‘Tinkering and having fun’ - interview with Chris Bellamy, BEEAs Young Design Engineer of the Year

In October, when the trophies were being handed out, the youngest winner at the 2016 British Engineering Excellence Awards was Chris Bellamy, lead engineer at Jaguar Land Rover. We subjected our newly crowned Young Design Engineer of the Year to a Q&A.

When did you first realise that you had a talent for engineering?

I think my parents realised well before I did that I had ‘the knack’ (for those who have seen the Dilbert clip!) with increasing concern for the things steadily being dismantled and created around our home - but I was just playing - an attitude which I continue to this day.

Once I got to university, I continued my tinkering and having fun; it's not till recently that I have looked back and realised that I was approaching things in a different way, and creating some innovative and exciting solutions - many of which failed - my upside down bridge concept was rather memorable!

I didn't fully realise what engineers actually did until my third year of university, having spent the summer working with a fantastic small engineering company - DMM Engineering, where I was involved in all stages of product development from concept invention through to production manufacturing.

Who inspires you?

I get inspired from anyone and everyone around me, whether it be chatting to someone on a train, or a colleague, or even homeless people (I find their observations of the world and thoughts fascinating). Generally, those who inspire me are humble, determined, competent, passionate, proud, pragmatic, enthusiastic, charismatic people.

What is your biggest ambition?

I am very passionate about the Mexican stand-off which is the sustainability of our planet. Unless companies and individuals can step out and develop radical solutions, which are appealing and adopted by consumers, there will be disastrous consequences in the very near term future.

It is the perfect problem for the human condition - it requires short term sacrifice for long term gain - it requires group collaboration rather than individualistic benefit seeking - it requires understanding something which is invisible and too big to comprehend.

My biggest ambition is to find ways to create radically more sustainable solutions which consumers adopt out of choice not sacrifice.

What are you most proud of?

There are three things that I am most proud of would be:

One, always speaking my mind - I have always stood up for my beliefs and principles, even when this goes against convention, the easiest path or business profit. A bonus of this is that by always speaking my mind, my opinions are on the table, and it builds huge amounts of trust, I don’t believe in cloak and dagger!

Two, being able to talk to and gain respect from everyone from the shop floor to the board room. I pride myself on being able to laugh and gain the respect of the shop floor workers, but then make a splash and an impact presenting to senior executives in equal measure.

Three, Inspiring People. I get a huge glowing warm feeling inside when I get notes or messages saying that I have inspired people to do something. With my latest activities in Canada, this seems to have been a lot of people quoting their desk jobs and moving abroad?!

What tool (hardware or software) could you not do without in your everyday work?

A sketchbook, a pencil and a phone. The tried and tested oldies are the best. People are so eager to jump into email, CAD etc. these days, without thought and reflection first. Sketching is so quick and simple but can answer so many questions, and is such an art form that you can keep getting better at.

What has been your biggest challenge since joining Jaguar Land Rover?

Sadly, as I expect for most engineers, the biggest challenges are around co-ordinating and communicating with those around you to achieve the best result. The engineering can be brilliant, but if you don’t have the engagement and agreement from the right people, decisions and processes, then your brilliant work will never see the light of day.

I have since taken a break from Jaguar Land Rover to explore the world while working remotely as an engineering consultant. This has been hugely enlightening - the engineering content of work is much higher, but the brutality of the buck stopping with you is really rewarding and revealing - it has taught me a huge amount. Trying to do all of this while living in a van has been even more entertaining.

What do you want to be doing in 10 years' time?

I’ve never found planning very successful - as they say, there is nothing more dangerous than a man without a plan. I prefer to be opportunistic, and be blown round like a leaf in the wind. I never know what opportunities are going to arise each day, so I just grab as many opportunities as I can and run with them. If I had tried to plan where I am 10 years ago now, I would not have had a chance - I didn’t even know what an engineer was!

More generically, I will be very happy if I can have inspired many more people; made radical improvements to the sustainability of our planet; and created a wild, winding and interesting story in the process.

Did you ever consider an alternative direction in your career?

My grandparents were doctors, farmers and teachers; my parents were doctors; my brother became a vet; so I always thought I would end up becoming a doctor or a vet. After discussing with a school teacher I changed my university application to engineering at the last minute, having heard about it through the Institute of Mechanical Engineers and the Arkwright Scholarships. I nearly changed university courses after my second year, until I went on an industrial placement, and it finally clicked that engineering was amazing, could change the world, and pretty much do anything!

A lot of my university colleges went into financial services or consulting after university, however I have always wanted to work on real tangible products that make a huge impact to people.

What university did you go to and what course did you take?

I went to the University of Cambridge, and following two years of general engineering, specialised in the Manufacturing Engineering Tripos.

How did you get into the Graduate programme at Jaguar Land Rover?

After being rejected twice, I put in one last application on a whim without too much effort and was accepted! I had a summer corrosion testing cars, measuring rivets, testing new aluminium’s and creating an innovation strategy, after which I was offered a position on their graduate scheme, which I then took up the following year.

What do you do to chill out in your spare time?

I really struggle to sit still. I like to get into the great outdoors and use my body as much as possible in the company of great friends - I can’t help being a bit competitive too. This includes Ironman triathlons, ultra marathons, rock climbing, windsurfing, yoga, skiing & any other way of moving outdoors. Best of all - I love replacing all those calories afterwards with delicious food. The lapping of waves on a beach, the sounds of wind blowing in the leaves of a popper tree, warm sun caressing your face on a crisp cold morning or the crackle of a campfire are my favourite moments of life. I find that DIY works wonders if there are any particular frustrations which I need to work out, or need time to ponder and solve problems - I have an old house and a couple of very old rusty cars that provide ample opportunities for this…..

Judging criteria

In deciding the winner of The Young Design Engineer of the Year Award, which is sponsored by RS Components, the judges took a range of factors into account, including: the knowledge which has been applied by the young engineer; the contribution made to projects; and the degree of innovation required.They also considered the nominee’s personal qualities that promote the engineering profession. Having chosen this year’s winner, the judges said: “Christopher has achieved a lot in a short career, recognising that it’s not easy to make a mark in companies such as JLR at such a young age.”