these public highlights there were many years of detailed work on the design development certification and production of the aircraft, working with many parts of the worldwide industry and customer community. Trying to summarise what I learnt over these years is beyond me - I learnt much about working with international colleagues and cultures, about all aspects of aerospace development, and I learnt much about seeing life through the eyes of my customer. Being able to see situations from multiple perspectives is a key skill, well worth developing but often not easy.
Object 2: Type 45 Destroyer
At the end of 1999 I was asked to return to the UK and move from CEO Eurofighter to MD of the Type 45 Warship programme, and within 2 years I had taken over responsibility for all of the BAeS naval interests including warships, submarines, naval weapons - and shipyards / factories in Scotland, Cumbria, the South West and South East of England. The Naval sector faced many severe problems at that time, and much change was needed, quickly. Throughout several years Type 45 was a successful, modern project which provided challenge and satisfaction as I had to work through the many difficult problems elsewhere in the group, and bring more modern practises and structure into Naval design and management. There were some very dark days at that time, but the experience of some years in such a different and difficult environment provided me with some great opportunities and memorable experiences, and helped me grow my own resilience and persistence in the face of uncertainty - which was a key learning from that period. Life is often like a roundabout, and hanging-in through the dark, shaded times is essential to allow you to enjoy the brighter times which do come round when you make it back into the sunshine.
The photo shows a Typhoon flying past the stern of the first of 6 Type 45s, and brings together two of my three objects - a photo of which i am especially proud
Object 3: Lilium ‘Phoenix’ Technology Demonstrator
Since leaving BAe Systems I have enjoyed tremendous variety. I worked as the Engineering Director of an Aircraft Modification and Aerostructures company for some years, I joined the Board of an international Photonics Companý, and for several months I even worked for a Russian Cargo Airline Group as Programme Manager of a major upgrade project. However more than anything else, what stands out from my career in recent years is Lilium. Based outside Munich, Germany, Lilium is developing an electrically powered vertical take off and landing aircraft, and is at the same time building an aircraft company from scratch. Founded by four Munich University Graduates in 2015, it now employs over 700 staff and has grown to be a ‘Unicorn’ - a Billion Dollar company recently floated on the US Nasdaq. As Chief Technology Officer I have had the privilege of helping to grow the company and its products, and most recently have been particularly involved with some of its Technology Development programmes including the full-scale 5 seat test vehicle shown. With 52 nationalities in the company, a predominantly very young and exceptionally bright workforce, and an ambition to conquer tremendous technological and regulatory challenges in a very short number of years, Lilium has been as challenging but also as rewarding as anything I have tackled before; and it is wonderful to continue to have such opportunities despite having started in the Industry more than 50 years ago. One of many lessons from Lilium is that whenever an Industry begins to look comfortable and stable, be prepared for major disruptors - technology and society don’t stand still. Companies can’t afford to stand on their laurels - they must strive continually to identify and pursue new opportunities. But an associated lesson is that disruption is hard; if you have ambition and start-up a company to challenge established organisations, plan on a tough journey, tougher than you could possibly have anticipated - and make sure you recruit some good strong colleagues to take the journey with you. And on a more personal basis, Lilium has also demonstrated very clearly that learning is a life long requirement and opportunity; I may be past retirement age but I have had to and been able to learn as quickly as ever in my life, to keep up with the needs of my work in Lilium.
I have rarely been bored in my working life, and have rarely lacked challenge. The design development and certification of aircraft, plus a few years on naval programmes, have certainly kept me busy. I seem to have moved quickly from one difficult challenge to another, but invariably I managed to leave jobs behind me which were in rather better shape than when I picked them up. I have been able to work with some wonderful people and organisations in many parts of the world, and have been on the inside of some very new technologies. I can also look back on many successes, and take great pride in the aircraft and naval vessels with which I have worked, and in the very many people with whom I have worked.
Reading the career summary might suggest that I am a workaholic, and this is not far from the truth. However, always remember that there is more to life than your work career. I have three alternative ‘objects’ which tell their own story, and are more important than any of the above
My wife, who has been my essential partner for nearly 50 years
Our family of four children and (so far) 3 grandchildren, who make everything else worthwhile
The garden, countryside, lakes and mountains in which I spend much of my leisure time
Do remember to maintain balance in your life!
Current Position: Head of Product, Altia ABM
Graduation Year and College: 2009, Magdalene College
Hannah Latham, Head of Product at Altia ABM
My career to date has been in three distinct parts:
Five years working as an actual mechanical and aeronautical engineer at Rolls-Royce.
