Charged up

Cars and road vehicles are responsible for almost a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions in the UK in 2012.

It's an area where we can make a big impact on our carbon footprint. Engineers can play an essential role in reducing our carbon emissions by making our travel more environmentally friendly. 

Tomorrow's Engineers spoke to Steve Large, Technology Director at POD Point, about how he puts his broad engineering experience to use in this growing industry.

 

At POD Point they're making a difference in this area through creating electric car recharging points to install across the UK - making it easier for families, workers and businesses to swap petrol cars for non-polluting electric vehicles.

They have a variety of different engineers working at POD Point. As a small company, many of them get involved in more than one area of production, from the electronics and electrics of the charging point, to the software needed to collect data about how and where people are recharging their cars.

What do you do at POD Point?

At POD Point we produce electric car charging points for domestic and commercial use. People who buy electric cars need to know where they’re going to charge them.

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The natural place is their home because that’s where the car spends a lot of its life so we have a range targeted at domestic locations but which are also suited for car parks, workplaces or anywhere that people might be spending lots of time charging their vehicles.

We make charging points for street locations too and these units are posts which have to be very rugged because they’re sitting on the side of roads. It needs to be able to live there for 10 – 15 years - they could be hit by a car or vandalised and so we need to think about security and strength.

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It’s about matching the requirements of the situation with the products customers’ need.

We also make the IT infrastructure which handles communication with charging points. If you’re a council and put charging points all over your region then you need to be able to monitor them to make sure they’re working. 

You’re Technology Director at POD Point - what does that involve?

My responsibilities stretch from selecting the core electronics that we use in our charging points to the IT systems that we use here in the centre to “talk” to the charging points, collect data and remotely control them. I need to ensure we have people in the company with the skills to redesign those electronics to make them better, to change them and add new features.

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I have a team of individuals and they’ll help me understand what the market position of different electronics products are today. We decide what we’re going to select and put in today’s product - I talk to customers and we’re also looking two, five and ten years forward to look at how to improve future products.

Ultimately we’re playing the long game: POD Point and everything we do is all about getting infrastructure in place to support people’s adoption of electric cars. Without getting charging points out on the street and also making them available to people’s homes, the decision to buy an electric car becomes a little bit harder.

The first thing people ask is “where do I charge the car?” and we break down that barrier by giving people a series of answers and choices. It’s an “enabling technology” role - we’re not making the electric car but we’re making something that allows it to develop into the market.

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Does it feel good to be involved in such an important cause?

Being able to go home each day knowing that you’re providing solutions for the future ultimately makes you feel good. There’s no feeling of elation where you say “I’m saving the environment!” because no one person can save the environment. We all have to do our little bit and the question is “what are you doing today?”

Some people choose to help the environment as part of their personal life or hobbies and others choose to do it as part of their careers. People elevate technologies like the electric car as one potential key technology for reducing emissions and we’re playing a part in that. I don’t think there is one key technology that’s going to save the environment; there are lots of individual solutions that need enabling technologies to make them happen.

My ability to break things as a child led me to engineering. I started taking things apart at an early age and wanting to know how they worked. I’d get in trouble with my mum and dad and I had to learn how to put them back together again. Once you start on that path you learn what’s inside a product and start to think about how you could use things for something else as well as making things better.

What did you study at school?

I studied maths, physics, chemistry and biology. I was interested in how you apply the sciences to our everyday life. I also had an interest in history but my interest was actually more to do with the history of engineering.

How important is it to study science and maths to be an engineer?

Up to the age of 13 I enjoyed maths and then from 13 to 16 I wondered what the purpose of maths was and why we do it because I wasn’t applying it to anything. It was only when I started university and we started applying mathematics to analyse mechanical structures and in electronics for working out how a circuit would behave that I realised that maths is a tool to allow you to work things out and that’s what engineers do.

Physics tells you about the world and about how things will behave and respond, maths lets you calculate what the outcome will be if you combine things together. That’s engineering and that’s what really drove me.

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And then what did you study at university?

At Leeds University I studied mechatronics which is a combination of mechanical engineering, electrical/electronic engineering and software programming.  It’s becoming a more popular subject today and you’re taught mechanical subjects like structures, dynamics and mathematics. You study electrical and electronics engineering, so you learn all about circuits, digital circuits, signal processing and microcontrollers and you also learn about software programming. This includes languages like C++ but also understanding how data is manipulated and stored in the systems that we have today. I could see that all the disciplines became intermingled whenever you made a product and it was fundamental to me to learn about each of those areas.

