Diving deep - Creating tomorrow's submarines

Despite having a passion for sailing, Becky Thomas stumbled across her naval architecture university course rather than seeking it out. Originally planning to work in medicine, she’s now employed by BAE Systems at its Barrow-in-Furness shipyard, where she’s involved in the design and construction of the UK’s next generation of naval submarines. The Student Engineer tracked Becky down to talk about her journey.

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Source: BAE Systems

Can you tell us a bit about your sailing background and how it influenced your career choices?
I was a keen dinghy sailor prior to heading off to University. I got into the sport fairly late on, at the age of about 15, through a kids summer sports camp. From then on I was completely hooked; sailing for my local county sailing team, spending my weekends travelling the country for local and national events, and eventually becoming the team coach. I then spent my gap year prior to university teaching sailing and other outdoor activities at the centre I first learnt to sail in.

Sailing is really putting engineering theory into practise; understanding the theory of lift and drag and how to optimise a boat for speed. I think this led me into the path of naval architecture without me really realising. It was by pure coincidence that I came across naval architecture as a subject when browsing a university prospectus – originally I was looking at a career in medicine, but this seemed to suit my interests and abilities better.

How was your experience studying naval architecture at Southampton?
Brilliant. Hard work, but very worthwhile. When I arrived I was happy to realise that I was surrounded by like-minded people on my course; nearly everyone had an interest in watersports. The course was a good balance of technical engineering principals, alongside interesting subject matter such as yacht and powerboat design. The university had good links with industry which allowed us to go on numerous visits to ship yards and vessels.

The course was very demanding; the work was difficult but rewarding, and has certainly reappeared in my graduate job! Our final year group projects were a good introduction to the working world, and it was brilliant to solve real engineering problems and serve an outside customer.

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Source: BAE Systems
Becky Thomas

Was working for BAE something that you were planning/hoping for, or just an opportunity that arose during your studies?
I knew a fair amount about BAE during my undergraduate studies. I was sponsored through my final two years by an organisation called UKNEST (United Kingdom Naval Engineering, Science & Technology – a forum that represents the key naval industry companies, BAE being one of these), and for one of these years, I had a mentor in BAE Systems Maritime Services, based in Portsmouth. Through this, I had visited the naval base a number of times, and decided that I’d quite like to work in a shipyard.

The opportunity at BAE Systems in Barrow-In-Furness was therefore very attractive. It combined the shipyard working environment with a design office – both of which would be invaluable experience to have under my belt as a graduate and to help with my chartership journey. The option of living on the edge of the Lake District was also a bonus!

What was your first week like when you joined in September 2014?
Being a Direct Entry Graduate, I am based in the Naval Architecture Department for my entire graduate program, so the first week involved jumping straight in, getting to know the computer systems and how the business runs. I was lucky enough to get on an Astute Class submarine within the first few days to assist one of my colleagues on a surveying job. This really allowed me to experience and understand the layout of a submarine, which is quite different to any surface ship I’d been on before! Getting on-board the boats really confirmed to me that I’d made the right career choice, there’s nothing quite like experiencing the product you design.

What’s a typical day at Barrow like now?/How have things changed over the past year?
Right now, I’m actually on an external placement at a hydrodynamics research facility! But back in Barrow, I am embedded in the hydrodynamics team and hold responsibility for deliverables to our customers. The yard is a busy and bustling environment and I enjoy the constant buzz.

My day tends to constitute a combination of modelling failure scenarios (such as floods) to ensure the submarine can stay safe throughout its patrol, computational modelling of submarine manoeuvres, and attending meetings to ensure the decisions we make have no detrimental impacts on other systems and users. It is a busy and unpredictable job, but very rewarding as you work with other engineers to find solutions.

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BAE submarine
Source: BAE Systems

What are the biggest challenges you have encountered in submarine design?
A submarine is an immense and extremely complex design project. Because of this, it requires a huge level of design detail and justification, and there are a vast number of engineers onsite to deal with every last little part. The interdependency of systems on one another means that when one person wants to change something in the design, there’s usually a lot of people they need to liaise with, so we spend a lot of time trying to deconflict ideas and create compromise between one another.

If it was up to you, what changes would you make to raise awareness of careers in this field?
I think there needs to be a change in the way that secondary schools approach science, technology and mathematics. The traditional approach to mathematics often causes young people to switch off and totally disregard STEM career paths. Applied mathematics, engineering and computer programming as a part the national  curriculum could offer a taster into the life of an engineer- hands on challenges that can re-engage those who switch off at the sight of algebra.

I’ve known engineers that have struggled with maths early on, but have made it through challenging university degrees. There are a number of organisations that are doing a great job to bring engineering into schools, it’s just a shame that this can’t be part of the normal learning process.

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