Putting the T into STFC: Engineering at the Central Laser Facility
03 Apr 2018
- Emily Cooke



In response to the ever-increasing shortage of engineering graduates and technology professionals, the Government has launched a new campaign initiative; declaring 2018 to be the Year of Engineering.




As UK businesses and educational organisations rally to the cause, we introduce the reader to the exciting world of engineering at our very own Central Laser Facility (CLF).

There's nothing I believe in more strongly than getting young people interested in science and engineering, for a better tomorrow, for all humankind."

Bill Nye, Mechanical Engineer and Science Communicator

Every year in the UK there are 20,000 more jobs being advertised than there are qualified engineering graduates to fill them. With shortages in trained personnel and an ever-increasing demand for new talent, there has never been a more important time to focus on the value that engineering brings to our society.

From the buildings we live and work in to the smart phones in our pockets; engineering is central to our daily lives. Every man-made object we see, touch or use is based upon the concept of engineering. Engineers improve old things and make new things so that we can live safe, exciting lives. Without such a strong workforce behind us, the UK may fall behind as the world advances through the technological age.

It is for these reasons that the UK government has decided to act; and it's doing so by launching the 2018 Year of Engineering. For 365 days, the Department for Transport and partner schools/organisations will be running campaigns and events in order to showcase the wonderful world of engineering. The goal will be to create an environment by which 7-16 year olds feel both comfortable with – and inspired by - the idea of pursuing a career in engineering. We want to be able to spark interest in school children that will lead to the next generation of problem-solvers.

                                                                 “Scientists dream of doing great things. Engineers do them."

James A Michener

Here at the Central Laser Facility (CLF), our scientists wouldn't be able to complete such cutting-edge laser research if it wasn't for our team of skilled and enthusiastic engineers. From design and manufacturing to safety systems and diagnostic development, the engineering team provides support for all our user's experiments. The infographic below highlights the key responsibilities of the team.


Whilst our Engineering group is team-driven, we place a lot of value on each individual who makes up this fantastic body and the stories they have to tell. As a teenager, Steph Tomlinson wanted to work in Special Effects for Film and Television, with her choice of A-levels in Maths, Physics and Art reflecting this aspiration.  Special Effects provided a unique opportunity to combine these subjects and it is this that led her to study Mechanical Engineering and go on to obtain some real life engineering experience. Now she leads and directs the engineering team for CALTAs multi-million pound commercial projects and collaborations, acting as an STFC representative with clients, suppliers and stakeholders.

As Steph explains, “I spend a lot of my day communicating, whether it is face to face or through appropriate documentation. In addition to all the planning, direction and coaching necessary to drive forward project progress safely, I am lucky to have the opportunity to use my creativity to innovate and solve problems and complex challenges that arise when designing first of their kind laser systems."

Steph is responsible for turning big ideas and visions into reality, which leads to world record- breaking laser systems. The development of these systems not only opens up opportunities to research new regimes of science, but can be used to strengthen materials through laser peening or be used for non-destructive testing of safety critical components, such as on aircraft or in nuclear reactors, through laser driven ion acceleration for advanced scientific grade imaging.

When asked what the best part of her job was, she replied “I love expanding my knowledge and skills; Engineering within the CLF certainly provides ample opportunity to learn and to apply that new knowledge to ever more complex challenges."

Steph Tomlinson, CLF

Richard Bickerton is an Interlock & Safety Systems Engineer at the CLF. His job involves designing, building, testing and performing maintenance of fail-safe laser systems. This allows laser users to perform scientific research with minimum risk to personnel safety. For Rich, no day is the same. A typical day could involve producing technical drawings, modifying control system software, attending meetings in high power laser labs and then moving onto an operational breakdown in a microscopy lab. It is this variation of work that Rich finds incredibly rewarding. Not only that, but the work completed by the engineering group has a true impact on everyday life, as Rich explains “our work ensures that laser users feel confident that their safety is our primary objective." In everything the team does, they are continually improving and adopting best practises.

So what inspired Rich to pursue a career in engineering? “I think it was an intrigue in the ever-changing and fast-pace world of computer technology," says Rich. As a child he recollects that he was always amazed by how things worked and that just developed into trying to make electricity do really interesting things.

And the most important question of all; does Rich have a favourite laser? “I'd have to say any class 4 broadband white-light laser would be my favourite as it presents some of the most complex safety issues due to the wide range of wavelengths that are emitted (ultra violet to infrared)."


Richard Bickerton (second from right) with his team, CLF

When asked what advice they would offer to aspiring engineers their answers were as following: “I'd say get involved in the STFC Apprenticeship and Graduate schemes" explains Rich, “There is such an enormous range of engineering fields to cut one's teeth with, explore which ones excite you the most."

Steph's response was very similar, “For those still at school, I would recommend trying things out. I attended a number of engineering summer schools that helped me identify that of all the engineering disciplines; mechanical was the one for me. It also helped me choose which university to study at."

She kindly went on to further explain, “I would advise getting some real engineering experience by volunteering or finding work in an engineering field. I worked for a number of companies creating special effects, building robot dinosaurs for museums and machining in a mechanical workshop to get a range of experience."

Inspirational stories like the ones described above illustrate just why campaigns such as the Year of Engineering, are so important. Together we can inspire the next generation of thinkers, designers and creators. We want to showcase that engineering is a career for all, not just a select few.

For further information about the Engineering team at the CLF, please follow this link: https://www.clf.stfc.ac.uk/Pages/Engineering.aspx

Find out more about the Department for Transport's 2018 Year of Engineering campaign by watching this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hJATC_LJuK0

Contact: Cooke, Emily (STFC,RAL,ISIS)