Business as (un)usual: engineers under lockdown
Image credit: Will Twigger
Working in pyjamas, staying two metres away from colleagues (or constantly apologising for accidently talking over them on Zoom) and converting unloved nooks and garages into home offices has become the new normal for many people, as we adapt our work lives to cope with lockdown under Covid-19.
Coronavirus has been widely dubbed “the biggest health challenge of a generation”, as experts race to come up with solutions to stem the spread of the virus and stop the soaring number of deaths. Of course, engineers are doing their bit in a wide variety of ways, whether they are staying home to prevent the spread of the virus, or performing vital manufacturing or maintenance to keep hospitals and homes running.
Many manufacturing firms are churning out protective clothing for frontline staff, while some of the UK’s largest industrial, technology and engineering businesses from across the aerospace, automotive and medical sectors have come together to produce ventilators.
E&T talked to engineers under lockdown to find out how the different engineering disciplines are managing to keep calm and carry on.
Simon Stewart’s role has changed “significantly” since lockdown. The technical manager for HV Wooding is usually in charge of new product introduction at the company in Kent. Now, he has turned his attention to planning, programming and making components for ventilators, as part of the Ventilator Challenge UK consortium, which aims to produce some 10,000 lifesaving machines to help battle Covid-19.
The company manufactures the housing or chassis for ventilator machines, using laser cutting, machining, press brakes and inserting machines. “I have been personally involved in the manufacture of urgent parts required in one- to two-day lead times, using all our technical resources outside of normal working hours over the weekend,” Stewart says.
To make sure the company’s small band of engineers stay safe, temperature testing and > < restrictions on visitors have been introduced at the plant. “Often technical development needs close discussion and we are undertaking this via video conferencing, even if we are in the same building,” he adds.
Meanwhile, engineers at Sellafield have set up a small production line to make face shields for the NHS using its 3D printers. Mark Taylor, head of product development, typically focuses on rapid prototyping, testing and innovation to make commercially available solutions for the UK’s nuclear legacy, including developing a 3D printing hub.
His team is also using its time under lockdown to do all the jobs they hadn’t quite got around to before. “From that perspective, it’s been great – we’ve had time to think! It’s difficult not to get into all the detail of the projects we do. So, with normal work currently on hold it’s helped me and my team to figure out the best areas for improvement and how we’re going to improve them when we go back to the office.”
Enrico Gallino, a senior engineer and material specialist at Ricoh 3D, is missing his “home away from home” – the lab – where he spends time testing materials and powders for use in 3D printers. However, his team of engineers have created a new design for a protective face shield for NHS workers and are now taking this project through to full production, and all without any face-to-face interaction. “We’ve shared designs electronically and tweaked them collaboratively using telecommunications apps like Microsoft Teams, Skype and GoToMeeting,” he explains.
The company only needs one or two engineers on site at a time, so it’s been an easy transition, and “the nature of 3D printing means we’re used to reacting quickly to requests anyway”. Because of this, the firm has 3D-printed door handles and hooks to enable workers at its customers’ workplaces, which include medical establishments, to open doors with their elbows. “It’s a great feeling to know you’re making a difference and being an active participant in the fight against coronavirus,” he says.
Andrew Goodman is a field team coach and operations manager for the East London fibre repair team at Openreach. “The bulk of our work is as a fast-response unit to customer service outages over our high-speed fibre-based broadband networks,” he explains. His role before lockdown involved a mixture of engineer safety checks, customer site visits, site surveys, admin tasks and team management, and, while this hasn’t changed, his role has arguably become more important.
On 25 March, his team was asked to provide logistical support for NHS Nightingale, a temporary hospital set up in London’s ExCel conference centre, by making sure engineers on the ground had the right materials and supplies to connect the life-saving facility.
“Within an hour of getting the first phone call, we had six team members working on site and in two exchanges serving the ExCel,” he says. The engineers had no plans, schematics or orders to guide them, but the six-person team was able to connect up fibre spines from the ExCel to the two local exchanges, with two more teams joining to work overnight to provide a further four critical Ethernet fibre cable links to connect the ExCel back to the Royal London Hospital and Bart’s Hospital.
Together (but a safe distance apart) the teams managed to get everything up and running in just 15 hours, including the installation of four new Ethernet fibre lines and 16 spare back-up main fibre access routes, or spines, for resilience and additional capacity if it’s needed.
“A job of this size and complexity would normally take many days to complete,” says Goodman.
“This was a monumental effort – with the team having to coordinate their activities with those of hundreds of government workers, army and medical staff, based on plans literally drawn up on a piece of paper, which could change at any minute of the day or night,” he adds.
