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Chartered Engineer (CEng)

Helen Cavill CEng MIMechE MIET

Published: 21/07/2021

Education and qualifications:
MEng Manufacturing Engineering, University of Cambridge

Job title:
Manufacturing Engineer – Liquid Handling

SPT Labtech Ltd. (We design and manufacture instruments for automating life science research; supporting drug discovery and genomics.)

What inspired you to become an engineer or pointed you towards an engineering career?
I closely followed Formula One racing as a teenager, so I always imagined that was where I would work (as a mechanical engineer) after university. I undertook a pre-university Year in Industry placement at an iron foundry making automotive castings in my hometown of Lincoln, in part because it was local. Working in the Environment, Health and Safety Department, it gave me a brilliant overview of industry and was definitely a case of jumping in at the deep end. In my second year at university, a manufacturing elective module and several industrial projects made me realise that my true passion lies in manufacturing and the huge variety of work that area entails. I was then able to specialise in manufacturing for the final two years of my course and have never looked back.

Please describe your role or position within your workplace.
As a Manufacturing Engineer, I am responsible for ensuring that our liquid handling instruments can be built robustly and to high quality. I am also responsible for taking new products from development into full production. This includes handling complex bills of materials, identifying how we source components, the production line layout and even how we package instruments and consumables so they can be shipped across the world without damage. Above all, I’m a problem solver. When something goes wrong in production it is usually me that is looking for a way to get things back on track.

Can you describe a typical working day?
There is no typical day. Some days I am office-based, analysing data and ensuring that all the relevant materials are coming together on time for production. Other days I may be out on the build line all day, running tests and working with the build technicians to understand problems or implement improvements. Thankfully I don’t spend too much of my week in virtual meetings – I much prefer to be hands-on in production, seeing things first-hand and talking through solutions face-to-face.

Are there any particular challenges or unusual aspects to your role?
Over the last year the biggest challenge I’ve dealt with in my role is that the liquid handling robots I am responsible for can be used for PCR test sample preparation, so they have been in high demand for Covid-19 testing and genomic sequencing work. We have needed to ramp up production, while maintaining a Covid-secure factory and dealing with the supply chain complexities of a global pandemic. It has been very rewarding to see the vital work my instruments have been involved in and the way that everyone on my team has pulled together to achieve record outputs.

What do you find most enjoyable about your job?
I really enjoy working on some highly technical and complex projects, then finding ways to communicate the results to colleagues, customers and suppliers. Finding a solution to a problem, then coming up with creative ways to explain the outcome is both challenging and fun. One of my current favourite techniques is circulating photographs of things next to Lego mini figures for scale…

Is there a great professional achievement or high-profile accomplishment that you would like to tell us about?
Last year I completed a project to change the way we build one of our most popular liquid handling robots. By switching to a modular build, creating all variants from a common platform, we were able to reduce costs and lead-times while remaining flexible to customer demands. The most challenging part of the project was the need to change the colour and branding of the different variants of robots to allow them to be built from a common platform. This involved working with industrial designers to give the instruments a functional face-lift and I’m really proud whenever I see the latest versions in customer labs, with their new paint job and snazzy LED lights.

Winning the Women's Engineering Society (WES) Prize in 2015 was an amazing honour and it’s a real credit to the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) how much excitement they generate around these annual awards - I couldn’t believe how many people were at the ceremony. I was picked for my work engaging and inspiring young people to follow Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) careers, and this has driven me on further. I really enjoy working with schools and public speaking. It is so rewarding when a few months later I hear about how a student has signed up for an engineering course as a direct result of my interaction.

What contributed to your decision to become professionally registered?
Initially I headed towards Chartered Engineer (CEng) because it was the next logical qualification. However, after a couple of years of working in industry and fully understanding the competencies required for CEng, I realised that striving towards professional registration would make me a better all-round engineer as I developed leadership and communication skills, and found ways to demonstrate my commitment to the profession.

In what ways has registration benefitted your career?
I am particularly proud to be a Chartered Engineer in the manufacturing industry because it can be difficult for others to understand my role. Being a CEng demonstrates my technical competence to the highest level. It can be useful when meeting new contacts in a group situation, because being a CEng singles me out as the technical expert.

How does your employer benefit from your professional registration?
I think that hiring a professionally registered engineer gives an extra level of reassurance that this person is proven to be a competent, well-rounded engineer. The endorsement of being a professionally registered engineer gives more substance than just words on a CV.

Is there any advice you would pass on to someone considering professional registration?
Go for it! If your company does not have anyone experienced with the process, your institution can help find a mentor and advise on the application procedure. Get into the habit of recording your professional development as soon as you graduate and try to map activities against the UK-SPEC competencies as you go.

Where do you see yourself in your career in five years’ time or what are your future ambitions?
I like working with people and co-ordinating production projects but would find a purely managerial role very dull. I love being immersed in the technical detail of how things work. If I am problem solving and making an impact on the real world, then I’m happy. I have a really exciting new product in the pipeline at SPT Labtech that is going to keep me very busy for the next few years – I can’t wait for that to reach the market.

Outside work, is there any activity you enjoy doing in your spare time that relates to engineering? For example, do you participate in mentoring, volunteering or membership of other engineering groups?
I have been a STEM Ambassador for over 15 years. Recently my day job has been so demanding that it’s nice to have a complete break from engineering in my spare time – I regularly play and umpire netball as an escape.

Do you identify as disabled, or as a member of a minority or under-represented group? Would you like to comment on what impact or influence you feel this has had upon your career?
Being a female engineer can definitely be an advantage. Being unusual (women making up less than a tenth of the engineering workforce), people tend to remember me even when we only meet briefly. The biggest advantage is my emotional intelligence, a trait that from my experience is more prominent in women. I can understand and predict how people will react and often diffuse tense situations better than my colleagues. In a role where I am resolving production problems every day, these people skills are vital.

There should be more women in engineering, but I think the great shame is that there are children of either gender who dismiss the idea of an engineering career because they are given false stereotypes and poor information. If every child was exposed to what engineering is really like by the age of 11 or 12, ideally through practical activity and positive role models, I think it would spur many more children to embark on this exciting career path and improve gender imbalance in the profession.