john m aspinall

John M Aspinall

What was the name of the company you worked for and what do they do?

The name of the company was HR Wallingford Ltd., an independent civil engineering and environmental hydraulics research and testing facility in Wallingford, Oxfordshire.

They specialise in solving complex water-related problems encountered worldwide, with the state of the art physical modelling laboratories and a vast range of numerical modelling tools.

The company is split into different groups based on expertise which are:

  • Design and support of energy projects in the oil, gas, nuclear and marine renewable energy developments.
  • Research and ecological modelling of the aquatic environment, Environmental Impact Assessments and marine licensing advice.
  • Climate change and flood forecasting and risk assessments
  • Coastal and Estuary infrastructure research and consultancy.

I worked for the coastal structures group which focused on Physical modelling, computational fluid dynamics and management/design guidance.

What was your role within the company?

For the first couple of weeks, I was assigned to materials’ preparation for the models; this entailed grading rocks by sieving or weighing and then re-mixing them so to obtain a well-graded mix.

After that, I was assigned my first project in which my main role was to support Project Managers/ Engineers in the set-up and execution of physical model studies and research. This included assisting during wave calibration and instrument calibration, building the physical models, testing, recording and reporting of the results from the studies.

When that project was finished I was tasked with producing two mixes, one plaster and one concrete with specific densities to use for the casting of crown walls used in the physical models.

A few months into the placement I was put in charge of a project from start to finish including:

  • Setting out and levelling of templates to assist during construction.
  • Building and shaping the core of the model followed by the accurate placement of concrete CLI units with specific horizontal and vertical spacing.
  • Casting plaster crown walls and, once hardened, placing them on top of the structure.
  • Testing the structure and recording all relevant events.

Can you please give me an insight into a typical day?

A typical day usually starts at 08:00 and ends at 16:00, or later depending on requirements. Most days are spent in the lab working on a Physical model, either building the model from setting out and levelling templates, shaping the core of the structure, to placing armour rocks or concrete units. Other days I’ll be testing the model, setting up and generating a series of different storm simulations, 1 in 1year to even 1 in 500years, using multi-element wave makers controlled by HR Merlin wave software. During testing the waves generated have to be checked so I set a series of wave probes into pre-defined positions and use them to record the waves, I also monitor very closely any change that happens to the structure by using HDD video cameras, photos from stands and 3D scans so as to produce a timeline of the structure after all the tests.

During testing, I consistently report the results and organise the information onto spreadsheets and make sure that any footage recorded is stored and logged. I also liaise with the Project Manager and update him on the state of the model.

What did you enjoy the most and did you get involved in any interesting projects?

I loved the regularity of having a job and starting at the same time every day.

I also acquired a lot of knowledge by working in a research facility and being surrounded by new projects or advancements in fluid mechanics and wave theory.

I derived a great deal of satisfaction from testing physical models designed by other companies, when the clients visited the lab I had a chance to discuss the project with them, understand their point of view and any difficulties that had occurred during the design stage.

All the projects I worked on were confidential except for the Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon, where our clients wanted to know if the final structure and temporary structure used during construction could survive a series of storms up to a 1 in 500years at both low and high water levels. The structures failed the first round of testing thus they proposed a modified version which was tested again, in the same manner, producing very good results. The interesting part of this project was observing why and how the first model failed, and being able to learn from it.

Why did you want to undertake a year in industry?

Undertaking a year in industry was highly recommended by the Employability Team as a chance to gain experience, knowledge and practical skills which would broaden my knowledge and increase my chances of getting a job once I finished my course.  Studying at University provides me with the knowledge, discipline and mentality to solve problems. A year in industry has given me the opportunity to apply this knowledge and develop skills in a working environment, to learn and practice different methods of solving any problems that would arise during projects and learn from them.

Working for a company has provided me with the opportunity to meet other people and make contacts with experts in the industry. Everyone I have met has been very supportive and informative and have offered their assistance in the future as I progress with my career as an engineer.

Taking a break from University studies, stepping away from the academic side of civil engineering and seeing how much I can achieve with what I have studied so far and being able to use the knowledge acquired to-date in my course is a strong personal validation and will motivate me in my studies for the remainder of my degree.

What did you hope to get out of this experience? 

At the University of Leeds, there are a lot of emphasis on studying and preparation for the next examination or days of work doing research and calculations to complete a piece of coursework and all this is to make sure that we have the background knowledge to excel at our job once we finish our degree.

Companies want students who are capable of taking that background theory and applying it in a working environment, sharing their ideas and thoughts with other co-workers so to come up with the best results possible.

What I hoped to get out of this experience was proof that I can apply my ideas and perform well working alongside other engineers and scientists in a real environment. This break from studies and involvement with professionals on a regular basis will translate into an increased motivation and improved work ethic once I start my studies again.

Do you have any tips and advice to current students thinking of undertaking a year in industry?

Based on my experience at HR Wallingford I would highly recommend doing a year in industry.

The University careers’ centre helped me a lot with preparing a CV and covering letter, they provided me with excellent advice and 1 on 1 mock interviews to make sure that I was ready for every step of the way. There are also some very good books that they can provide you with and with the employability placement newsletter you’ll have a very good chance of finding and securing a year in industry.

Whilst on your placement the Engineering Employability team will stay in contact, with their expertise and support you will have all the help you need throughout this extraordinary experience.

I cannot emphasise enough how important and life changing doing a year in industry is, aside from developing your professional and academic skills it’ll help you decide on what career path you want to go down.

Like myself, you might realise that you want a very practical, hands-on job with a lot of fieldwork, or you might decide that research is more suited to you or a mix between both.

Whatever you choose, doing a placement will help in more ways than one and you will not regret it.