Alumni profile - Simon Mills
My Engineering degree has meant that I have ended up in locations that resemble those found in a James Bond movie. I have visited places like CERN, and a power station in Scotland that's ¼ of a mile underneath a mountain with giant hydroelectric turbines - both seem like being in a villain’s lair!
Why did you decide to study Mechanical Engineering at Queen Mary College (as it was known in 1968)?
I was good at mathematics and my uncle, who was an engineer, and my father, who was a watchmaker and thus dealt with very small engineering masterpieces, also helped sway my decision. I secured my place at Queen Mary College (QMC) via clearing and looking back I realise how fortunate I was. Initially when I found out I didn’t get the grades for my top choices my heart dropped, but when QMC offered me a place, it lifted back up again.
At the time of applying for university I had to list six choices and because QMC was one of them, I was asked to go for an interview before my grades were confirmed. After attending my interviews, QMC stood out as one of the friendliest and it almost felt like a family. I was the first person in my immediate family to go to university and I had never been away from home before, so this first impression really comforted me.
What did you enjoy most about studying Mechanical Engineering? Do any modules or memories of your university days stand out?
I really enjoyed the mathematics component of the degree having come from a pure and applied mathematics background and by the end of my final year exams, I was one of the top performing students in the mathematics module. Although dynamics was the bane of my life, I ironically went on to pursue a career in this industry so the knowledge I acquired at QMC provided me with a solid foundation. Our engineering workshop at Marshgate lane, which is now located underneath the Olympic park, is quite vivid in my memory. I had the opportunity to gain practical, hands-on experience using tools such as drills and milling and welding machines. It was only when I joined the navy that I saw better facilities than the ones students had access to in this workshop!
I loved being part of the pedal car society; we participated in a 24-hour endurance pedal car race hosted by the University of Bristol and the car that I helped design and build in 1971 was such a tank that it exhausted most of the pedallers, but it did last the 24 hours! The next year, we reduced its weight by about 50% and we ranked 16 out of 100 which was quite something! In my final year I became team manager and created many fond memories which have stayed with me to this day. I was also part of the engineering society and I got involved on the peripheral when some of the guys were trying to capture mascots from other universities. During my time, it was customary to pinch a mascot from another university and then you’d ransom it back and the ransom would go to charity!
What was it like to study during the 60s/70s? And how might your experience differ from the experience of current Queen Mary students?
Over the last 30 years, computing and telecommunications have radically changed the way we all live, work and communicate. When I was at QMC, I had a slide-rule and a paper notepad. I still have my slide rule with ‘Queen Mary College’ and the Mile End address in Magic Marker on the case and this has become a curiosity which I occasionally show my grandchildren (7 at the latest count)! Calculators didn’t come along until a few years after I graduated. For my first engineering job at Rolls Royce, I remember being taken around and shown the design office with people clicking away at mechanical adding machines – this was what we had to contend with before electronics came along!
Computer time in the late 60’s was precious, programs were typed onto punched cards (one line per card!) and were submitted in batches overnight, and one typo or miscoded line and the card compiler failed, and it had to be edited and re-submitted again. Technology has certainly revolutionised university life and the way we learn nowadays, and this has become even more apparent throughout the COVID pandemic.
I loved being part of the pedal car society; we participated in a 24-hour endurance pedal car race hosted by the University of Bristol and the car that I helped design and build in 1971 was such a tank that it exhausted most of the pedallers, but it did last the 24 hours! The next year, we reduced its weight by about 50% and we ranked 16 out of 100 which was quite something!
What kind of jobs were available when you graduated in 1972? And please can you chart your career path up until the present day?
My degree has been a mark of achievement and status throughout my career. I graduated at a time when jobs were scarce like now, however, my degree was the key that unlocked my first engineering job in 1973 at Rolls-Royce, and it provided the knowledge and some of the skills needed to do it. I spent three years with Rolls-Royce working with industrial and marine turbines including a version of the gas turbines which powered the Concorde, and which powered navy ships. I then joined the Royal Navy as an Engineer Officer through their Direct Graduate Entry (DGE) scheme in 1976, and again without my degree, this route wouldn’t have been possible. I was offered a four-year commission and I joined as a Lieutenant because the three years I'd spent with Rolls-Royce was counted as part of my seniority. In my lifetime I’ve been able to visit over 60 countries and dependencies across the world and 33 of them were whilst I was in the Navy!
When I joined in the September, I was sent to Britannia Royal Naval College (BRNC Dartmouth) and my induction was a huge shock to the system as I wasn’t allowed out for the first four weeks, whereas prior to this I had been working for myself, I had a car, and I’d been living in a flat in London. My days became regimented, I was up at six o’clock every morning doing exercises, but I had almost zero expenses because the food, accommodation and the uniform was all provided. It was a tremendous opportunity and by the December I was in the Caribbean on a ship that was featured in a James Bond film! We officers under training spent some time in Trinidad and were flown back via Washington DC. Then I went to the Royal Naval Engineering College at Manadon in Plymouth for further training. As part of this training, I gained experience on most of the machinery that I would encounter at sea, and I then spent several months at sea gaining my "Steam Tickets". I was then appointed as an Assistant Engineer to a Frigate which deployed to the Far East. As part of this eight-month deployment we sailed through the Mediterranean and were the first Royal Naval Flotilla to transit the newly re-opened Suez Canal. We called in at the Seychelles, then on to Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Samoa, and Singapore to name a few. My wife flew out to meet me in Singapore as we had married just before we left. I extended my commission to 8 years, then later the Falklands War changed the course of my career and I left in 1984.
