Instrumental in their success

Demand for scientific instruments is thriving in sectors ranging from medicine to forensics. Julia Pierce reports on opportunities in the sector.

Thanks to soaring demand from the world’s top scientific institutions, government agencies, research laboratories and local hospitals, the market for scientific instruments is thriving.

The past decade has also seen the building of large-scale research tools such as CERN’s Large Hadron Collider and the forthcoming ITER fusion energy research plant.

Each of these innovations has required precision modules and components that British companies have designed and built, using cohorts of highly skilled engineers.

Last summer, Tesla Engineering completed a four-year order for 3,000 cryogenic magnets that have now been installed in the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. The company has a relationship with the centre that stretches back 30 years. Tesla has also designed a working model of a coil for experimental fusion reactor ITER (Latin for ‘the way’), and hopes to advise on the project.

The company is expanding, and is recruiting project and business line managers. It also recently took on a production manager.

‘We are working to improve the basic skills set in the engineering unit,’ explained Steve Bates, operations director at Tesla. ‘We are currently taking the opportunity to diversify our business to strengthen it.’

Though scientific bodies such as CERN and, more recently, the Max Planck Institute in Germany, can generate large, long-term contracts, the work is not always consistent. Tesla has therefore recently bought a maker of ultra-high vacuum components.

‘Every magnet we sell has a vacuum system with it, so it was a natural move,’ said Bates. ‘We are now looking for someone to head up this division, as well as a high-level engineer with experience of heat exchanger systems.’

Bates said the main attraction of the scientific instrument sector is its rapid growth. ‘Fifteen years ago, we started making a few coils for a company in Wembley. Then everyone started demanding MRI systems and it is now a multi-million-pound business.

‘We are looking for people who can grow with us. Although we have a relatively young management team, there are a few retirements coming up so there will be plenty of opportunities for advancement.’

The good news for those thinking of entering the industry is that despite the scale of past successes, it is still expanding rapidly, even though technological evolution has had some effect on the type of skills that manufacturers require.

Bespak, a maker of devices for inhaled drug delivery and anesthesia, is recruiting engineers in several disciplines, particularly design, development, industrialisation and quality.

‘Historically, Bespak has recruited predominately mechanically-biased engineers to support their core competence of injection moulding and assembly,’ said HR business partner Emma Harrison.

‘But with developments in technology, an increasing emphasis is expected on ancillary technologies such as printing. Therefore the future resourcing strategy will be focused on seeking to provide a more balanced range of disciplines including mechanical, electrical and process-biased engineers.’

Forensic, police and intelligence services are also large users of scientific analysis tools. ‘We are recruiting design engineers for mechanical components with skills such as CAD, 3D CAD and SolidWorks,’ said

Andrew Worsfold, senior mechanical design engineer at Foster and Freeman, which designs forensic and document analysis tools. International agencies use these to detect forged documents such as passports and driving licences.

‘Since 9/11, the market has been growing strongly. We need people who can work with the latest technologies. But we often struggle to find solid practical engineers.

‘A lot of people have theoretical knowledge but can’t design, make, assemble and test something. We need applicants with all-round knowledge.’

Tesla’s Bates agreed that a range of skills is vital for anyone trying to build a career in the industry. He said most employees take on a number of jobs, such as engineering and sales, something that makes their career more interesting. ‘There is a lot of diversity – that’s why I have stayed here for 20 years,’ he said. ‘It is also easy to see when your work has made a difference to the business. It quickly feeds into action.’

The company is in the fortunate position of benefiting from ongoing spending increases in the medical sector, particularly as the parts it builds for MRI scanners are those that are constantly being updated. But the combination of working on research and general-use products means those who are willing to learn will have exposure to a range of skills.

‘The work for bodies such as ITER is at the cutting edge,’ said Bates. ‘We also have a lot of technologies and disciplines on the go. There is a lot of engineering knowledge in the business, which attracts other engineers.’

Oxford Instruments is looking for candidates who have a combination of scientific and engineering knowledge, as well as commercial skills. Again, the recruitment team emphasises the need to have a range of abilities. ‘We need high-calibre people who match our organisation’s personality and values – exceptional people who find Oxford Instruments gives them the opportunity to turn innovation into reality,’ said Viki Matthews, a human resources director at the company. She said there are opportunities for those able to offer both interpersonal skills and in-depth knowledge.

‘A lot of our customers want to know the science behind the products. We therefore need people with a blend of skills,’ she said.

‘Our commercially-focused scientists get a real buzz out of being able to apply their scientific skills to solve the customer’s problem – according to one of our scientists, “The bigger the problem, the bigger the buzz”.’ Matthews said the scientific instrument industry is an exciting place to work because of the breadth of its subject matter. ‘In this industry, it is easier to get noticed. People working for us are very well looked after – we offer the joy of applying your expertise in order to create actual products that solve real problems to make a difference to people’s lives,’ she said.

The number of companies in the scientific instrument industry that have manufacturing centres outside major cities is larger than average. Bespak, for example, has sites in Norfolk and Buckinghamshire. But this has its advantages.

‘We have found that people appreciate the quality of life offered in north Norfolk,’ Harrison said. ‘The company offers a generous relocation package to attract the right individuals.’

It seems there are plenty of opportunities for those who want to explore scientific knowledge and apply this to creating a product. Working in a team of like-minded people from different backgrounds and with complementary skills makes it easier to be creative.

‘Being part of the development of an entire system or instrument means that you can get involved beyond the boundaries of your own expertise,’ Oxford Instruments’ Matthews added. ‘According to our engineers, that’s a great feeling. It’s a growing, developing industry and the business of science is an inspiring place to be.’