I chose Leeds because the mechanical engineering and electronics engineering departments were right next door to one another so they seamlessly blended the two subjects together, making it easy to move between the two and you start thinking about how to put these two pieces of knowledge together.

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Is that broad knowledge useful if you’re working in a small business like POD Point where your product might contain all of these things?

A small business requires you to be able to look at all the different aspects of your product. When you’re in a small company you have fewer people and you need to be a “jack of all trades” and turn your hand to anything in order to be able to solve problems.

You can’t think “I’m just the mechanical engineer” because you’re always going to have to work with an electrical engineer or a software engineer. You will potentially have to engage with people in financial departments or marketing departments too so the key is always to understand how your subject fits with other subjects that are required in running a company.

 

Then what did you do after you finished university?

While at university I was also sponsored by Ford motor company. They provided a summer placement and a year in industry and I learnt how big automotive industry worked. After university I joined a division of Ford motor company (which eventually became a separate company called Visteon) and worked in automotive electronics as a systems engineer where we made entertainment systems and other instruments for vehicles.

I worked as an engineer at Visteon for ten years but it wasn’t really going in the direction that I thought we needed to move. People were still thinking about making things at the lowest possible cost and not about environmental impact. When we got the opportunity to start POD Point I’d still be working in engineering and I knew what I was doing was going to provide a long term good.

I’d also just finished an MBA (Master of Business Administration – Ed) in technology management where I’d learnt all the different aspects of business associated with a technology company. I really wanted to apply some of the new things that I’d learnt outside of a big organisation like Ford. I produced specifications for our first range of products and ultimately went on to look after all of the engineering that we do here today.

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What do you enjoy most about your job?

I enjoy the variety and love getting involved in all the different disciplines of engineering. I believe there is a common, core process for product design that you learn along the way that can be applied to software, mechanical products or electrical/electronic projects and it guides your decision making.

I also really enjoy the engagement with business. Engineering and technology on its own comes to nothing. You need to have a business need and structure around any engineering department in order to advertise, sell products and meet customer need.

What personal qualities do you need to be an engineer?

An enquiring, open mind is important. If you’re interested in why things do what they do and like looking for alternative ways to do that you’re probably already a natural engineer.

Once you add to that the knowledge, process and discipline you’d learn at university then you become quite a unique individual. You need to be tenacious and keen to explore. Sometimes people will tell you that what you want to do isn’t possible, or that you “can’t do it like that”. You shouldn’t let other people’s opinions about what is possible stop you from doing it. Engineers over the last 200 years have been looking for new ways of doing things with new materials and new pieces of technology.

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What advice would you give to young people becoming interested in engineering?

You need to find what it is about engineering that you really enjoy because there is nothing better than doing a job that you enjoy; you start to excel at it and people will recognise that.

Yesterday I was at Cambridge University and that was to meet some first year engineering students. We intend to offer some of them engineering placements here at POD Point and it’s quite a unique opportunity because this industry is quite small. I would estimate that they might be the first engineering students ever to have placements within electric car charging point companies.

When I talk to them I always look for people who are thinking about what they want to do in the future, not closing avenues off but thinking about making sure that they are working in an area that interests them. Don’t just get involved in something that you think is going to make you money.

Think about what type of person you are and what you’re looking for in a job. That’s quite a hard question when you haven’t had a job before so look at what sports and hobbies you like to get involved in. Do you like team sports? If so then you’re going to fit within a team working in engineering. If you like to be the captain of that team then you might want an engineering project management role where you’re orchestrating what’s going on.

 

What is the future of POD Point?

Over the next couple of years we’re going to see an increase in the number of electric vehicles on our roads and that means people will continue to need charging points for their homes, at their work and in places like supermarkets.
We’ll be looking at different ways that people want to charge their cars. Ultimately, charging points follow the vehicles, customers and what they require.

We’ll also continue to make the infrastructure and the IT systems that integrate and allow monitoring of all charging points

 

What do you like to do in your spare time?

You take a lot of pleasure in what you do when you work for a small business. I spend a lot of my time thinking about the next type of charging point we’re going to make. In a way, my products are my hobby. My engineering background and discipline is the way POD Point is run but the products and outcome are things I’m really interested in.

I have a very young family too and I’ve been a guitarist in a band for 15 years. I play the guitar and it’s like playing a role – you have to fit in with the bass and the drums and you’re making something bigger than just the instrument that you play.

 

Links

POD Point

Mechanical engineering at Leeds University