12 Oct 2010
Despite graduating with a mechanical engineering degree, Colin McKnight is now working on electronics and software systems at Jaguar Land Rover. He explains why it's the engineering approach that's important once you hit the workplace, not the discipline
Name: Colin McKnight
Location: Coventry, UK
Company: Jaguar Land Rover
Job title: Calibration engineer, Diesel Engine Management Systems
Degree: MEng (Hons) Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering
University: Queen's University Belfast
Graduated: July 2009
What's your day job?
I work for Jaguar Land Rover (JLR), fine-tuning engine temperature management and transmission functions within Engine Management Systems (EMS). I work on V6 and V8 diesel engines found in the Discovery, Range Rover Sport, Range Rover, XF and XJ.
Like all of the functions within EMS, there are a vast number of inputs and variables to control. Many vehicle uses and driving environments have to be considered, and our aim is to ensure that performance, durability, robustness and safety are maximised in all cases. This involves testing and data analysis, both in prototype vehicles and through bench simulation.
I'm currently using prototype vehicles for cars that won't reach the public for another two to three years. The bench simulation uses a real EMS module, connected to real engine actuators (such as fuel injectors, EGR valves) and computer-modelled inputs that replace the engine sensors (such as air flow, temperature). The computer has a user interface like a car dashboard which allows us to model all the usual driver inputs. We can even decide on external factors, such as ambient conditions.
What do you enjoy most about your role?
I love getting into the technical details of how the software functions, developing solutions and improving performance. Despite minimal coverage of systems and control material during my mechanical engineering degree, I'm able to succeed in the role because of the analytical and methodical engineering approach I learned at uni.
Hopping into high performance, luxury cars with my laptop to validate my solutions on road and track makes it even better!
I also love seeing exciting new technology and designs, years before the media and general public, and being part of the development process. It's a dream job for a 'petrol head' like myself.
What did graduating feel like?
It was exciting; knowing that a major chapter in my life was ending and a whole new one was beginning, thanks to 19 years of hard work in full-time education!
What's been your biggest achievement since leaving uni?
Well, I finally got to do one of the world's biggest bungee jumps into water in Switzerland over the summer!
In career terms, landing a role with JLR was a big achievement: in 2009, more than 2,000 people applied for just 57 graduate roles. Judging by my last performance review, my hard work at the company so far has paid off and I've progressed in my job quicker than expected. I have gained enough knowledge and confidence in my first 10 months to own and calibrate specific function within the EMS, which means I have a very important part to play in the success of new cars we launch.
How about the biggest challenge?
Adapting to so many changes all at once has definitely been challenging. These include moving to England from Northern Ireland, getting to know the company and how it works, and understanding where I fit in. All the internal code names, acronyms and systems took some getting used to, but I pick up most things fairly quickly, with the help of my colleagues and because I enjoy what I'm doing.
The comprehensive two-year JLR graduate development programme (facilitating core training, professional development and placements in other departments) is invaluable. The scheme gives graduates exposure to their function and the wider business. It includes a five-day graduate corporate induction, a functional induction, a manufacturing placement, dealer visit/awareness and a lot of bespoke personal skills training.
How important is your engineering degree?
My degree is a fundamental building block for my career. Completing engine-based projects during my degree, and studying modules on engine design and tuning, bolstered my practical and theoretical knowledge of engines. This led to me being assigned to the Powertrain department at JLR. Also, I learned the engineering approach to problem solving, analysis and design development throughout my degree and undergraduate placements – and, in my experience, that engineering approach is the most important skill in the workplace.
Any additional skills needed, once you hit the workplace?
Some of the most effective training I've received at JLR focused on business communication and team working techniques. I've also had training surrounding bespoke business systems and the calibration tools used in the vehicles.
Networking is a big part of business, so I've organised a few social events to get to know colleagues outside of work and strengthen my contacts and links within the business. And, because I'm driving high performance vehicles, I've also undertaken advanced driver training.
By the time you're 30, you'll be...
...a Chartered Engineer, working on advanced powertrain projects. I enjoy being involved in the technical detail, so I can't see myself being a manager, but perhaps a project leader.
I'm excited about the future of the automotive sector and the challenges it will bring, and I want to remain a part of it.
Plans for post-grad studies?
I'm undertaking bespoke technical modules relevant to my job in local universities, through the company's Technical Accreditation Scheme. These modules are at MEng or MSc degree level and the points from completing each can be accumulated towards an additional degree, if so desired. The company pays the course fees and time spent in lectures. So far, I have signed up for a course on engine calibration and emissions.
Cramming or clubbing?
Early-bird or night-owl?
I can't say I enjoy getting up, but I'm definitely more of an early-bird.
My Memory Map Adventurer 2800 outdoor GPS and mapping unit. I use it all the time for mountain biking and walking. I'd literally be lost without it!
Laugh out loud
Happiness is like wetting yourself: others can see it, but only you can feel its true warmth.
The last word...
Engineering is an exciting and rewarding profession. The world relies on engineers to create and develop the technology of the future. Provided you are enthusiastic about the industry you work in, you'll find the opportunities are endless.
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