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Mixing physics and engineering

As an engineer in the naval-nuclear division of Rolls-Royce, Steven Lawler sees himself as an ambassador for physicists working in an engineering environment.

Steven Lawler

Rolls-Royce has been designing and manufacturing the nuclear heart of the UK's submarine fleet since the late 1950s. Over this period, the nuclear power plant inside the submarines has evolved many times, and the company's Raynesway facility in Derbyshire remains an exciting place to work. Here, engineers and physicists work together in a number of disciplines, from reactor physics to heavy-vessel manufacture, all with the aim of supporting current and future generations of the submarine fleet.

As a chartered engineer as well as a chartered physicist, I am fortunate enough to wear both "hats", and I am keen to promote the flexibility that the physicist offers to an engineering business. In an engineering environment, having a physicist's skills can provide an additional edge in creativity, problem solving and lateral thinking.

Planes, trains and automobiles
Like many other youngsters growing up in the 1970s, I found Carl Sagan's Cosmos TV programme inspiring, and my interest in understanding our universe started then. As a teenager I didn't really know what I wanted to do as far as a career, and in my case the default option was to follow my father, a self-employed engineer who committed himself to developing and growing his own business. He is now enjoying his retirement, and I look up to him just as much now as I did then; with such a role model, it seems inevitable that I would work in an engineering discipline. So after leaving school, I started my early career as a "technician apprentice" at a Birmingham firm, Metropolitan Cammell Weymann, which manufactured double-decker buses. The economic climate of the late 1980s forced the company to close down two years after I joined, but fortunately I was able to transfer my apprenticeship to the parent company, Metro-Cammell, which made railway rolling stock (including the then-new Channel Tunnel train). During this apprenticeship, I was also studying for a BTEC in mechanical engineering to get an academic foundation in engineering principles and skills that would tally with the practical experience I was gaining during the apprenticeship.

At the end of my apprenticeship, I was offered company sponsorship to get a degree in mechanical engineering, but although I was interested in engineering as a discipline, it was (and still is) some of the bigger questions about our universe that really inspired me – how it works, where we come from, where we are going, and so on. So instead, I studied for a BSc in natural sciences with physics.

After I graduated, I returned to the engineering world as a design engineer at a firm that made pumps for the automotive industry. At that time, computer-aided design (CAD) software was really beginning to take off, and I was trained on a number of CAD packages during the next few years. My role was very flexible and meant that I was immersed in a number of disciplines, including design, project management, prototyping and testing.

A few years later, I found a niche at Lucas Aerospace, a firm that designs and manufactures fuel control systems for both military and civilian aircraft and is now owned by Rolls-Royce as Aero Engine Controls. During my eight years there I progressed from design engineer to principal engineer and then lead engineer, when I developed my first management skills. My next move, in 2005, was to manage an engineering department at the aerospace transparencies business unit of GKN Aerospace – a career-changing event that gave me a significant amount of management experience. Then, in 2007, I saw an opportunity to use my physics skills at Rolls-Royce, and I took it with both hands.

New techniques, new people
Today, I lead a multidisciplinary team that develops advanced manufacturing and fabrication techniques for use within Rolls-Royce's nuclear sector. I am one of around 2500 employees in the submarines business unit of Rolls-Royce, and there is also a civil nuclear business unit.

The manufacturing systems we are developing as part of Rolls-Royce's "advanced concepts" team aim to improve manufacturing efficiency, deliver safe and high-quality products to our customers, and push the boundaries of current manufacturing and fabrication techniques. Due to commercial and security restrictions, it is not possible for me to describe our work in too much detail, but one technique is aimed specifically at the construction of nuclear components such as reactor pressure vessels. These large items have to be made of very thick steel due to their operating environment and the obvious safety considerations of the nuclear sector, and are produced from forged components that are fusion-welded together. At the moment, the complete construction of such a large vessel, including welding and inspection processes, can take several months, and one of the techniques we are developing is aimed at fabricating the entire vessel in just a handful of weeks. Clearly, this has the potential to make a huge difference to the lead time and costs required to build nuclear submarines.

Not many people in the business have the opportunity to push the boundaries in this way, and I am very fortunate to be in such an exciting role, and working for an energetic and dynamic business. It's a great job, and one that allows me to work with people across the whole business, as well as engaging with external industry partners and groups.

I recently completed an MSc in nuclear engineering with the University of Manchester and the Nuclear Technology Education Consortium (NTEC), with Rolls-Royce sponsorship – I didn't turn down the offer of a sponsorship opportunity this time! The degree has provided me with the nuclear engineering and science grounding to support my role, and also helped me touch base with my passion for physics.

Another big part of my job involves mentoring other employees, such as Rolls-Royce graduates and those coming through the nuclear graduates scheme. There is a shortage of both engineers and physicists in the engineering sector, and it concerns me that maybe this field isn't the "sexy" choice for school-leavers and graduates today. But without new blood coming through, then our manufacturing industry is doomed, so I see it as part of my responsibility to get physicists and engineers interested, motivated and excited about what we do. To do this, I volunteer some of my time as a member of the Institute of Physics panels for chartered engineer and chartered physicist. This also helps me keep in touch with what engineers and physicists are doing in other sectors, and I try to pass my knowledge on to people in the company who are working towards chartered status in their respective fields.

The nuclear sector in the UK is extremely dynamic at the moment, with a number of businesses gearing up in readiness for the "big push" to build new nuclear power plants. On the naval side, investment from the UK government and Rolls-Royce is being made for future submarine applications. All in all, it's a fantastic environment to be working in right now, regardless of your discipline – physicist, engineer, chemist, metallurgist or safety analyst.

Steven Lawler is an advanced concepts engineer at Rolls-Royce, e-mail

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