Wednesday, 3 December 2014

My latest obsession: 3D printing

My latest engineering obsession is Additive Manufacturing, or 3D printing. I am initially looking at whether it's feasible to print spare equipment parts for offshore installations. Would it be possible, one day, to have a 3D printer offshore and not stock any spare parts? Would this reduce space and weight requirements for installations? Is it possible to 3D print a pipe off the back of a pipe lay vessel as it goes along, rather than manufacturing the pipe in a construction yard and spooling it onto a reel to put on the boat? What else can we do with this technology? I know we're not quite there right now, but I believe we are only limited by our imaginations here. It's important to explore these avenues and ask these questions.

I recently attended the Hinton lecture at the Royal Academy of Engineering; it was presented by Admiral Sir George Zambellas who is essentially the boss of the British Navy. He spoke about 'Engineering a 21st Century Navy for a 21st Century Nation'. I asked him at the end if the Navy has considered 3D printing and his response was something along the lines of 'I could do an entire other lecture just on 3D printing!' 

It's encouraging to hear what other industries are doing with this technology, and I learned more at a conference in London last week which brought together professionals in this industry to explore how to translate additive manufacturing from small scale into industrial applications. The range of applications was staggering; tennis racquet grommets, dental implants, filters, bendable electronics, fuel nozzles, shoes and concrete structures. One application I particularly liked was using lunar soil for a 3D printed moon base (! Using the soil already on the moon means less weight to carry up there; apparently it costs about £200,000 for every kilogram you want to send to the moon!

A few other interesting points to note: 3D printing will not replace traditional manufacturing; it is simply another tool for the designer’s kit. There is no point 3D printing everything for the sake of it, we should be using it to print things that are not possible to manufacture with existing methods. There is currently little standardisation in this industry, BSI (British Standards Institution) are on the case and will hopefully start to provide standards for machinery and materials as the technology develops. There are lots of unanswered questions when it comes to Intellectual Property, for example, can you print out a spare part for a machine you own if you are not the original equipment manufacturer? Finally, this is yet another engineering area facing a skills shortage.

In a less technical and more social context, 3D printing will play a large role in the evolution of consumerism. I think (and hope) we are moving away from the mass production culture, where you see a product someone else has and you want it, onto a phase of individualism where your product is unique, useful, efficient and defining of your personality.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

What is the right level of response to anthropogenic induced climate change?

I was recently in the audience for a debate hosted by the Foundation for Science and Technology entitled ‘What is the right level of response to anthropogenic induced climate change?’ The speakers had ten minutes each to make their points, after which the audience members were invited to comment and pose questions.

The four speakers were Sir Mark Walport, Government Chief Scientific Adviser; David Davies MP for Monmouth, Professor Jim Skea, Imperial College London and Committee on Climate Change; and The Rt Hon Peter Lilley, MP for Hitchin and Harpenden. The two scientists were arguing that we need significant and immediate action to tackle climate change to avoid catastrophic events and the politicians saw this as an extreme reaction from an economic point of view given their perceived uncertainty of the scientific evidence. Points of contention included how much of climate change can actually be attributed to human activity and how accurate the modelling used to predict the effects of climate change is. 

I feel the debate reflected the current global status of the issue. There is no dispute that the climate is changing. Some disagreements surface when it comes to how much of this change is ‘natural’ and how much has been caused by us, and the real uncertainty surfaces when key decision makers are asked ‘what should be we be doing about this?’

I have often questioned whether it’s fair for the developed world to deny the developing countries their right to advance and grow. I do believe that experiences and mistakes should be shared but stifling the growth of these countries by imposing carbon emissions targets would be a crime. As a result, I am undecided on this topic and I have yet to see a compelling argument to swing my opinion either way.

I actually prefer to flip the problem upside down. Forgetting all about climate change, I can look at my own life and ask do I need to eat fruits imported from exotic countries? Do I need to eat meat every day? Do I need new clothes every season? Do I need the central heating on at 20°C? Do all these things actually add to the value of my life and what effect does my consumption have on others? It is very quick and easy for me to come to the logical conclusion that much of this can be changed or eliminated. If everyone did this, would it reduce our emissions? I know this is easier said than done and I am perfectly aware that reducing consumerism will have an enormous economic impact, but it’s still worth thinking about.

Monday, 28 April 2014

What's the worst that could happen?

A few weeks ago, I was invited to the National Engineering and Construction Recruitment Fair at the NEC in Birmingham to give a presentation about my career and to talk about the issues faced by women in a male dominated industry. The career bit was easy; I talked about my school and my time at the University of Nottingham, my placements with the E.ON graduate scheme and my current job in gas field development. 