While Goodman is a ‘key worker’, he is able to work from home. “I’m doing the same job but I’m finding I have to plan a lot more rigorously. You can’t just spontaneously pop down the corridor to have a chat with someone about some aspect of a job on the spur of the moment or hold a team member huddle like before!” Instead, he keeps up to speed with his team using Skype video calls and has even solved issues on site using a video link. “I had one team member come across a cable joint insert he hadn’t come across before that needed replacing. He showed me on his phone and I was able to identify it remotely and send out a replacement component.”
Goodman hopes to continue the group conferences between the 25-strong team, who are scattered across Greater London. “In a strange way, having to work more remotely under lockdown has helped to bring us closer together as a team.”
He describes being involved with NHS Nightingale as a truly humbling experience and one that will have a lasting impact. “I’ve always known that we had a team that could rise to a challenge but this took it to another level. It made me realise that we’re far more capable than we allow ourselves to be, and that is something to take forward whenever we find ourselves in a difficult situation,” he says.
Construction workers are allowed to continue working on site as long as they observe social-distancing rules – a decision that was not without controversy when lockdown began. But many engineers involved in construction are working from home (although we haven’t found anyone who is building a skyscraper in their garden... yet.)
Pavlina Akritas is an associate lighting designer for Arup. “Construction work might have slowed down, however, our design work continues... we are lucky enough that technology has evolved to the point where we can do most of our work from a table, wherever that table is,” she explains.
Pre-lockdown, her role involved a mixture of desk-based design work, meetings, commissioning projects and attending site mock-ups. She typically finished her day with some yoga or socialising with colleagues. “I have not had to do any mock-ups yet, but I am sure I can find a lot of gadgets to use to build lighting details – something that I have done in the past!” Like many fitness fanatics, Akritas has swapped the gym for home exercise, while she is keeping up with colleagues with a virtual drink on a Friday after work. “I think the lockdown has made us more sociable, which is amazing,” she says.
Similarly, Violeta Medina Andres’ work hasn’t changed as she can continue designing building structures and carrying out research projects from her kitchen table. The principal structural engineer and design researcher at Atkins is used to working with remote teams, splitting her time between the Oxford and London offices. She now uses Skype and team calls to have remote meetings with clients and colleagues and can connect to the company’s network from home, using a VPN, plus access software from the Cloud to speed things up.
“I haven’t noticed a decrease in productivity, if anything I believe some discussions are now turned around quicker, as it is easier to locate colleagues. It’s also nice to eat with my family every day – they are good office mates,” she says.
However, like many engineers with young children, she is finding that childcare can prove difficult during lockdown.
“The drawback is that my work day stretches longer since I need to take breaks at times to tend to my children. My family is fortunate as my husband is also working from home and we can share the childcare load, taking turns, especially when we have meetings with external parties,” she explains. Medina Andres’ hopes to do some home experiments with her children, “showing them the fun of engineering work”.
Many engineers in the energy and telecoms industries count as key workers and are going out and about to do their jobs to help keep the country connected, while some jobs can be done remotely.
Heating and hot water systems can break in a pandemic just as easily as any other time, and Joanna Flowers, a British Gas service and repair engineer, still has to visit customers’ homes, but her routine has changed “dramatically”. Now, she wears a mask and gloves on home visits, phones ahead to check that customers don’t have any Covid-19 symptoms and asks them to stay in another room while she is working. “This for me has cut out a lot of the social part of my job, which is one of the bits I enjoy the most. It’s quite hard to talk to people in another room through a mask,” she says.
While Flowers’ working hours now tend to be a little shorter, as customers are avoiding visits that aren’t an emergency, she is scared of catching coronavirus. “I’m just trying to limit my contact with people as much as possible and being as careful as I can, especially as I have two young children at home who I would hate to pass it on to. But I can’t bear the thought of anyone going without a hot shower, especially if they are an NHS worker and have been treating people all day.”
Just like getting around to taking a daily shower, finding fresh pasta and eggs in the supermarket can feel like a real accomplishment in lockdown. But it’s due, in part, to engineers keeping everything running as smoothly as possible, as well as shop workers on the ground.
Lee Harpham is a refrigeration and energy solutions manager for IMS Evolve. He travels the world visiting supermarkets and other sites to identify inefficiencies and look for automations and improvements in refrigerator systems in order to improve quality, lower energy consumption, and boost customer experience.
This job is more important than ever. “By monitoring and optimising the temperature of refrigeration assets, we’re able to keep food fresher and safer for longer. This is critical during the current pandemic to maintain a good stock level and make sure food isn’t unnecessarily wasted,” he explains.
“We do this through remote temperature optimisation of refrigeration assets in the stores to prevent food from spoiling, as well as alerting retailers when their assets are showing early signs of failing,” Harpham says.