Six years working in Rolls-Royce Digital (I switched career paths) leading software and data services development teams. This both amazes and amuses me because at Uni nothing scared me more than being confronted with the need to write code! If I am honest I am still bad at coding but fortunately I’m good at having ideas for innovative things for other people to create with code.
I’ve now left Rolls-Royce and work at a small company that develops a suite of software used by police forces around the world.
Object 1: A bolt
“Excellence is delivered on a grand scale by a relentless dedication to excellence in the small things”
After I left Cambridge I got a job as an Engineering Graduate at Rolls-Royce. The induction programme filled us all with excitement and left us with visions of working on cutting edge innovation and game changing technology. Imagine my surprise when I turned up to one of my placements and was told that amongst other things I’d be spending 16 weeks working not on the latest and greatest stuff but on a humble bolt. Honestly as a mechanical engineer is there anything more mundane than nuts and bolts?
As my boss went on to explain this was a rather important bolt made of special material and able to sustain incredibly high torque. Its job was to secure the noise shielding panels that surround a jet engine fan. This bolt however had an Achilles heel: it was really hard to remove and the service centres were finding the high torque screwdrivers were wearing out the bolt’s head. Once worn they were nigh on impossible to remove. More experienced engineers had already designed a solution: an identical bolt with a different shaped screwdriver head. My job was to prove to the regulator that the changes wouldn’t have any impact on the safe functioning of the engine.
“Surely it’s obvious it won’t?” I asked my boss. “They haven’t changed the part of the bolt that carries the load so isn’t it obvious it’ll be fine?” It was obvious from one perspective but in the aerospace industry you take no chances. Over the next two months I tested that bolt in every way you could imagine, arranged for it to be used on a demonstrator engine and wrote a 20 page report for the regulator proving the bolt met the standards.
In the beginning I felt somewhat disillusioned by being given what seemed like an incredibly dull project whose goal was to prove something everyone already knew. As I got into it though, my perspective really changed. Planes have fallen out of the sky on multiple occasions due to errors with bolts. Less than a year later I worked on a crisis team dealing with a major ‘engine falls out of sky’ event, the root cause of which included flawed assumptions made about a terribly ordinary section of pipe. I learnt that excellence is delivered on a grand scale by a relentless dedication to excellence in the small things. It’s a lesson that also transfers to life.
Object 2: A Fusion Reactor
“Most engineers end up either playing a small role in a big world-leading change or a big role in a small space”
After I finished the graduate scheme I was lucky enough to land a job in Rolls-Royce’s blue sky research group. I’d always wanted to do some good in the world and was ecstatic to be placed in the ‘sustainable energy’ team. I worked on tidal power for a while then became the lead for fusion power technologies. Finally some world changing stuff! It certainly felt that way when I was presenting cutting edge research papers to the EU Fusion Development Agency.
It wasn’t long though before I learnt the “in joke” about fusion power: it’s always 30 years away no matter what year it is. This joke made me realise something: in the modern world we live in physical technology is complex and already advanced. Game changes today are rarely achieved anymore by ‘invention’ (think Brunel having a lightbulb moment), they’re more commonly delivered through ‘innovation’ which is more about making many little incremental steps forward over time.
Most of the ‘game changing mechanical technologies’ that are in the news have been years in the making with many major innovations taking 30 – 60 years to go from initial idea to commonly used product. These innovations also rely on the efforts of huge teams of people rather than outstanding individual brilliance. Take the electric car which is suddenly getting a lot of attention. It may surprise you to know that the first electric car was invented in the 1820s, government funding started in earnest in the 1970s and Tesla released its first electric car nearly 15 years ago! Yet it’s estimated it’ll be around 2030 before electric cars become ‘mainstream’.
This has profound implications for career paths. If you dream of developing the next generation of world leading technologies, doing so today typically means you’re going to need to pick something and build up a real depth of knowledge in that specific area over many years and it will likely be years before you see the impact of what you do.
If instead you love variety, aren’t sure what you want to do or are too impatient to wait ten years to see the impact of your work then you’re likely going down a different road: that of applying existing technologies in new ways and in new areas. What you end up doing then likely won’t end up changing the world in a grand sense but it could make a world of difference to specific industries or customers. Most engineers therefore end up either playing a small role in a big world leading change or a big role in a small space. It’s a choice to ponder on.
Object 3: The Verinote App
“Every so often some form of technological innovation comes along with the power and potential to change many things both profoundly and quickly”
Working on fusion power taught me that, much as it was cool working at the cutting edge, I was the sort of person who didn’t want to wait ten years to see my work have some real world in-use impact. Many of my friends were settling into a career path or area of specialism but, much as I had enjoyed many of the roles I’d done, I had never felt like I had found ‘my thing’. That all changed when I was accepted onto Rolls-Royce’s customer secondment programme and sent to work for several months out in Air New Zealand.
