When Bisrat Degefa attended the Target Undergraduate of the Year presentation, he got far more than a runners-up place. Impressing a senior manager at Laing O'Rourke, he was asked to help implement a global remote tracking system using RFID.
Have you always been interested in engineering?
I've always had an interest in how things work. I enjoyed the design and architecture of buildings but over the years became more interested in how things are made and constructed. I have a lot of how-to questions in my head.
How did you come to learn so much about RFID?
At my first placement I taught myself how to use a new 3D modelling software package then successfully sold the business case to the firm to offer the new software as part of their services. I then spent around three months training and implementing it across the business. While in discussion with a lecturer at the University of Portsmouth about IT in construction, we started talking about RFID.
I Googled building automation and the keyword that came up all the time was RFID. I'm really interested in making life easier and honestly believe if a machine can do something, there is no reason a human being needs to do it, especially if it is a tedious task. I wanted to find out how I could develop more automation when it came to the building process. I thought if RFID tracking tags could be attached to various components so we know where they are, we could incorporate manufacturing techniques otherwise used in the car industry. These ideas all linked with vast the amount information that is available on building information modelling and felt to me like the new age of construction.
How did the paid internship at Laing O’Rourke come about?
I was approached by a senior project manager from Laing O’Rourke at the Undergraduate of the Year Award ceremony. He started asking me some technical questions and I later realised he was testing my competency in the area. Afterwards he asked me to come to the Leadenhall building project in the City of London to see how they are currently using RFID and to see how I could help. This later led to a full-time project management role. I couldn't believe it as I hadn't won the award but there I was being offered a job. I must have said something right when I answered his questions.
What was your role at Laing O’Rourke?
I was based in London at the Leadenhall site but frequently travelled to manufacturer sites at York, Nottingham and Birmingham to put in place the RFID infrastructure. This was basically a three-way communication system, which began by reading the tagged components on site at various stages of manufacture. The components then became visible on the online central database and on the 3D building information model. It provided the end user with a real-time, visible supply chain at all times. Typical tagged components could include 25m span steel beams, concrete planks and complex steel components.
Laing O’Rourke had already embarked on an RFID project but I was the person responsible for scoping and signing off the implementation. It was a case of continuous improvement. If something didn't work as well as it should, we’d make improvements so that in three months we’d have a robust system that could be implemented for future use.
Did you enjoy the responsibility?
It was much more like a proper job than an internship. I soon realised I wasn't shadowing anyone and wasn't an assistant but one of the project managers. I hadn't done project management at university yet – in fact I'm doing it now – but the best part of the experience was being a manager. I learned so much about the ways of the world and how both business and people work. These are skills you don’t necessarily learn at university. I'm really thankful to the senior manager at Laing O’Rourke who brought me in.
What does your final year back at uni involve?
My final year project is looking at how we can build the cost of RFID into the contract so the client pays rather than the contractor. Who pays is a big question because it can cost hundreds and thousands to implement. I'm also busy setting up a freelance tutoring company focusing on building information modelling software so other students at Portsmouth can learn about it and boost their employability.
What advice do you have for other students on internships -- whether paid or unpaid ones?
You get out what you put in. Some students return from an internship and say they weren't given enough to do but that’s ridiculous. No one can ever say they have nothing to do because you shouldn’t wait for things to come to you. When I arrived at Laing O’Rourke I realised I was surrounded by people who are the best in what they do and it was quite intimidating initially. After a couple of months of working hard, I realised that to be the best you have to work with the best.
What are your aims now you are back at university and in your career?
In the short-term, to work hard and try to get a first class in my degree. In the long term I want to build a large and prosperous building company but I don’t think you should work for yourself until you've worked for someone else first. Whatever I do though will have wireless and automation at its core. I think there’s an answer to everything, it just hasn't been found yet.