The second part of the presentation was a bit more challenging and required much more pre-preparation and thought. I always get asked the question about issues and problems faced by women in male dominated environments and I always struggle to answer. Personally, I don’t think I have faced any gender related issues at work. There could be several explanations for this: maybe I am lucky in my company, or maybe problems will develop later on in my career and I will hit a ‘glass ceiling’. Maybe these issues are there and I just haven’t noticed them, or is it down to my general attitude towards work and life? I would like to believe it’s that last one and as long as I continue to be respectful and understanding towards my colleagues, deliver a high standard of work and most importantly enjoy what I do, there will be no problems.

You’re probably thinking that sounds too easy, where are the women engineers then? Well there is another dimension here, I think a lot of women (myself included) worry too much, we worry that we’re not good enough, that we won’t fit in, that we will look stupid if we say the wrong thing. The worry turns to fear and the resulting actions are a) keeping quiet when we have an opinion or a good idea because we don’t believe it’s of any value, b) sticking to the safe choices. This is utterly ridiculous and we have to stop doing it! 

The older I get, the more I believe in speaking up, taking risks and choosing the unsafe option. The more I do it, the easier it becomes. Like any other habit or activity, it is a matter of practise. I often speak up even though inside I am not sure I am saying the right thing, but in most cases I realise that I have said what was on everyone else’s mind.

I have taken decisions which at the time seemed terrifying and made me wonder what the hell I was doing, but I have absolutely no regrets. The things that went well were amazing, and the things that didn’t go so well were valuable lessons.

Some of the women engineers I spoke to after my presentation broke my heart. They were bright, intelligent, funny young women who lacked the confidence to match their talents. My point is that we have to actively stop worrying so much and start taking risks. Following the crowd will never get us ahead of it. The next time you have an opinion, an idea or an opportunity to ask a question I urge you to speak up. After all, what’s the worst that could happen?

Thursday, 13 March 2014

What does UK energy look like in 2050?

This year’s IET Clerk Maxwell presentation was given by Professor David Mackay, entitled ‘Climate, Energy Arithmetic and 2050 Pathways’. David is the author of a book I have been meaning to read for quite a long time: Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air (you can download this online for free: He was appointed as Chief Scientific Advisor for the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) in 2009, making sure DECC’s policies and operations follow the best scientific and engineering advice available.

Professor Mackay has developed an online tool that allows you to explore what your future energy world could look like if you made certain choices right now and whether you would reach the national emissions reduction target of 80% by 2050 (relative to 1990 levels). The tool considers energy demand and energy supply and gives you many options to choose from: do you want to cover 20% of the UK’s land surface in bio-fuel crops? Do you want all cars and buses to run on electricity? Should all homes be insulated? Should we develop Carbon Capture and Storage technology for all fossil fuel power plants?

The lecture was less of a lecture and more of a crowdsourcing exercise, going through each of the options and provoking the scientists and engineers (and the one architect!) in the audience to share their views and opinions. Overall this was a very enjoyable and engaging evening; it was surprising how quickly the time passed for someone with an attention span as short as mine! I was deep in thought about how much work and effort we need to put in to meet these emissions targets and the complexity of the balance between supply and demand. Another topic that was briefly covered was the rest of the globe, this tool is UK based and global warming is… well… a global issue. There was talk of developing a similar global model; but this will probably take a while.

There is one key topic that will stick with me. At one point the audience discussion turned into the viability of a certain technology (I have forgotten the exact topic; it may have been electricity storage or fuel cell technology…). David’s response to this was something along the lines of ‘don’t think about if it’s realistic or not, think about what you want to see and we will worry about how to make it happen later’.

This highlights an important concept for me – crazy ideas. I feel that most people come up with an idea and then think of reasons why it won’t work and it gets quickly dropped. A better approach is to take the idea and break it down into smaller more manageable steps. Before you know it you will be in places you never imagined possible.

Here is a personal, kind of relevant example. During my two year graduate scheme with E.ON, I had to spend six months working for E.ON internationally. 90% of the UK graduates would end up in Germany, easy option since it’s a German company with headquarters over there and lots of operations. Slightly more adventurous graduates have ended up in Paris, Madrid, Milan, and various other well established E.ON offices. The goal I set myself: go where no graduate has ever gone before! The first step was communicating this to my scheme manager, Louise, luckily for me is an amazing lady who was supportive of my ideas. She set up meetings for me with a manager who was in the know about international activities. By the end of the meeting, I had three options: Germany, Italy, or one of three mystery countries that the company was thinking of expanding into. Obviously to ‘go where no graduate has ever gone before’ I had to pick the mystery option! Cutting the long story short, I ended up in an office in Istanbul with the four experienced country directors. I had an unforgettable time, learned a lot and achieved something that initially seemed difficult.

So in conclusion, when you have a few minutes, play around with the energy tool (, think about how you want the world to look in 2050 and keep coming up with crazy ideas!

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Stray dogs in Brazil and engineering events in the UK!

I have to divulge momentarily from my engineering talk and daily life as I had two weeks off work and out of the UK on holiday backpacking around Brazil. At least I thought I would be backpacking around Brazil, before really comprehending how huge the country is! We still managed to see a bit of jungle, lots of waterfalls, beaches and attracted a few very friendly stray dogs along the way around Rio de Janeiro state. 