When I left the Navy, I joined a German company in a technical sales role, and I did several excellent training courses on Dynamic balancing and Vibration Analysis in Germany which is where I finally got to grips with dynamics. After 5 years, I then moved to a consultancy which was a spin-off from Manchester University where I spent 15 years helping companies optimize their maintenance. I set up my own consultancy in 2004 and since 2015 work part-time training and mentoring in Vibration Monitoring and Analysis and support Standardisation.
I’ve represented the UK on International Standards through the British Standards Institute (BSI) since 1986 and I now chair BSI's Committee on Mechanical vibration, shock and condition monitoring and I’m a vice-president and fellow of the British Institute of Non-Destructive Testing (BINDT). I still teach vibration monitoring and I've had a book published by the BINDT with an ISBN number – which is my claim to fame! On the side I’ve also been researching my family tree on and off for twenty years but COVID has given me the time to really focus on it. I’ve now got a database of well over 2,500 people who are either related to me directly or related by marriage!
My degree has been a mark of achievement and status throughout my career. I spent three years with Rolls-Royce working with industrial and marine turbines including a version of the gas turbines which powered the Concorde, and which powered navy ships. I then joined the Royal Navy as an Engineer Officer.
You are now semi-retired, having had an extensive career of 48 years, what have been some of your career highlights?
In the Navy I experienced some real highs and some real lows. One time I remember we were acting as Fleet Contingency ship (FCS) which the navy keep at short notice for sea, and which act as stand-by ships to any ships in an active role. One Christmas we were FCS and many of us were on leave, we got a flash recall and we had to set sail on the 29th of December, however, this was one of the stormiest Decembers I've seen – we had huge waves crashing over the ship and then late that night suddenly the lights went out. We'd sustained slight damage in the bow area which allowed seawater through the deck into the switchboard for our twin 1 Megawatt Diesel Generators. Our roving watchkeeper fortunately wasn't in the switchboard when it occurred, but was close by. He said: "I was just about to go into the switchboard room and there was a bang and a bright green flash, which just missed me, then it went dark!" (The green flash was the copper bus bars vaporising.) This meant that we temporarily lost power to some of the ship’s radar, communications and some lighting. We rigged emergency power cables through the ship to bypass the damaged switchboard, and we limped back to Plymouth in time for New Year. It’s not like you can call the AA when you’re out at sea! We had our own Engineers and Technicians plus several Dockyard Teams working round the clock over the New Year to rebuild our switchboard.
Other highlights from my time at Rolls-Royce involve being able to visit a lot of gas turbine generation sites including, conventional and nuclear power stations. I have had privileged access to what goes on "behind the scenes".
My career since has taken me to lots of different locations and I've had the privilege of meeting lots of interesting people. I've worked on Industrial, Marine and Aero Plant in Power Generation & Distribution, Food, Airports, Hospitals, Banks, Automobile, Military, Communications, Pharmaceutical and Chemical, Onshore and Offshore Oil and Gas and many more.
What advice would you give to a prospective student considering studying Mechanical Engineering at Queen Mary?
Engineering in general sustains the way of life that we have, and this means that engineers will constantly be in demand. If you choose to study engineering, you are investing in your future as you will have a career for life. It is an industry that is constantly evolving and there are lots of interesting careers that you can pursue after your studies. Don’t focus on what your eventual salary will be - I have never worked just for money, I've always tried to work at things that I enjoy doing.
In terms of Mechanical Engineering more specifically, my degree has meant that I have ended up in locations that resemble those found in a James Bond movie. I have visited places like CERN, and a power station in Scotland that's ¼ of a mile underneath a mountain with giant hydroelectric turbines - both seem like being in a villain’s lair!
I am a strong believer in education and providing opportunity. For a student, if they don’t have the technology, then they are totally isolated, therefore, helping to fund a computer via the Queen Mary Emergency Covid-19 Fund seemed like a good idea.
Thank you so much for your generosity in donating to the Queen Mary Emergency Covid-19 Fund. What prompted you to make a donation to this fund?
I received an email about the fund just after my 70th birthday and this set off some reminiscences. I’ve never forgotten my time at QMC and the opportunities QMC gave me, so I'm happy to help in a small way now by passing back some of my good fortune. I remember what it was like being at university with very little money and I wouldn’t have been able to go to university had I not been given a local authority grant and support from my parents.
I am also a strong believer in education and providing opportunity. My mother was a teacher and our family had the ethos that you should try and get as far as you can in life and take advantage of any opportunities that come your way. For a student, if they don’t have the technology, then they are totally isolated, therefore, helping to fund a computer seemed like a good idea.
One of the things that we’ve been working on at BINDT is apprenticeships, from technician to engineer and degree level and we are trying to attract a variety of applicants, not just school leavers. I believe that you can upskill at any stage of your life, it is never too late to learn.
This profile was conducted by Alumni Engagement Officer, Nicole Brownfield. If you would like to get in touch with Simon or engage him in your work, please contact Nicole at firstname.lastname@example.org.