Clear view for engineering: Interview with Richard Pulton of Navtech Radar

Written by: Tim Fryer | Published:

Navtech Radar has much to shout about - innovative products created by an award winning design team, led by an award winning engineer. Where do you start? Tim Fryer spoke to the engineer in question, Richard Poulton, and started with the Awards.

At Eureka we place the British Engineering Excellence Awards (BEEAs) in very high store. We see the quality of entries and the rigours of the judging process that ensures the finalists are exemplary, and the winners are genuinely excellent. For Navtech Radar to win two awards in 2015 – Design Engineer of the Year and Design Team of the Year - was therefore a considerable achievement.

“It's a great feeling to be recognised,” admitted Poulton. “For the business, the team award is a great achievement. The personal award is really – and I mean this genuinely – is effectively a second team award, because the development I couldn't have done on my own. The team has enabled that to happen. So really, it's a validation for us as a team and as a business that we are doing something right, which is great. And it is validation of the company when we are talking to suppliers and clients. It's a nice thing to have, it really is.”

The company has not been recruiting since it won the BEEAs in October, but sees that as another advantage – who doesn’t want to work for an award-winning company? And attracting talent is something that, in common with much of the engineering sector, is not easy for Navtech.

“We have struggled,” said Poulton. “Especially trying to recruit some junior engineers. We are lucky in that we've got a close relationship with Bath University. So we are able to get a good insight into potential good candidates that are on the current degree courses. We've hired directly from Bath University in the past. We also work on a KTP [knowledge transfer program] with Bath University. That gives businesses like ours access to university research and knowledge that we can exploit in our products. The operations director is a success story – he joined us on KTP from Bath and we employ him full-time.

“Finding people with the right attitude, the right personality and the right skills for what we're trying to do is difficult. It's quite a tight, diverse job and we can't compartmentalise as such. We do have to take on all aspects of it, the electronics engineers have to have a good appreciation of the mechanical design, they've got to have a good commercial awareness – basically decisions we make every day on which parts to use, what we can afford, what we can't, where we need to compromise on the performance versus cost. It's difficult.”

One of the big problems facing all engineering companies is not just finding the right engineers, but finding any engineers; there is simply a lack of numbers. Poulton believes a concerted, multi-pronged promotional campaign would help: “More promotion in the media, more promotion by schools and universities, and I think there are some good projects. Take Formula One, for instance. The majority of Formula One teams are based in the UK, which attracts some of the finest engineers into that industry. You've got Bloodhound coming on, that's a good engineering project which has got prestige attached to it, and they are doing their bit to promote that within schools and the country.

“The media needs to play a part as well in promoting those as good, interesting, attractive roles for people to take. We tend to hear about the things that go wrong in the news rather than the successes of engineering products and projects. I think more of that should be exploited. One thing we've noticed and I think is fairly key is the financial sector – we've had talented people here go from an engineering background into the financial sector. It’s the good analytical skills, good processing skills, those sort of things that they want. I think that is a risk that we as a country are putting all our eggs in that basket. Whereas putting together manufacturing and engineering – that is the fundamental key for the UK going forward.”

Having attracted students to study engineering, Poulton says that the teaching methodology needs to be more useful and interesting. “There needs to be more emphasis on the practical side of engineering courses,” he stated. “Sandwich courses with a year in industry should be mandatory. I think it's very easy to come out of university and have some electronics, engineering skills, but actually the practical side of things is more difficult.

“Maybe it is less critical if you move straight from university into a big corporation that's got long graduate programmes that will gradually embed young engineers. But for a company like ours you need people to use their skills quite quickly when we employ them. So coming straight from university into an organisation such as ours, there's quite a lot that I think you don't get exposure to in university, like those design compromises, the commercial aspects about making a design decision as opposed to a purely engineering decision.”

While this may provide a broader and more practical education, it is typically the host company who will pay a salary to the student during that placement year, and so it can be a considerable cost to small firms. “I think there's an area there for exploring,” said Poulton, “possibly subsidies for companies who are participating in the sandwich courses, or maybe subsidies for the courses themselves for key degrees - be it engineering or whatever else we think is important. But trying to get people on the courses in the first place, and engaging with industry to make sure they've got partners to enable those courses to happen, I think it is all important.”

But beyond what the engineering profession could do to engage children, Poulton thinks that there should be more emphasis on what it should do. There should be an obligation. He said: “Quite what that obligation leads you to is quite open. We take people on, as many as we can realistically take for work experience, and do presentations and articles for schools. Things like that, I think there is an obligation. And it's not just limited to engineering as such, but all sorts of critical industries within the UK, be it medicine or whatever, I think it's important that the current professions encourage and provide means where possible to get those people interested in their profession.”

Poulton identified the status of the engineer as one issue that could be resolved. “There's a certain prestige with qualifying as a doctor or as a solicitor. And those industries come with protected titles, such as doctor. An engineer isn't a protected title within the UK. I think one thing we can do is push that forward, make engineer a protected title and give that prestige back to that industry.”

Alongside this, placing value in the engineer as an individual is the value of manufacturing and engineering as a sector and in such areas as shipbuilding and most recently steel the case has been put forward by some for more state support. Poulton agrees: “I think there needs to be more protection for those types of industries. Taking the steel industry, I think the perception is that that wouldn't be allowed to happen in other places around the world: they protect industries, they protect skilled workers. And we need to keep those skilled workers in the country. One of the jobs we advertised for, we had very few UK-based applicants. We had a high level of overseas applicants, which is fine, we employ quite a few overseas nationalities. But we need to make sure that those skills aren't lost then to overseas companies if individuals go back to different countries around the world. We need to try and make sure they're protected within the UK.”

Smart Highways

Navtech Radar designs and manufactures commercially deployed radar detection solutions. One of the latest is the ClearWay system, and it was the engineers working on this product that won the Design Team of the Year at the 2015 BEEAs. ClearWay is an important component of a Smart Highways solution that provides accurate and reliable vehicle tracking and Automatic Incident Detection for roads, bridges and tunnels. The ‘Smart Highways’ concept, enables improved traffic flow and enhanced safety through the effective use of technology. Poulton said: “If anything happens, you need to know about it as soon as possible so you can shut that lane down and call in emergency services. And that's what our system allows you to do in pretty much any weather condition, any light conditions. So the key requirement of our radar system there is to monitor all lanes - including the running lanes and the hard shoulder - and have a very low false alarm rate.”


CV

Having graduated with an electronics engineering degree from Sheffield Hallam University in 2000, Richard Poulton joined Blue Wave Systems, doing a mixture of DSP imaging products for the medical industry and voice over IP applications. The company was bought in 2001 by Motorola, which changed the working dynamic. “It was very different,” said Poulton. “You go from being a small, agile company, able to make decisions on a daily basis to being incorporated into a large corporate organisation that actually makes decision-making and being innovative quite difficult. It's quite restrictive. And I think being swallowed up by large corporation, it's more difficult for them to see the value on individuals and individuals' work and what it contributes to the profit of that business.”

In 2006 Poulton joined Fujitsu working on telecoms board level design, before joining Navtech Radar, still in its infancy, as employee 14. He was bought in as electronics designer but now heads up the hardware design team which now consists of eight engineers.



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