Keeping an engineer’s mind fresh and challenged is not a problem if you work at a busy product design and development company

Written by: Tim Fryer | Published:
“I have the excitement of a new job every few months without having the faff of applying for any.” - Gary Ewer, electromechanical system engineer at Cambridge Consultants

Having graduated as an electronics engineer from Imperial College, and armed with a list of interests that was headed by being a contestant in Robot Wars, Gary Ewer entered full-time employment with the company he had spent a gap year with – Cambridge Consultants.

That was 12 years ago and Ewer is now technical lead on electromechanical and electronics projects with the company. “The project manager makes sure the budgets all work, and I make sure it works technically,” he claimed.

Ewer is all too aware that engineering designers are in short supply and in demand. For those with knowledge and experience, there are plenty of options. However, they are options that are not turning his head. “This is one of those jobs where every six months to a year I’m working on a different project – I may as well have a completely different job,” claimed Ewer. “It’s for the same employer, but it’s a different market, it’s a different project, it’s something completely different. I can’t see any reason why I would ever change jobs, because I have the excitement of a new job every few months without having the faff of applying for any.”

At the moment Ewer is concentrating on one large project to design a medical device, but at other times he could have four or five small projects on the go at the same time. “There’s been quite a variation over the years,” said Ewer, who then reeled off some examples – the electronics and software for a domestic icemaker; accounting software for a gas meter; electronics for a voice over IP Wi-Fi phone; electronics and software for a drinks machine that was designed to go behind the bar in the pub; and he was electronics lead on a personal emergency response device for the elderly.

But while the majority of projects are client led, Cambridge Consultants is not averse to throwing in a few development projects of its own – projects that the company sets up to prove a concept with potential to commercialise them further down the line. One such project which Ewer worked on was DropTag. This was originally perceived to be a very low-cost Bluetooth electronic logging device, that by a simple smartphone scan of a tag on a parcel would reveal how that parcel had been handled and therefore allow the recipient to decide whether or not they wanted to accept it.

It turned out that it could have applications in lots of other areas, some of which could be of interest to engineers designing industrial plant, such as operational monitoring and failure prediction. Another potential application is as an alternative for the black boxes in cars that are favoured by insurance companies, as the DropTags only cost pennies and can be installed for nothing.

This project simmers on in the background but having the freedom to design imaginatively, rather than design to specification, has very real benefits to the skill set Cambridge Consultants has to offer. Ewer explained: “I look back and think, wow, I was putting Wi-Fi in things before anyone was talking about the Internet of Things. I was talking about how my thermostat should be connected to the Internet; why is it not? So you often find you are a bit ahead of the curve. We’ve actually come into our own with the Internet of Things – we’ve already got all the skills under one roof.”

One demonstration of this deployment of advanced wireless technology was a project with Ocado, which was looking to transform its warehouse automation. Cambridge Consultants designed a wireless control system to control and co-ordinate the movements of hundreds of thousands of crates containing millions of grocery items, in real time and in parallel. It means that Ocado’s next-generation warehouse is home to the most densely packed wireless network in the world.

The technology breakthrough is enabling Ocado to control 1,000 machines, communicating with them 10 times a second, all within an area the size of an Olympic swimming pool – maximising warehouse efficiency. The innovative wireless solution is also scalable – so could potentially handle 20 times the number of movements.

“It was clear early on that no technology existed which would do what Ocado needed,” said Ewer. “That meant they needed to create a completely custom solution to achieve the required performance – but do so in a way that had a manageable risk profile and in the minimum amount of time. They engaged us to help them achieve this.”

Existing mobile communications technologies did not offer the real-time control or scalability that Ocado needed. The Cambridge Consultants team identified that a system based on 4G telecoms technology deployed in the unlicensed 5GHz Wi-Fi band gave the best chance of achieving Ocado’s goal of co-ordinating thousands of fast-moving machines to within a fraction of a second.

“It’s a massive system,” said Ewer. “You need to take the orders from the website and process them into robot moves. We were responsible for getting the instructions from the big server that was working it all out, to the robots. Progress had to be reported back as it happened so that the system could run highly efficiently in real time.

“The wireless design was particularly challenging – being able to make the densest wireless system in the world, with so many receivers in such a small area, all talking at high speed in real time. We developed a radio system that had never been done before.”

There was a huge team of around 100 at Cambridge Consultants working on the project, and tens of thousands of man hours were attributed to it. Projects such as this have seen the company’s workforce double to around 700 in the last four years, but even Cambridge Consultants cannot grow as fast as it would like without getting the right engineers through the door. And engineers, as everyone keeps saying, are in short supply.

“Electronics engineers are a particular pinch point at the moment,” observed Ewer. “And we are always looking for software engineers and also in wireless. We are also really keen to get more project managers on board because that’s becoming a bit of a bottleneck. We are constantly growing, so there are always new opportunities right the way across the board.

“And it’s not just about the projects. There is a good social side as well and we do a lot of work with students from the university and local schoolchildren. So the nice thing about working for Cambridge Consultants is being part of the community and having our own strong community as well.”

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