While working out in Auckland the airline asked me to map out all the major datasets the engineering organisation was holding and come up with “innovative things they could do with all of it”. It was completely fascinating and within six weeks I’d spotted a way I thought the airline could save money by reconfiguring the way it sent data reports on some of the Boeing aircraft. I mentioned the idea in passing to my boss and two days later found myself presenting it to members of the board. Just over three weeks later the airline had made the change I suggested which saved them significant amounts of money. It was truly astonishing, after the slow pace of fusion, to see something done so fast and I knew I had found “my thing”.
What I learnt from this experience is that every so often some form of technological innovation comes along with the power and potential to change many things both profoundly and quickly. The invention of electricity was one such moment, the invention of the internet was another. Today cloud computing and the data science (including AI and Machine Learning) that it enables are making serious waves in the world and will be for some years to come. You’ve only got to look at the rise of the social media and internet giants, all of whom built their success on data, or the horror of the Cambridge Analytica scandal to see it (I really recommend watching the Social Dilemma on Netflix).
In engineering, the vast majority of ‘technology products’ and ‘technological research’ are now also making serious use of data and data science: buy a hoover and it’ll probably come with a health monitoring app, or set out to do complex CFD and you’ll likely be using a machine learning meshing algorithm. Everything mechanical (my degree discipline) is getting a digital angle and it’s the same in most of the other engineering disciplines. Because of this, I’d seriously recommend that everyone looks to acquire some data science skills (if you want to learn I recommend DataCamp).
Today I work for a company that develops a range of software for the police and private investigators. Our Verinote app allows officers to capture incident reports, take witness statements and capture evidence records securely while on the go. And like the best of apps, it is already starting to embed AI capabilities (it uses speech recognition to automatically provide transcripts of anything recorded using the app). This is a profound shift when you consider that the majority of police forces around the world today still use a pen and paper to record things. We're applying the latest technology through a partnership with Microsoft to deploy cloud technologies in new area with novel challenges; this a great example of the cutting edge application of technology.
What I have learnt from this is that interesting opportunities and game changing innovation don’t just happen in big companies like Rolls-Royce, it can also happen in smaller companies too. When I was looking for a job I only applied to big well-known companies, I’d encourage everyone to look at smaller companies too.
The best career advice I have ever received is to not worry too much about having a long-term career plan and to focus instead on near-term development goals and choices. It’s a startling fact that, in the year people are born, about 60% of the jobs that generation will end up doing won’t have been invented yet. My first school had exactly one computer and now most of us use one every day. I was twelve when the first nokia phones with the snake game on them were suddenly “a thing” and now we have smartphones with every app imaginable. The discipline I now work in – product management – didn’t even exist until about five or six years ago yet today you can get globally recognised formal qualifications in it. I could never have known this was the job I wanted to do when leaving Uni because the job I do now hadn’t actually been invented then. I got to it one step at a time.
A lot can happen even in just two years. You won’t be the same person in two years’ time that you are today. You will have grown and gained new skills, knowledge and experience. And your life and the world will have moved on too.
Instead of a long-term career plan I actively advocate that people have near-term development plans that focus on how you will aim to learn and grow over the next two years, how you can make an impact in that time and what sort of role or job you might want to do next (because that can focus what you need to learn or demonstrate to get there). If you’re not at all sure what you want to do next pick something that offers opportunities to gain new skills, try out different things and learn about yourself (check out 16 Personalities to learn more about yourself). And check out the Japanese concept of Ikiagi too!
Current Position: COO and Co-Founder, Vivacity Labs
Graduation Year and College: 2013, Queens’ College
Peter Mildon, COO and Co-founder of Vivacity Labs
I first thought about the concept of a career path half a lifetime ago, when I was at school picking out which A-Levels I would do. My father, and grandfather had both been in the legal profession, so I knew one thing for sure – I did not want to become a lawyer. I can’t remember why but I decided that Engineering looked interesting and so, without any real logic, decided that would be my chosen career.
The financial crisis had just happened and my sister’s experience graduating that year, and being launched into the worst job market in a generation, highlighted to me the importance of having a differentiated CV. I therefore opted to do a Year in Industry for the double reason of gaining the “CV points” of 12 months work experience over the majority of my co-graduates, alongside delaying my graduation by a year, putting it firmly into the middle of what I thought would be the next economic cycle. I spent a year at the Naval Base in Portsmouth designing warships in an office that was right next to the giant building where they were being built – an engineering nerd’s paradise of seeing the physical construction of your work close up.
