Patrick Sullivan

Whenever recounting my pathway into engineering, I like to emphasise that pre-Arkwright I was adamant I did not want to be an engineer. You see, I wanted to be an inventor. Because the job ‘inventor’ sounds cooler, right? I dreamt of whacky solutions to global problems, could not understand the fixation on traditionally fuelled cars, and as a teenager came up with oh-so necessary designs such as the hands-free toothbrush and the single-item dishwasher (patents pending and never to be received).

Enthusiastic and strong-minded as I was, I divulged these grand plans to anyone and everyone who would listen. That was until one family friend informed me when I was in my mid-teens that “inventors don’t exist anymore”. Surely it could not be? What about James Dyson and his funky bagless vacuum cleaners? What about Tom Pellereau, winner of the 2011 Apprentice and reinforcer of my grand career plans? Well, apparently, they were just not-so-humble engineers.

I still needed convincing because – let’s be honest here – “engineer” just does not sound as glamourous as “inventor”. Soon after, however, my Product Design took me to one side in class and asked if I was any good at Maths or Physics. He wanted to nominate me for the Arkwright Engineering Scholarship as the one student applicant from my school. I had no idea what it meant, but it sounded more glamourous than engineering had ever done before and a little bit of cash was all the genius Oral Hands-Free™ needed to make it to market.

Little did I know that the true benefit of Arkwright was not the cash – which I blew attempting to build an automatic, light sensitive cat flap I had invented for my beloved cat Benji* – but the insight into what engineering actually entails and the industrial exposure. Inspired by the ceremony, the new engineering role models in my life, the three weeks paid work experience at TTP Group, the design consultancy who sponsored me, I was sold on a life as an engineer and the fact that the term “engineer” encompassed many different aspects of design, applied maths, sciences, and, crucially, invention or, as I now say as I pursue less product-based research, ‘out-the-box thinking’.

Following my two years as an Arkwright Scholar, I found my perfect university degree and secured a place, thanks largely to the experiences gained from my Scholarship. The past five years (2015-2020) have been hectic, stressful, and incredibly exciting as I completed the Engineering Design course at Bristol – a versatile, multi-disciplinary degree programme with dedicated time in industry. Despite applying to many appealing Mechanical Engineering courses, as I gained greater understanding during my first year of studies, I developed a particular interest in Aerospace Engineering and decided to specialise.

In the summer of 2016, I spent 12 weeks at Safran Seats UK (then named Zodiac) working on the design of business class aircraft seating. In my second year, suddenly I was studying rocket structures, propulsion, and flight dynamics, as well as continuing broader studies in engineering maths and design. I went back to Safran Seats (still at the time called Zodiac) for my assessed year in industry, except this time was first placed in the Stress team. Defying the offered rotation between other departments, I found my place in stress analysis and was obsessed with my research into the design factors (e.g. cushion stiffness, seat pitch, etc) affecting the head injury score of a premium economy seat during crash testing. In terms of the glamour I always craved, nothing beat the moment of firing a test seat across a room at 16g while, next door in the facility, Koenigsegg were testing a new sports car.

My time at the company also introduced me to two key areas of research: composite materials and circular economy. I am now embarking on a new chapter, one I never expected as a wannabe inventor and one which proves the shear breadth of engineering as a subject. During the next four years, I will be researching the effective use of recycled composites in different industries at the National Composite Centre (NCC), with a particular focus on circular economy design principles and life cycle analysis, both financial and environmental. What this work will hopefully achieve is a clear, detailed, and measured process proving the benefits of recycling aerospace waste for use in other, less demanding applications, such as the rail, construction, or automotive industries.

It follows a three-month placement at NCC in Summer 2019, where I enjoyed the cutting-edge research work and flexibility that comes with that, as well as the lab-based culture of experimental engineering. The pictures show the joy of laying up a ceramic matrix composite flat panel for testing, an incredibly lucrative material with the potential to greatly reduce the weight of aircraft and save plenty of fuel and emissions. I also worked on a couple of projects using automated fibre placement to lay up carbon fibre. Automation is certainly a key theme of engineering right now, and optimising the processes and design methodologies for specific manufacturing methods can lead to a significant reduction in energy and material waste.

Hopefully, you can tell I needed convincing that a career in engineering was going to be exciting enough. With the help of Arkwright, industrial experience and my degree, I have found it to be more exciting than I ever expected, and the number of opportunities and different roles within the subject has meant my early experiences have been hugely varied and allowed me to travel as well. As much as my teenage self would be aghast at the idea, I find the work within sustainability and manufacturing to be far more rewarding and suited to me than designing whacky household appliances.

See Bridging The Gap for more articles, videos, and resources about the diversity within engineering. 

*I also spent some valuable Arkwright money on accommodation while on work experience at my sponsor, but, again, that’s just not quite as glamourous.

Arkwright Scholar 2013-2015

TTP Group

Maths, Further Maths, Physics, English Literature, English Language

University of Bristol, EngD Composites Manufacture, MEng Engineering Design (Aerospace)

Research Engineer (EngD Student), University of Bristol and National Composites Centre

Royal Academy of Engineering, Engineering Leaders Scholarship 2019-2022