Jon Hawkins has established a very broad engineering career, and one that has developed impressively from the very ground up: “I started off in very lowly, menial jobs, and then moved on from that”, as the NI director told me. But while the primary stages of his working life did indeed begin with few educational qualifications, and although his jobs originally involved low-grade work, it was by having such a junior background, particularly in working next to the shop floor, that Jon eventually gained an abundance of manufacturing experience, and a strong understanding of the people who work in the industry.
As the below Q&A make clear, the now-veteran professional eventually grew tired of having such a modest background, and one day learned just how far asking for career help can take you. Having knocked on the door of a top management company to ask if he could be sponsored to take up further education, Jon was to his surprise soon put on a day release course in electrical engineering.
This eventually led to a successful educational career at the polytechnic-level, and naturally from there, engineering jobs of increasing seniority, too. Nowadays, as director of Newbury Innovation, Jon is responsible for the financial, R&D, design, and overall management interests of one of the UK’s leading contract electronics manufacturers in PCB manufacture and assembly.
PCB inspection in progress using X-ray technology (a product of Nikon Metrology). Image courtesy of Newbury Electronics.
I took great interest in Jon’s background and other personal experiences mentioned below (plus of course his points on Newbury Electronics group, and his wider perspective of the engineering industry, which will be covered more in EP’s next interview post later this month). Here’s what the director had to say.
Sam Holland: Let’s start by running through your background, before you became the director of Newbury Innovation.
Jon Hawkins: My engineering career has been very broad. While my education at school was very poor, I eventually went on to do day release courses, and ended up getting a degree. So I started off in very lowly, menial jobs, and then moved on from that.
Working from a foundational level, I feel, gave me something of value, because I have always felt—having worked next to the shop floor all my working life—that I have a strong connection with manufacturing. I do have a lot of manufacturing experience and a large understanding of the kind of people who work in manufacturing.
Because I went on to get a degree, and I actually went from very low to quite high up in seniority in the end, I then got into R&D—and in my earliest days, I was in electric cable making: I used to design RF cables.
But then my career took a bit of a change; it took on a management, and also problem-solving, route. I went into the medical industry, namely in the interest of anaesthesia, and was there for about 15 years. My job at that time was to deal with customer complaints, which is far less trivial than it sounds: consider, if a piece of hospital equipment fails in service, this could lead to a fatality if it’s not dealt with properly.
Image courtesy of Bigstock.
This calls for an engineer with a management front such as myself, because it’s not just the technology involved. It’s also about going back to the factory to negotiate and deal with the design team in regards to implementing the necessary changes; plus dealing with external authorities such as the MHRA (Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency), who obviously won’t let go after hearing of a medical equipment incident.
As well as this, I’ve had, in my more recent career, experience in commercial and sales: I also run my own small design company, which I have to win the work for.
I’ve also done a bit of design work myself for about 10 years, so I'm not somebody who's been doing design for decades or anything; I have a broader career than that.
SH: Was there anything in particular that inspired you to enter the engineering field?
JH: You know, I'm going to have to field that one with what you wouldn’t expect. I think it's a lottery. My career started as a bit of a failure really. I had no O Levels [General Certificate of Education: Ordinary Levels], and I started off as a clerk in a transport dispatch department; it wasn't a burning desire to do engineering that got me out of that work and into the industry.
What it came down to was that, after working like that for about a year as a teenager, I realised that I'd be doing this for the rest of my life unless I did something about it. So what I did was I went round looking for opportunities, and I knocked on the door of the top management company of about 700 people.
So it was quite cheeky really! (Laughs) Just knocking on the management's door. And I said: “Will you sponsor me to do a course or something? Will you help me with my education to move on?”. And to my surprise they just said, “Yes, do what you like”. I was sent off to the local further education college in Newbury and just asked them what courses they had; and I chose electrical engineering to start off with, because I was working for an electric cable company at the time anyway.
Image courtesy of Bigstock.