At University, I was inspired by talks given by alumni of their own entrepreneurial journeys and certainly thought at the time “I want to do that” – but didn’t give much thought to the what, when or how.
In my final year, I was far too busy working on a student-led project, where we designed and built a solar powered car, to offer career planning more than the bare minimum of brain space. I applied to two firms, both with links to the solar car project, and accepted the first one to offer me a job without much further thought. My mother’s passing during my final year consuming any brain space that might otherwise have been set aside for dreaming about founding a company of my own.
The career that I ended up stumbling into was Structural Engineering Consultancy. It was fun, technically interesting and taught me a huge amount about how the commercial world operated in reality. However, I was slightly dispassionate about it and resented my ideas and hard work being used by clients to make or save money, while my reward remained the same, irrespective of the effort or quality of work.
The opportunity to found a start up came 3 years later, when two of my old solar car team colleagues were in need of a co-founder. While it was a huge decision to quit a job with a salary to do something where there would be no pay cheque for 12 months, and there was a high likelihood of failure – the excitement and enthusiasm, even the concept generated, ultimately made it a no brainer.
Five years on, I am more entrepreneur than engineer, spending a little too much time reading contracts, but weirdly loving it.
Object 1: Santa’s Little Helper – Line-Following Robot
“The power of combining software with hardware, and a good bit of teamwork.”
In the second year of undergraduate Engineering at Cambridge, students take part in the Integrated Design Project – a team-based coursework to build a line-following robot to carry out a task. For our group, the task was to sort parcels by shape and deliver them to the correct “chimney” on the test area. We were randomly assigned a team of 6 and had to design, build and deliver the robot’s mechanical design, electronics and software. I would have naturally gravitated towards the mechanical tasks but it transpired that so would 4 of the 6 of us. I ended up taking on the robot Software with my lab partner Ben and I also took on the team project management responsibilities.
Our overall design was fairly good – we opted for a side-loading design philosophy, different to most other teams, which fundamentally reduced the number of turning movements we had to make, simplifying the task considerably.
During testing, however, we found out some “quirks” in the mechanical design which did not quite behave as planned. The distance between the line sensors and turning axis of the car made the line-following logic very sensitive. As the robot had already been built at this point, we had no choice but to fix these issues in the software.
We went on to win the competition, teaching me two key things; I could lead a team, and that software had the power to improve good hardware design. I also met Yang…
Object 2: Resolution – Cambridge University Eco Racing’s 2013 Car
“Failure is an option”
In my 3rd year at Cambridge, Yang persuaded me to join a student team called “Cambridge University Eco Racing”. The team built solar-powered cars for the World Solar Challenge in Australia every 2 years and Yang thought my approach to the IDP project could help the team.
The team’s calculations had found a new concept, showing that the aerodynamics of a very narrow car could still offer an improved operating point over the typical “table top” solar cars, which were built to maximise solar area. When the rules were published requiring 4 wheels for the first time in the competition history, I sketched up the concept and shared it with the team. One colleague then asked the question “can we do anything with the space created in the back?”. I ran with the idea and stayed up the whole night drawing up the concept of a car with the solar panels inside a transparent bubble, enabling the panels to track the sun as it crossed the sky (the route conveniently running fairly straight from North to South making this possible).
The team had a philosophy – we want to win, or not finish – second place is not an option. This fed into all of our design decision, and meant compromising on the width of the car was not an option. We did recognise that the narrow design might make it unstable, so we did extensive analysis and testing. I also dedicated my entire 4th year dissertation project to designing and assessing the crash safety of the monocoque chassis, pushing the strength of the safety sell beyond the requirements in the rules, in recognition of the risk we were taking.
In the final months before the race, the team had another bright idea. The rules stated that, while stationary, the charging area of the car “must not exceed the maximum allowable envelope of the car”. Given our car was so small, we had potential solar charging space to play with when stationary and built a deployable solar array to carry in the car. Unfortunately, we missed the fact that the extra weight from this array would invalidate all of our dynamics’ calculations and testing. Three days before the race, while out testing in northern Australia, with the extra weight added to the back of the car, the driver hit a pothole at 85 kmph and slammed on the breaks, causing the car to spin around, flip over and roll down an embankment.
The car’s crash structure worked exactly as planned and the driver walked away from the crash without a scratch.
The race, though, was lost. It was the first time in my life that I had fundamentally failed at something and it gave me a new perspective of risk.
