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  • Bio: Phil Sumner studied MEng Electronic Engineering at Sheffield University. He now works for GE Aviation in Cheltenham.
  • Role: Defence Sector Engineer
  • Location: Cheltenham

Phil Sumner

I started at GE Aviation (Formally Smiths Aerospace) in May 2005, having graduated in the summer of 2004.

I had worked for a range of engineering companies during my summer breaks from university, including Ford and Mercedes-Ilmor racing engines. I was still a little uneasy about starting off in the ‘real’ world though and wasn’t sure what to expect.

Starting out

I was put straight into a project as one of a team of hardware engineers working on a unit for the new Boeing 787 ‘Dreamliner’.

The day I started was the day the first prototype printed circuit boards came back from manufacturing for lab tests. This meant I was straight into the lab, working on real hardware, within my first week. I was working with one of the top design engineers in the company so I learnt a lot very quickly.

To start with I helped test the hardware and liaised with manufacturing to make alterations. I quickly built up a network of contacts in all parts of the business – as they say, it’s not what you know but who you know!

Before long I was working more on my own, developing test strategies and driving forward not only the hardware, but also the software used to run it. This involved working closely with the software team – I learnt a lot from this. The graduate scheme started in October 2005 and I have to say this is one of the best things about working for GE. They have put a lot of time and money into developing a high-class graduate scheme. They are training you to be the next group of management within the company, which makes you feel quite special.

New projects

I have moved projects several times. I have worked on components for the Eurofighter and for the new variant of the Hercules. Both of these projects have led me to be involved with our external suppliers.

Following on from this I completed my first design for some test equipment, which is now being used to test some equipment we deliver to BAE Systems for the Eurofighter. Currently I am working on the Power Management for the Joint Strike Fighter made by Lockheed Martin in the US. It has been an experience to see how the Americans differ in working practices from the Europeans.

Recently I was made a team leader, with a team of four guys reporting to me, one a new graduate himself. I am enjoying my new role – it has brought new challenges and a greater exposure to different parts of the business.

A week in the life:

Monday usually means trying to plan for the week. This is made more difficult by the fluid state of the project currently. What is top priority on Monday will be superseded come Tuesday! Currently we are working extremely hard to meet our deadline for safety of flight clearance of our system so the aircraft can meet its first flight date. This date was set over two years ago and Lockheed are aiming for not even one day’s slip.

As usual our priorities have changed again following an issue during testing. For me this means reprioritising the team to look at the issue. This can cause some frustration as people don’t like chopping and changing between tasks, but the guys are fairly flexible as they understand the pressure we are under. Most of the afternoon is taken up with meetings, via telephone, with Lockheed in the States. Most of the real work gets done in the morning while they are asleep!

The day starts with a ‘stand-up’ meeting, I think this is to keep us awake as most of us haven’t had coffee yet. The meeting lets us catch up on the results of tests carried out overnight. Currently we have test technicians working 24/7 to get all the testing complete. We also have to try and have a strategic view of where we are with future deliveries so we have a meeting with manufacturing regarding the stability of the design.

I do occasionally still get to get my hands dirty and do some real engineering. Today is one of those days, as one of my team is off sick and the unit he is responsible for has an issue in test. Fortunately I was previously involved in the design of this unit so have some knowledge and am able to help diagnose the issue and find a solution. It still gives me a buzz to fix a problem.

I used to look forward to half day Friday, but those are a thing of the past at the moment. I have to admit I really enjoy the pressure. It can get overwhelming at times, but it does feel like we are slowly making progress towards the goal and the reward will be watching the plane fly for the first time.

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