And then that was a day release course. You tend to get led into electronics anyway, so that's how it all started. Really I was just looking for a route out of my job at the time—not necessarily with the engineering field as the goal.
SH: I appreciate you worked in Germany for over a year. Is there any particular differences you found in the way you worked with German engineers to UK engineers?
JH: Yes I would say there are, and I continue to work with German engineers nowadays anyway. So I can say that there are cultural differences: some of them positive; some not so positive. But I would say that there is more that we [the UK] can learn than what we can teach in my opinion.
The Germans haven’t lost the demand for standards. They're quite ruthless. It's very rare that you bump into a German engineer that's not competent. Their training is incredibly thorough.
One thing, which is more on on a social level actually, relates to conflicts and dealing with conflict.
The Germans—and it has been a long time since I worked in Germany, so some things may be different now—but they were very formal. Everybody addresses you by your title: Mr. Hawkins, Mr. Smith, Mrs. Jones, and so on. You're not addressed by a Christian name. So work-wise they're very formal and then they switch into a less formal mode with their friends at home.
At first that felt very unfriendly to me. But I came to realise that actually it's just professional: it allows you to be in conflict about an engineering topic, without getting personal—as we may do in this country because we're over-familiar with each other. Here in the UK, I feel that many disputes actually get to a personal level far too quickly and then it all becomes about emotions instead of what the real issue is.
As I said, there is almost universal competence in German engineers. And I worked for Philips (who are a Dutch firm obviously but they had a branch in Hamburg), where the respect for engineers is obviously higher than it is in the UK. In Germany, it's more like you were a senior walking round if you're an engineer.
I think the Germans are probably more appreciative of what contribution engineers make to the ‘bottom line’.
Image courtesy of Bigstock.
SH: Are there any past projects that you're particularly proud of?
JH: Oh there's lots to that, but one aspect where I feel I've made a pretty huge impact was in dealing with what's called statistical process control (SPC), particularly for problem-solving in manufacturing.
To put a long story short, SPC is when you use statistics to optimise a process. For example, for product design, people apply what are called tolerances. So say, for example, a piece of bar is supposed to be 10 millimetres long: if it's 10.1 millimetres long, that’s okay; if it's 9.9, that’s okay—but if it's outside of that, then you need to throw the bar away. These aspects fall under what is called design tolerance.
So if you analyse the process in question, and this is where SPC comes in, you can work out what the real tolerances of the process are. Because it's all very well just nominally assigning design tolerances, but they don't necessarily mean very much in themselves: it's what the process will actually do with them. And that's what statistical process control is about.
So anyway, I worked for a company (which has now been taken over by General Electrics) that made downhole tools that they used for—not actually prospecting for oil—rather, it was about, once you’d actually found the oil, keeping it in the right place then making sure that your well is in good condition throughout. But anyway, that company was a highly technological company and had very highly qualified and capable engineers working for it, and it had a production team of technicians.
Such a production team were generally a cut above what you would normally expect on a factory shop floor. The result of that was that these hundreds of experts handled the tolerances of the products, which were in fact not sorted out properly by the design team. I don’t think I am exaggerating here when I say there was a lot of conflict between Production and Design, and through all the levels of management as well. So whenever Production would want things changed (sometimes that would be for the right reasons; other times that would be for the wrong reasons, such as just to get product out), either way, Design was very resistant to any change at all.
And it was because there was no mention of the rationales behind the requests. So I implemented a system throughout the factory with statistical process control, which meant that the operators were actually taking real data—and it completely transformed the factory, because when that real data was put in front of the design team, they appreciated the reasons for the requests for the changes, and made them accordingly. As a result, the whole factory started to produce much more efficiently.
Image courtesy of Bigstock.
Thank you to Jon Hawkins for voicing his industry background and experience, in this first part of his interview with Electronics Point—look out for Jon’s wider thoughts on engineering later this month on EP. Plus, for more information on the Newbury Electronics group, visit Newbury Electronics and Newbury Innovation.