Thanks to the Internet of Things (IoT), data gathered from supermarkets and other infrastructure can be monitored remotely, while video conferencing can be used to give shops advice. While Harpham misses face-to-face interactions with customers and other engineers on his team, he’s putting his engineering skills to work by building a glass canopy at home, which will be lifted into place once social-distancing measures are lifted.
For engineers at the cutting edge of R&D and those running start-ups, there is much more to plan for when lockdown lifts than an exciting day trip or impromptu holiday.
Will Twigger is head of engineering at MediSieve, a company behind a device that captures leukaemia blasts from the bloodstream in order to reduce the patient’s white blood cell count. His role includes prototype design and build, which he does from a workshop with the lab team to manufacture scaled-down 3D replicas of MediSieve’s device, for experiments. “I’m also working on a strategy to mass-produce our device and prove the concepts of various process stages using a combination of 3D printing and benchtop injection moulding,” he says.
To keep momentum, the team moved half its workshop (including a 3D printer) to Twigger’s garage [pictured at top of page] just before lockdown began. “I’m now running prints, assembling the prototypes and sending them to our lab all from my garage. We’ve just ordered another piece of equipment and this will be installed next to my bikes,” he remarks.
The lab team are running a split shift system where they only have three to four staff in at one time. They rotate working from home depending on their experiment schedule. “It’s been challenging to plan all the elements and make sure everything is in place to ensure development and experiments continue, but I guess this is good logistics practice for when we are fully manufacturing,” he says.
Orla Murphy was preparing to manage software changes in Jaguar Land Rover vehicles as a result of new UNECE rules, in her role as software change robustness manager at JLR. She is continuing with her project at home, explaining: “I’m lucky because for my role, all of the process mapping, gap analysis and collaboration with people across the business can easily be done through shared documents in an Office 365 Teams area and over video conference calls.” However, other JLR engineers are testing virtually and logging into rigs remotely, for example.
Daniela Paredes is the co-founder and CXO of Gravity Sketch, a design platform that lets people think in 3D using virtual reality. She is still making sure customer needs are being met and working closely with her team while software is being developed, but is doing so remotely. “It takes a bit more planning given you have to be scheduling calls on a daily basis... but it has made some conversations and teamwork easier,” she says. The team has also started to use one of the features in Gravity Sketch to run ideation prototyping sessions in 3D and in real time.
While it’s a worrying time for many start-ups, Paredes says hers is lucky because working in software means they can carry on being productive. “We’re making sure we budget in the downtime everyone is going through given that it might slow down sales in some sectors, versus others that are blossoming due to the need to create remotely,” she explains. “My job is all about future-proofing and making sure we continue to get traction, create a great product and have successful customers.”
Going forward, she hopes to split her time more equally between the studio and home. “Sometimes it’s nice to wake up and get straight into it with no commute time, no distractions just productive hours,” she says.
While the devastating impact of coronavirus will no doubt be felt financially and emotionally long after lockdown is lifted, there will be a silver lining, as engineers have gained valuable insights into more efficient manufacturing and teamwork, and have even come up with brand new innovations.
This difficult time will have sharpened engineers’ skills and paved the way for further learning, which is of benefit to individuals and the profession. Stewart from HV Wooding says: “What has become apparent is the ongoing development of the team, looking to increase skill sets for a flexible and agile technical approach.”
Medina Andres from Atkins says: “I think lockdown has proved that it is possible to be productive and efficient working from home.” Many engineers think their working hours will become more flexible and since the pandemic has forced everyone to get to grips with digital tools for remote working, one barrier has been removed. “Once the pandemic has passed, we will retain that enhanced level of optimised remote collaboration that brings quality to our projects and flexibility to our company,” she says, pointing out the environmental benefits of less travel.
A more flexible working arrangement would undoubtedly benefit those with children, with the challenges of working with youngsters at home thrown into sharp relief during the pandemic. It may also improve wellbeing. Arup’s Akritas says her work/life balance “feels better” during lockdown.
As Lee Iacocca, an American engineer famed for his work on the Ford Mustang, put it: “We are continually faced by great opportunities brilliantly disguised as insoluble problems.”
Plane madness or genius?
Many victims of Coronavirus on ventilation are dying from a lack of oxygen, but hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) could help.
The problem is that there’s a lack of HBOT chambers, but life support systems designers at Lungfish Dive Systems in Cambridgeshire are exploring the possibility of using commercial airliners as makeshift HBOT chambers that can be pressurised to help patients.
While this may seem pie in the sky, a clinical trial of HBOT under conditions achievable in an aircraft is, at the time of writing, due to start shortly, involving patients at a hospital in Canada.
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