"I had high hopes of the programme professionally, but I had no idea how much my world would expand."
From the wingtips of the F-35 to the world’s largest industrial turbines and the pyramid in front of the Louvre, Meggitt sensors measure some of the world’s most extreme environments. After three years’ training on the International Leadership Programme, Blaise Guélat is putting his experience to work leading technical development on next-generation proximity and pressure sensors.
As soon as I started my first placement, I was given the challenge of designing a microelectromechanical (MEMS)-based tilt sensor. They’re mainly used in train control and positioning systems to maximise capacity and uptime for operators and they’re also used in the test industry.
The work I led enabled us to reduce the sensing element from about 5×4 cms to a few millimetres square. We successfully reapplied Meggitt’s pioneering digital compensation technology to ensure world-beating accuracy: maximum scale factor non-linearity error on the finished product is less than 0.05%.
Overall, it was a brilliant introduction to commercialising cutting-edge technology—it had the key disciplines of applied research, project management and product development. And the fact that I’d come in right at the start of the project meant I could take the process right through to a first prototype.
My next two technical placements on the ILP followed the same pattern but with more responsibility and a tougher challenge each time.
The first one took me from France to Meggitt Avionics in the UK; they’re a global leader in air data systems and flight deck instruments. I worked with a team to develop a new algorithm to improve attitude and heading accuracy on our secondary flight displays—these units gather data from sources such as gyroscopes, accelerometers and magnetometers to give pitch, yaw and heading angles in one digital display.
After a lot of research, quick learning and rapid development, I delivered a working algorithm by the end of the placement. Based on that, the team went on to use a Kalman filter approach which has now been fine-tuned and integrated into the hardware.
The next placement took me to Securaplane, a Meggitt business in Arizona specialising in battery systems, video camera, security and collision avoidance systems. Lighter and more powerful than conventional batteries, System Lithium is one of their flagship products. It consists of a set of very small, low-output smartphone-type cells wrapped in a sophisticated monitoring and health management package.
My mentor and manager there was Dr Mike Boost who developed the product. He’s one of the world’s leading experts in this area. My challenge was to lead development of the next-generation product saving even more weight. One improvement was to replace the aluminium housing out of carbon fibre composite.
We also fully redesigned the management system’s electronic board, introducing software in the battery and improving charger efficiency. The combination of the next-generation battery cells and the solutions we developed took a third off the weight—not bad considering the current model is one of the lightest around.
At the same time, I was also helping develop the technology roadmap for the product and established a partnership network with leading academics in the field at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford and other top universities.
This combination of research, product innovation and longer term strategic planning is a key part of the ILP training and prepares you for carrying out the same kind of work at a more senior level once you finish the programme.
Young engineers like to focus on technology but how a product is made—and the people who make it—are just as important as how it works. That’s why the experience I gained and the people I met during my placement in operations are now both so helpful in my current role.
During the placement - based in Switzerland - I helped map the value stream for a high-temperature engine sensor. Manufacture requires up to 100 manufacturing steps carried out by around 30 people and we found that a lot of time was being wasted following complex instructions. I researched a number of solutions for digitising the documentation - both to save time and improve safety by cutting down on workstation - and ran a pilot for one part of the process.
In time, it will hopefully evolve to allow operatives to scan a work order and retrieve instructions on a tablet or even some sort of wearable device. These organisational challenges require long, careful observation and thoughtful discussion to get people to agree on what needs changing and how best to do it.
Now I’ve finished the programme and I’m in my first permanent role, I draw on what I learned and the networks I developed around the business almost every day.
Right now, I’m back working on high-temperature sensors. There are some competitors at the 350-400°C level but at 700°C, Meggitt leads the world. About 60% of my time is spent as a technical lead on a redesign of next-generation proximity sensors for industrial turbines in the energy sector.
We want to reduce cost and we also have to meet some new industry regulations. When I started, there were some arguments between the engineers and the operations people about the best way ahead. Creating a decision matrix to accurately evaluate the different options helped us look more objectively at the issue and we’re now close to a solution.
The second part of my role is to develop a MEMS sensor solution for a next generation of Meggitt’s aircraft tyre pressure monitoring system. I’m the technical lead and, like my first project on the ILP, I’m working with a third-party manufacturer and we’ll test for vibration, acceleration and temperature in house.
After doing a PhD in MEMS, I wanted to find an opportunity to develop and broaden my technical skills as well as build up my commercial and operations experience. The ILP at Meggitt is the perfect way to do that. And once you finish, there are more than enough cutting-edge opportunities to keep you on the fast-track. It’s a tough, challenging path and not everyone makes it. But if you’ve got what it takes, you can take it pretty much wherever you want.