What’s your current role?
I’m a research engineer. The beauty of that is I get to work on lots of different projects – I’m like a magpie constantly on the lookout for shiny things, interesting projects to work on.
I use my engineering background in a whole heap of fascinating projects, helping people all over the world. I’ve been looking at ways of dealing with the mountains of plastic waste we keep generating, how to introduce solar power into developing countries, technologies to help people with disabilities, and introducing virtual reality laboratories in resource-poor countries – bringing new technology to those who don’t currently have access to it.
With my friend Dr. Shane Keaveney, I set up the Rapid Foundation, to get 3D printing technology into places around the world where it is not available but could be really useful. We wanted to put our knowledge of 3D printing to good use, but also make best use of our time. Rather than descend on people who’ve never heard of us or what we do, we work with aid agencies who already have local connections and networks. We provide the kit and train the aid agency workers, and they train local people to use it and make the things they need. We’re on hand to offer technical advice and troubleshoot – usually via Skype.
Our printers have been used by children orphaned by AIDS in India and by technicians in hospitals in rural Rwanda and Uganda. The technology is easy to use and becomes a community asset. In India, they used it to make maps and models for use in the classroom and objects of local cultural importance. In Africa, it’s been used to make medical devices like umbilical clamps and scalpel holders that otherwise can be expensive or difficult to get hold of.
Doing it this way helps us to achieve a lot more – the two of us have been able to get projects up and running in a number of different locations in six countries. We’ve had loads of interest and really want to expand. We got a little bit of funding from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers to buy some 3D printers and get us going in India and Uganda, and now we want to raise some money so we can launch another 20 or so projects by the end of 2018.
I’ve also been working on a project looking at what to do about plastic waste – the planet is drowning in it. ‘Heavy engineering’ might not be the best way to solve the problem. We’ve been exploring all sorts of simple solutions, like tools to help schools or community centers separate their waste more easily. Or to help local communities recycle waste into useful things – like postcards or toys – and generate an income.
How did you end up in your current role?
I grew up in a garage – my father was a car mechanic, he ran his own business. So from the age of six I was fixing cars, helping to repair things. Studying mechanical engineering was a natural progression for me.
I had a chance to work for BMW on hybrid vehicles but I decided to do a master’s degree in renewable energy systems instead. I ran some large European research and development collaborations, but I found them really frustrating. They were large-scale, expensive, international efforts working with complex technologies but I didn’t think they offered value for money. I’m not sure that ‘big is better’ – I figured that there must be smarter and more nimble ways of going about things.
Often you don’t need complicated technological solutions – you need to look at a problem from all different directions and find the most suitable solution. My aim is usually to make complex things more simple, taking what I know about technology and seeing how simple versions of it could be applied more widely and hence have bigger impact.
And even if you get the technology right, it’s unlikely to be the complete solution. In our plastic waste work, we’ve been working with politicians to see how changes in policy might impact on waste or recycling – for example, making manufacturers follow standards on labelling of plastics, or adding taxes to non-recyclable plastic imports.
What’s the best thing about being an engineer?
For me, it’s about seeing a problem solved. When I was younger, if something didn’t work, I wanted to fix it. When I got some new Lego or Meccano, I threw away the instructions and tried to build it myself. Now, I don’t really care what the problem is – the harder the problem is, the more I want to solve it, and the more I get out of actually solving it.
Another real joy of engineering is working collaboratively with other people. I get to work with so many interesting people from every imaginable field – artists, performers, historians, anyone with a different view on a problem can add a huge amount to a project. There’s never just one way of solving a problem, and inspiration can come from anyone and anywhere.
Can anyone become an engineer?
Definitely. Engineering is all about problem solving, and everyone can develop their own way of solving problems, be it analytical, or practical, or social. Whatever way you choose will be useful, and once you’ve developed your way of doing things, you can apply it to anything.
What you will need is curiosity. You need to look at issues that are complicated and not be afraid of them, look for solutions in places you don’t expect them to come from, talk to people who don’t have any connection to what you are trying to solve. You need to explore, to be interested in all fields of science and technology – you don’t have to be an expert, just know enough to see how you could make them work for you.
And you need a rebellious streak. You need to challenge the status quo and think ‘there’s a better way of doing this’.
What three things should young people know about engineering?
- You don’t just get to work with other engineers. You’re helping to make things, but nowadays engineers have input into every aspect of the ‘made world’ – the scope of things you can work on is immense.
- Engineering is global. Most teams are multinational, and you’ll have the skills to develop a career anywhere in the world.
- It’s a lot more fun than it might appear. Trust me – it’s not just applying math and physics. You need that, but they open the door to amazing places, fantastic people and terrific experiences.
My final piece of advice: Do stuff for good. Try to work for particular people, the good of the community, or the world as a whole. The more you do, the more you’ll get in return, the more people will want to work with you, and the better you’ll feel. My motto is, try to leave the world in a better place than you found it – and engineering can help you do that.