James Williams

Nationality: British
Degree: MEng Materials Science and Engineering
Graduation year: 2014

Job title: Manufacturing Engineering Purchase Team Lead, Rolls-Royce plc
What does the organisation do? Designs and manufactures power systems for land, sea and air

About the job

What are your main responsibilities?

For my course Sheffield was near perfect; it was rich in engineering and materials history, it was at the forefront of research and development, but more important to me, it had great links to exciting and growing industries that I wanted to be a part of.

James Williams, Manufacturing Engineering Purchase Team Lead at Rolls-Royce plc

I work in the part of the company which is responsible for managing the external suppliers to Rolls-Royce, specifically the suppliers manufacturing the non-rotating casing and ring components of gas turbines. Pretty much anything which has air flow through it, or blades spinning inside of it, we’re responsible for manufacturing.

My role is very broad however it can be distilled down to two key strands: managing and developing the manufacturing engineers within the team; and working with the external suppliers to deliver components on time, to budget and to the right quality.

Can you describe a typical day?

There isn’t really a standard day in my job and every day is a school day – there’s always an opportunity to learn something new. I may travel to a supplier’s factory to help solve their manufacturing problems (the furthest I’ve gone so far is to Russia), go to a sourcing conference to negotiate contracts with suppliers, work with our design engineers to make sure our component designs are as cheap to manufacture as possible, guiding suppliers through our complex specifications and requirements, or working with my team to develop and implement new and improved manufacturing technologies.

Being the single point of technical contact for 6 suppliers to Rolls-Royce means that I get involved in an extremely diverse set of engineering projects and challenges. Anything and everything related to running a factory or manufacturing a gas turbine component can come my way. I probably spend about 85% of my time working on this part of the job.

The remaining 15% of my time is spent supporting the team members to develop in line with their career goals and helping them to do their jobs to the best of their ability. This can range from providing constructive feedback and coaching the team in technical, procedural and behavioural matters, to providing a strategy and objectives for the team to work to.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your current role or your greatest career achievement so far?

The most rewarding aspect of my role is seeing the measurable improvements me and my team make to ourselves but also to our customers. Every time we successfully manufacture a difficult part for the first time, save the company loads of money, or become more capable engineers by learning something new, I get a buzz.

The most rewarding experience I’ve had so far was leading a high-profile project to double the manufacturing capacity of a turbine blade factory in Rolls-Royce. The success or failure of this project was going to save or lose the company literally tens of millions of pounds and it was amazing to be able to have so much influence so early in my career. Thankfully, the project was a success.

Are there any challenging aspects? If so, what are they?

Many, but probably the two biggest challenges I face are having people work for me who know a lot more than me, and the sheer diversity and breadth of what I work on.

Leading a team of people more technically experienced than myself is difficult. Some of my team have been at the company for longer than I’ve been alive!. As people who have been in my situation know, you have to be very confident and comfortable in yourself to not feel exposed or lacking technical credibility at times. Not expecting unrealistic things of myself is key to overcoming this.

As I get involved in a wide range of projects, dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty is a trait I have had to learn. I’m often required to manage a problem on a component which I’ve never seen before. Sometimes there is a lack of data whereas others there is an overwhelming depth and complexity. Faced with either, I have to make sure I don’t fall into the trap of “analysis paralysis”.

Being a glutton for punishment I actually enjoy all the challenges. Part of the reason why is that I know I’m learning every time I feel uncomfortable or out of my depth, and I know that I’ll be more capable when I come out of the far side.

What skills/qualifications from your degree or other training do you make use of in your job?

Negotiation and persuasion training courses are the most important education I’ve had. It’s not just the big stuff in life, almost every interaction you’ll ever have with someone can be seen as a negotiation in some way; generally, you want them to go away and do or to think something. The formal negotiation training I went on with the Smallpeice Trust has helped me at work to avoid conflict, achieve better deals with suppliers, get more exciting accountabilities assigned to me, receive time extensions to project deadlines, and even to secure pay rises. For the impact it has had, it’s the best investment of a day and a few hundred pounds I’ve ever made.