Object 3: Vivacity Labs Traffic Sensor
“We can add value in the real world”
After the solar car, I joined Frazer-Nash Consultancy in their Structural Integrity team analysing structures. This included anything from power stations to ships to tidal turbines to the human leg. The work was very interesting and I learnt about the commercial world – the world of proposals, contracts, purchase orders, invoices and most importantly being paid. If anyone ever chooses to do a Start Up, having an understanding of these basics is critical (if thoroughly dull to the person who never wanted to be a lawyer).
In 2015 I had a call from Yang, who explained to me his start-up idea. It was like someone had turned the light back on in my head. Ambition and creativity came flooding back for the first time in 2 years.
On 21st December 2015, I logged onto Companies House and founded Vivacity Labs Limited and took the title COO, given my focus was to deliver the concept. Yang (our CTO) was joined my Mark (CEO), the 2012 solar car team captain, Steve (a friend of mine from Queens’ and a solar car alumni) and Julien, a software developer. We spent 2016 building prototypes, getting paid trials to demonstrate what we could do, and building funding bids from the likes of Innovate UK to develop the solution we had envisaged.
The concept went like this: A mobility-focused Smart City needs real-time data in order to adapt to demand. Existing sensors were fundamentally flawed – radars could not classify vehicles based on their appearance, only their size; induction loops could not detect cyclists or pedestrians; light gates failed in free open space; Bluetooth only captured a proportion of the population, while a camera gave all the information needed to do all these things – if only the data could be extracted automatically. We got funding to build an edge-processing sensor, with a focus on detecting cyclists – a class of road user underserved by technology at the time, and therefore our way into the market. By processing the video “at the edge” you did not need to pay to transmit the video and could protect personal data as only the anonymous data extracted ever need leave the device.
Now, on the 5th birthday of the company, we have deployed thousands of our sensors across the UK and in 7 other countries around the world. Our data is used by policy makers, transport planners, for strategic decision making, operational decision making and now even directly feeding into traffic signal control. It has been used to demonstrate the increases in cyclist demand following the introduction of new temporary cyclist infrastructure, , providing an evidence-based approach to making the changes permanent. It has been used to monitor the impact of lockdowns on mobility patterns across the UK during Covid-19… in short it has had a real-world impact.
Each of these objects form a pivotal part of my career. Without just one of them I would not be where I am today. Who knows what path I may have gone down without them but looking back I am happy with the path trodden to date. Was I always destined to spend a large part of working life reading and negotiation contracts?
This path all starts with team project work at Cambridge. Do not underestimate the power of what you learn from these projects. Competition created the motivation in these early teams and made us push the boundaries of what we thought we could achieve. Always aim to win and learn from failure. This will create a path for you to follow.
Current Position: Dr John C Taylor Professor of Innovation, Head if Institute of Manufacture
Tim Minshall, Dr John C Taylor Professor of Innovation and Head of Institute for Manufacturing
1. The Le Mans-winning Mazda 787B
Shortly after graduation, I went to work in Japan. One of the companies I worked for was Mazda. As an engineer, I found it bizarre that the company had the extraordinary technical capabilities required to produce - on their first attempt - a Le Mans winning car (the 787B), yet lacked the commercial capabilities to survive and hence had to be bailed out by Ford. This triggered my interest in better understanding how the technical and commercial aspects of engineering needed to work in harmony.
2. The digital sound projector prototype
After my PhD, I went to work for St John's Innovation Centre Ltd. One of the tenant companies had developed a (then) extraordinary piece of technology call the 'Digital Sound Projector' - a device which, thanks to clever hardware and software, allowed a single array of small loudspeakers to create a form of surround sound. The wonderful inventor showed me the demo, and thought that this would quickly be picked up by someone else and made into a winning product. But this only reached the market once he realised that this would only happen if he worked in collaboration with multiple other firms to go from PoC all the way through the Japanese consumer electronics-grade production. And it was this that triggered my interest in better understanding the whole process of innovation, and the key role that collaborations play.
3. The automatic kettle switch
Despite all the high tech wizardry that typifies so much of what Cambridge is rightly known for, it is the story of the automatic kettle switch - and invention of one Dr John C Taylor (who endowed the professorship I am lucky enough to hold) - that has particular resonance for me. This is such a powerfully simple technology that, thanks to it being designed from the beginning to be as simple as possible and capable of production at scale (with the machines capable of doing this also being designed by Dr Taylor). This blending of understanding of the market, technology, product and production process is an absolutely superb example of the complete cycle of innovation in one device ... which globally is used every day by 1bn people.