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Programming robots to make cars

Ashley's Higher Apprenticeship Degree meant he got paid a salary while studying.

Ashley Mcmahon

Tell us about your job. What do you do?

I'm an automation engineer working within the automotive sector. My primary role is to ensure that all automated systems are running smoothly without any problems (maintenance, improvements, breakdowns etc.). I also do robot programming for new projects (new cars being released), where the robots I work with will help manufacture and assemble key components for any vehicles. If a production line stops due to a breakdown with an automated issue, we risk being fined from our customers in excess of £20 000 per minute (if their production lines halts as a result).

What does an average day look like for you?

There isn't an average day! Every day is different which is why I love my job. One minute I could be doing some offline programming or robot coding in a nice office, then the next the adrenaline rush will kick in, as I'll be getting into my overalls and getting dirty to solve some bigger issues. It's all about keeping production running smoothly.

How does your work affect people’s lives/the world around us?

My work allows there to be more modern and increasingly more efficient vehicles to be on the road. As well as the odd Bentley from time to time!

How did you first become interested in engineering/what or who inspired you to be an engineer?

I had always liked the idea of problem solving, though funnily enough I am not the best when it comes to maths (so personally I have had to really put the work in). I always wanted to have a bit of a say on things and express my ideas. I enjoy how much it varies. As I said, you can have a quiet, clean day in the office or walking about the production floor or you can end up getting into some overalls, caked in oil, whilst feeling the buzz being the one whom gets things rolling again. However, in one sentence I guess I liked the idea of heavy industry and working with/on new technologies. I just love the mechanics and theory behind things.

There are a number of different routes you can take into a career in engineering. What route did you take (and why)?

I chose to take the higher apprenticeship route. I wanted to go to university first, however I was lucky to find myself in a very niche area of engineering. My previous company paid for my college fees and then paid for my university course after. I have just graduated Plymouth University with a FdSc/HNC in engineering - whilst being paid a salary, not having to pay for university myself and also gaining some key experience.

Which of the subjects you studied at school, college or university do you use in your job? Tell us about any links with the curriculum.

From school, maths, English, chemistry, physics and DT are what are used day to day within engineering. And every single module learned at university is used every day. Engineering is so broad that you never stop learning!

There are many links - maths, English and physics most definitely. I personally took DT and engineering at school, so I was a bit prepared for my apprenticeship and A level. A lot of quick-thinking methods and common sense come from these subjects during learning at school etc, so they are important. Computing is also one I have found to be a big link. I never took Computing at school, but I'm not sure whether that would have helped. Fluid mechanics, laws of motion, material properties are all taken from both maths and physics. Every engineer will have to write reports - I constantly do, which is why good written and spoken English is key so that you can convey your point across.

Who else do you work with?

I work on a shift rotation, a mixture of days and nights. I am the only automation engineer on shift, working alongside 4 other maintenance engineers. If there's an automated issue, then is gets escalated to me. There are 3 other automation engineers that work across three other shifts.

What do you like most about engineering?

I love how diverse it is. I am fascinated by how things work. I love the challenge.

What are the challenges or downsides to your job?

Challenges to my job are definitely working against the clock. There is a lot of pressure put on us, especially if the production line has halted. Also, when having to work on my own (most of the time) if it’s my time coming across a certain issue/problem, I'm the only one there to deal with it - but that's what gets the adrenaline going! Downsides are definitely having to work night shifts, especially when you have to type up a report at 0300 in the morning!

What are your aims as an engineer?

My aims as an engineer are to constantly continue to expand my knowledge. I want to carry on working hard so I may progress to the very top!

What opportunities are there to progress in your role or be promoted?

There are always opportunities to be promoted/progress. I was at my current company a year, whilst still studying at university when I got promoted to automation engineer from maintenance engineer. Not being able to progress would change my mind about a company.

What skills and personal qualities are important for being an engineer?

Patience is definitely key. I still struggle with this! Sometimes you just need to walk away from a job, go for a coffee, then come back to it with new ideas. Professionalism is also key. People (even if they're older than you) will tend to loom up to you for an answer or to show them how to do something. Maybe a little arrogance/stubbornness (just a tiny bit). It's a competitive world out there, so you need to be sure of your own self-worth. Also, if you have an idea but someone tries to change your mind- stick to it!

If you could go back (or forward) in time and invent anything, what would it be?

Definitely an electric spanner!

What advice would you give a young person who was considering engineering as a future career?

Try your best to know where you want to be as early on as possible. That'll definitely help yourself a lot.  And maths. Better yourself at maths as best you can, even if you are weaker slightly in other areas. With maths you further yourself a lot more. I still struggle with some maths today.

Does your work overlap with other types of engineering/science/technology?

100%, it overlaps with everything.

What do you like doing in your spare time?

Massive water sports enthusiast. I also enjoy biking – I’m training hard for my first 100-mile bike race this year.

What do you want to do next in your career?

I want to carry on progressing as much as I can, even pursue an MSc in engineering. I also want to move onto designing/creating my own algorithm's and PLC programming/design.

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