How have these skills or your course made a difference in your career?

The most valuable skill my degree has given me is a systematic and data-driven mindset for approaching and breaking down problems and tasks, engineering or otherwise. Being able to think creatively and critically in an ordered way has helped me more than anything else.

Second to that is the understanding of the science of materials and the impact manufacturing processes have on them. To build a complex method of manufacture, with potentially dozens of different technologies or processes, a good understanding of desirable process requirements and the limitations of what is physically possible is key.

University experience

Why did you choose to study at Sheffield rather than another institution?

My Head of Sixth was gobsmacked when I didn’t put an unconditional offer from a different red brick university down on my final UCAS choice. Instead I opted for the University of Sheffield which was asking for high A level grades. I turned down a chance to have zero stress for my final A level exams because, having visited the University of Sheffield, I was desperate to live the lifestyle that I’d seen a glimpse of there on an open day.

Many things drew me to the city and the university. For my course Sheffield was near perfect; it was rich in engineering and materials history, it was at the forefront of research and development, but more important to me, it had great links to exciting and growing industries that I wanted to be a part of. The city of Sheffield is right in the middle of the “Goldilocks zone”: it isn’t too big and it isn’t too small; and the city isn’t too far from or close to home (and a free clothes wash and hot meal). Also it’s got a huge student population – almost a tenth of the city – and a great student village where there was a genuine sense of fun, energy and community. Sheffield sits right on the edge of the Peak District and the student village is so well located that it is possible to walk to activities in the countryside or right into the city centre.

Did your time at Sheffield meet your expectations?

Definitely. There was never a boring day in my four years at Sheffield. With so many students around and so much going on in the city, both during the day and at night, it was actually really hard to fit everything in (especially 9am lectures after nights out). University of Sheffield student have access to great sports and recreational facilities, and there are so many societies to try your hand at. Also, the university were good enough to offer you funding to set up a society if you could show there was enough interest in something not currently being offered.

It also met my high expectations on the education and employability front. In my time at the university I was able to secure three summer placements within the department and with affiliated companies. This made me much more employable upon graduation than I would otherwise have been. The high quality lectures and rigorous courses have fostered me with knowledge and skills which have helped me in my career.

What were the best things about studying in the Department?

One great thing about the department was the extremely friendly and approachable staff. It didn’t feel like there was a hierarchy or like I was there to sit and listen in silence. The courses seemed to be designed to be a lot more engaging and interactional. The mandatory industrial placement for six months in the third year of the MEng was hugely valuable for my employability but helped me to have enough evidence and experience to get Chartered Engineer status when aged about 24.

Career information

Please give a brief history since leaving University

I joined Rolls-Royce on the Manufacturing Engineering graduate scheme which lasted for about 18 months. During this time I rotated around the company in a number of positions to build up an appreciation of the extent of the company’s manufacturing activities and procedures. I then moved into a role as a Manufacturing Engineering Purchase (MEP) in the business sector which manufactures shafts and discs for the gas turbines. I worked in this role for just under two years until I moved into my current role as an MEP Team Lead where I’ve now been for six months.

Where do you see yourself in the future?

I don’t have one clear career path defined for the future however I have a general ambition to move into management. My reason for this desire is that the idea of branching out and facing a different sort of challenge appeals more to me than just focussing on my development as an engineer. I want to make sure that I don’t pigeon hole myself by focussing only on developing technical specialism. I would rather have the flexibility of being a “generalist” and keep lots of doors open.

If you could give one piece of advice to current students or recent graduates, what would it be?

Get relevant work experience as soon as you can, and when looking for and considering jobs, don’t worry too much about knowing exactly where you want to go or want to do. If you feel you haven’t found your calling in life, or a subject you want to dedicate yourself to, then know that’s totally normal. Try as many different roles as you can early on in your career and throw yourself at each. It will help you to learn more about what you enjoy and are good at, and help you work out where you want to go. You can’t really make a bad move at the start of your career so be adventurous and explore your opportunities.