In this interview, Tom Holland, an engineering undergraduate at Imperial College London who is currently doing his Year in Industry placement at Ricardo, tells us about his experience of working on the Ricardo R&D project which is using innovative oil cooling for electric motors and power electronics.
Q: Introduction to you – who are you and what do you do?
Tom Holland: My name is Tom Holland and I’m a Mechanical Engineering student at Imperial College London. I am currently undertaking a placement year at Ricardo within the Fluids and Thermal team, in the Analysis department.
Q: Why did you choose to come to Ricardo?
Tom Holland: I chose to come to Ricardo for 3 main reasons. Firstly, the subject areas from university that I am most interested in are fluids mechanics and heat transfer. Ricardo’s Analysis department was perfectly in line with those subject areas. Also, Ricardo is one of the leading companies when it comes to electrification and other low carbon technologies, areas that I am really interested in. Finally, as a consultancy, Ricardo gives you great variety in the projects that you get to work on. It’s been beneficial to be exposed to different applications of engineering skills at such an early stage of my career.
Q: Can you tell us more about your placement?
Tom Holland: I joined towards the end of August and have been here for around six months now. To begin with, I worked in the office for about a month or two, just because it was easier to integrate and get used to the processes. When the November lockdown came in, I started working from home. Ricardo is well set up for long-distance collaboration and communicating over Teams, so everything has gone smoothly so far. It’s been challenging not to have the office experience, where you can pick up on what your colleagues are talking about in terms of the work they’re doing. You can’t quite tap the colleague next to you on the shoulder to ask for help! However, I feel that’s been constructive as it’s pushed me to more independent in my problem solving as it forces you to put a bit more thought into trying to solve your problems before asking for help. The placement has been different as most of us are working from home, but I can’t fault the way it’s been handled, and I feel work has been done as efficiently as it would have been done otherwise.
Q: You’re working on the Ricardo R&D project which is using innovative oil cooling for electric motors and power electronics. What are you doing for it?
Tom Holland: The aim of the project is to develop and optimise oil cooling techniques for an electric motor and inverter. The Fluids and Thermal team within the Analysis department is responsible for modelling these cooling techniques. As part of this team, I’ve been doing a lot of 3D Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD). I have been lucky to be given a great deal of responsibility to set up and run simulations. The aim of these simulations is to model fluid flow within a motor. We then feed the results into other tools so that they can be analysed, and we can quantify the performance to identify areas for design improvement.
The original idea for my placement was that I’d be involved mostly in research-based jobs that other members of the team don’t have time for, but this is slightly different because it is an actual project. I was initially brought in to observe how projects like this are run, but as I picked up more work, I moved into having a more direct role in producing results. It’s been interesting to work on such a cutting-edge project.
Q: What inspired you to be an engineer?
Tom Holland: I have always been interested in engineering, particularly cars from watching shows like Top Gear and following Formula 1. Then, in school, I took Maths and Physics A-Levels which helped me realise that I enjoyed the problem-solving nature of STEM subjects. Similar to my reasons for joining Ricardo, the issue of climate change is a critical challenge for my generation in particular, so I thought that a good route to being part of that solution would be to become an engineer.
Q: Are you being officially mentored by any of the team, and if so, what are you learning from them?
Tom Holland: I have a direct line manager, Nick Higginson, whom I report to and he effectively mentors me. During my time here, he has been absolutely fantastic. While I was familiar with most of the techniques, using them in the industry every day is different to how we learn in a lecture theatre. From small things, such as a software that I was unfamiliar with, to setting up simulations and producing results, Nick has been great in being able to guide and help me get started. He’s been the first point of contact that I go to when something isn’t successful and he’s been excellent at giving technical advice.
The wonderful thing about Ricardo is that there are so many experienced people around in the whole team. If you run into a problem, there are multiple people with the relevant expertise who are happy to help. You can also learn a lot simply by listening during meetings to see how other colleagues present and discuss their work. I try to reflect what I see in the way I approach my work.
Q: Would you recommend a placement at Ricardo for other people?
Tom Holland: The second job I was given on the DiODE project was to set up an extremely complex simulation with multiple fluid phases and rotation, using a brand-new technique that the team hadn’t used much previously. It was sort of like being thrown in the deep end, but I really enjoyed because it was a good challenge to see how much understanding I had, and it was great to work through it. Once I set up the simulation, Nick and I worked on it together to get it to a stage that was running well, and we were both learning at the same time which was interesting. Experiences like these are what would make me recommend a placement at Ricardo for other people. It’s difficult to know when you start how much responsibility you’re likely to be given, and certainly I did not expect to be given such an involved task quite so early on in my placement, or at all. Once you’ve showed that you’re able to produce some results, the team is happy to give you more responsibilities to push you further. It’s one of the best things about working at Ricardo.
Q: Have you got any thoughts on what you might like to do in the future?
Tom Holland: I'm really enjoying the area of work that I’m currently in. The subject area is fascinating and for the moment I would like to continue with this area. Being an engineer is a lot of work; you must complete your university course first, and from then on you still have a whole career ahead of you to learn and gain more experience from. I hope to be able to continue to do just that, so that eventually I can reach a position where I’m leading projects. Projects like the innovative oil cooling for electric motors and power electronics sparked an interest in research and development, and I know that the dissemination phase of this project will include engineering conferences and writing papers. I hope that eventually I will attain a high enough level of expertise to be able to present my work at the industry-level in this way.
Q: If you could give one piece of advice to future placement students?
Tom Holland: The piece of feedback I have had most is that my enthusiasm and work ethic have been highlighted as a positive in the work I’ve done so far. So, whatever stage you are at in your career, I think that enthusiasm and hard work are the key ingredients. The rest, experience and knowledge, will naturally come along.