Photo of Mechanical Engineering student, Alex Heeney

Alex Heeney

Why did you decide to study at the University of Leeds?

Leeds appealed to me as a University for many reasons, the first being the outstanding quality of the Uni and engineering department. At the open day the facilities, atmosphere and enthusiasm of the department stood out to me. Also the Union and amount of societies available to join is incredible. Finally the city of Leeds is incredible to live in, with so many bars, restaurants and nightclubs to go to, whilst only being a few miles away from the Yorkshire Dales, there really is something for everyone here!

Why did you choose this particular course?

Engineering has always appealed to me, as I loved learning and understanding about how things work. Mechanical engineering generally incorporates anything that moves, and from having such a passion of cars, trains and planes this course always seemed like the one for me.

What have been the best aspects of studying your course, and why?

The group projects we have completed in the Design & Manufacture modules have been incredible, especially the second-year buggy where we designed the suspension and chassis to go over a rough-terrain style course. I have also enjoyed the Thermofluids modules, as understanding liquid flows and how heart transfers is seriously interesting!

Tell us about some of the exciting projects you have completed on your course?

The most exciting project was the second-year buggy project. The aim of this was to build an all-terrain buggy that could traverse an obstacle course full of large bumps and uneven surfaces, the main design focus points being creating a good suspension system to absorb the bumps, include a high ride height, and also code the buggy to stop at the correct position. Unfortunately, our buggy did not do too well, as it veered off to one side, however seeing everyone else’s interpretation of the design brief to see what they came up with was very interesting. It turned out the simplest designs were the most effective!

What does Leeds as a city have to offer students?

Leeds is a brilliant city and caters for all students! It is on the border of the Yorkshire Dales, which is great for exploring on foot or bike! Leeds also has the First Direct Arena and the O2 academy, both huge venues in which world-renowned stars come to perform – at much cheaper than London prices too! Finally Leeds has an incredible night life, and is littered with bars, restaurants and nightclubs: there is a venue to suit everyone’s taste!

What are your ambitions for the future?

My ambitions lye in the area of future car design and manufacture, possibly in motorsport! I have always been inspired by the rapid development rate of formula 1 cars, so would love a job in this one day! However, the commercial side of vehicles also appeals to me, especially to be a part of developing the next generation of cars for a cleaner environment.

What experiences at Leeds do you think will help you in your future career?

My current placement year at Toro Rosso from the University of Leeds will certainly help me in my career, because I am gaining invaluable experience from this time that will set me up greatly for my future. Furthermore, the group projects help to develop team working skills. Finally, being a part of Leeds Gryphon Racing (the Formula Student team) has helped me develop general engineering knowledge, an understanding of manufacturing and a vast array of leadership and teamwork skills.

What would you say to students coming to do the same course?

Get involved in every opportunity possible, and still take first year seriously!

Could you tell us a little about being a part of Leeds Gryphon Racing?

Being a part of Leeds Gryphon racing has enhanced my University experience so much! From a manufacturing and design point of view, I feel I have learnt more in this than in my degree, because getting hands on with an actual large-scale project is the best way to learn this! I led the Aerodynamics team in my second year, and I learnt a huge array of leadership, communication and time-management skills as a result of this, something I would not have learnt to the same degree otherwise in my degree. It also puts into practise a lot of theory from my degree, which puts a lot of meaning behind the books, making the knowledge seem ever more valuable!

Tell us about your year in industry. What is the name of the company you work for and what do they do?

I work for the Scuderia Formula 1 Team, and they are a mid-field team in the fight for the Formula One World Championship. Toro Rosso design, manufacture and build their own Formula 1 car, using the latest technologies, materials and manufacturing techniques, whilst its design is completing intricate, pieces having tolerances to 0.1mm in order to generate the best performance.

What is your role within the company?

I am an Aerodynamics Performance Engineer, which includes analysing all the aerodynamic data that comes in from race weekends, and writing the programs which do so. Every race weekend our team is up in the operations room, watching the practise sessions on Friday and Saturday, and we will analyse data from new parts on the car, gather data to generate new performance development targets, and help with the setup of the car to maximise the potential of the car for each race weekend. During the week, I work on Matlab building programs which the team then use at the weekends to analyse the data, and its great to see the programs I develop being used instantly!

Can you give us an insight into a typical day?

My typical day involves coding on Matlab as aforementioned, I will be working on long coding projects which can take weeks, even months to complete! However if a bug appears in another program I will immediately fix that, so the bug is not preventing others from gathering/analysing further data, so is there some unknown factor every day. A workday is usually very long, I’ll turn up to work just after 8 and be there until 6:30/7 most days, as there is a lot to do, and we want to drive the team forward as much as possible!

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

I enjoy being in the operations room on race weekends the most, because I’m getting hands on with raw car data and feel as though I’m helping to make a real difference to the car’s performance on every single race weekend. The exciting project I’m working on at the moment is writing a cooling configuration program for the car, which will state the optimum cooling to be used on the car, and the effects of performance this will have. This should vastly reduce the time engineers at the track need to take to work out the cooling package to run.

Why did you want to undertake a year in industry?

I wanted to undertake a year in industry because I felt it was necessary to complete in order to provide me with the best opportunities after graduation. Also, it was the best opportunity I felt I had to get into working with a company such as a Formula 1 team, therefore it would be silly to miss! Furthermore, to develop so many workplace skills so early on is invaluable, which will hopefully advertise me well to future employers.

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned during the year?

The most important thing I’ve learnt so far is to manage time-effectively and keep calm under deadline pressure. Over the course of my placement, I’ve had to meet deadlines, and this does involve staying late, but as long as you’re making the most use of this time then work will be done! This also helps to build a good trust relationship between you and your manager I have found.

Has your experience given you a better idea of what you want to do for a career?

Yes it has, I think it’s actually made me consider working in commercial cars more, because Formula One is incredible as it drives technological development, however I feel like I’d want to make a difference in the actual consumer world, something I did not realise before starting placement!