I won't bore you with the entire details of the journey, but here is a bit of a summary: we stayed in eleven different places including Buzios (which was apparently discovered by Brigitte Bardot and her Brazilian boyfriend) as well as my favourite place, Maromba, where I faced my fears and jumped off a 7 m high cliff into a natural pool. Between the three of us, we consumed about 84 litres of water and 8 litres of Guarana (a Brazilian soft drink… tastes a bit like cherry… turns out they have it in the UK but I had never noticed it before). We had four power cuts; a chance to see the stars properly and gaze into the vast universe. I learned one new card game (El Presidente). I also learned that staring blankly at people because you don't understand Portuguese seems to encourage them to continue talking enthusiastically in Portuguese (I had several great conversations with some old ladies out there, I am not sure what about but I felt a grandmotherly sort of connection). Another important lesson to note is that people set off fireworks when goals are scored during football matches, do not be alarmed by this, the first night I heard it I was in bed trying to sleep and thought it was gunshots so you can imagine my horror. Last but not least, cake featured quite heavily in our hostel breakfasts every day for the entire trip and I did seriously consider continuing that tradition back here… 

Saquarema sunset, 12th February 2014

I'll be honest, I didn't want to come back to the cold and rain of the UK, but I have been back for almost two weeks and it has flown by. As well as being busy with work, I presented alongside and was inspired by five other women engineers last week at the Institute of Chemical Engineers' "Celebrating Women in Chemical, Biochemical and Process Engineering" event. I also attended the Institute of Engineering and Technology annual dinner and got to see one of my favourite science presenters speaking, Professor Jim Al-Khalili. It almost makes up for the cold and rain.

I have a few upcoming events and plans, but I am most excited about the Big Bang Fair ( in Birmingham in a few weeks! It was so much fun last year and I can't wait to take part again, I really hope the welding with chocolate company is there again so I can improve my welding skills and eat their milky bars. 

Monday, 27 January 2014

A bit about my job...

When you read this, do you stop to think about where the energy to power your screen is coming from? Is it from fossil fuels in China? Or a biomass plant in Scotland? Or perhaps the solar panels on your neighbours' roof?

I would say the majority of us don't give this much thought. We flick a switch and expect, demand the lights to instantly shine. We don't think about the huge number of people working 24/7 to find sources of energy, working out how to convert these raw materials into usable products like electricity, and maintaining the complex distribution systems. According to the 2012 ‘Powering the UK’ Ernst & Young report, the industry directly and indirectly employs over 600,000 people!

This brings me to my job. I work in oil and gas exploration and production. I am part of the development team working out how to get the gas trapped in a reservoir in the North Sea to a gas processing plant onshore, where it joins the national gas grid. To give you a rough idea of the challenges we face, to access the reservoir I would have to get to the East coast of England, take a boat 5000m into the middle of the sea then travel vertically down through 54m of seawater. Once I reach the bottom of the sea, I would have to go another 3000m below the seabed through a variety of layers of rock. Can we use existing infrastructure in the area? Do we need to build a pipeline? How long will the gas be produced for? Does this fit with the UK's energy needs? How do we do all this safely, for our employees as well as the environment and future generations?

As you can see, there are lots of questions to be answered. This project will take a few years to plan and implement and will involve high financial investment and input from hundreds of people from different disciplines and with specialised skills.

Right now I am gathering lessons recorded from previous projects we have completed and figuring out how to effectively communicate these to the team as I'm determined to make sure we learn from our mistakes and we are ready for any problems that arise.  

That was a (very) brief insight into my world. I hope it makes you think more about your energy use, and the men and women working hard to make sure your supply of it runs smoothly.

From my first trip offshore back in 2012!

Monday, 20 January 2014

Autocues and why is Big Ben called Big Ben?

So far this month I have talked to the Science Museum, met an MP and last but not least completed some news presenter training! Today I will meet the Executive Vice President from WES (Women's Engineering Society) who will tell me a bit more about the organisation and what is still to come this year.

The Science Museum are designing a new engineering exhibition which will open in about a year's time. I had a phone call with a lady who is part of this team to help her with her research about what engineering is and what engineers do on a day to day basis. They are still figuring out how to structure this is an engaging and informative way; it will be a challenge to represent all of the different sides to engineering... I can't wait to see it!

I met the local MP for the area where I grew up and went to school, Patrick Mercer. He offered his support for any events I attend in his constituency and as he is a historian, we diverged and started talking about all sorts of other topics including why Big Ben is called Big Ben (apparently named after the 19th Centuty bare knuckle boxer Benjamin Caunt).

Practising news presenting!

Finally, on Friday I had a training session with the IET (Institute of Engineering and Technology) on news presenting and reading autocues in preparation for recording the IET news this week. I learnt one very important lesson - for some reason energy seems to be sucked out by the camera so it's crucial to be painfully enthusiastic and amplify your personality when being filmed!