In these past few months, I’ve noticed the differences and similarities between working in industry and academia, namely in the form of priorities, organisational structure, and financial pressures, which reflect the different natures of these two fields.
Before I joined British Steel, I studied at Imperial College London and had the opportunity to work on two research projects: the development of a new 3rd generation advanced high-strength steel alloy, and the development of a new growth method for MASER crystals (similar to lasers, except for microwaves instead of light).
Once at British Steel, I started my career in Rail Technologies, which focuses on monitoring and improving the quality of rail products, working with our Hayange team in France, rail inspection in Scunthorpe and R&D in Rotherham to meet and hopefully exceed customer expectations.
In terms of priorities, British Steel aims to sustain and improve current production standards; with a wide range of standard and bespoke rail grades and products with specific properties, our main task is to ensure that the product we send to the customer meets required specifications. In the background, we also work on developing new rail grades with superior or different properties, depending on customer needs.
In contrast, academia has a greater focus on fundamental research, where ideas can take a long time to reach implementation. Some research is done in partnership with industry, and in these cases there tends to be a clearer route from research to prototype to desired final product.
As for structure, there’s a much greater need to work with others in industry compared with university. In academia, it is quite possible to focus mainly on your project once the research funding has been granted, at least in regards to meeting the objectives of the research proposal. At British Steel there is a much greater need to cooperate with other team members and people across site to accomplish your work. For example, the production of rail sections from blooms is carried out over SRSM areas 1, 2 and 3 as well as Hayange.
As a result, developments in production can require the help of any or indeed all of these departments, from technical staff to engineers, with collaboration and creative thinking allowing more opportunities for innovation. It is almost impossible to work alone and succeed, there are too many stakeholders.
Finally, I'll compare the everyday financial pressures. At university level, research grants from government or industry cover the whole cost of the work, and so once the project has been given the green light there is little financial pressure, although there are very strong expectations to obtain positive results at the end of the research period.
At British Steel, there is a much larger focus on day-to-day costs and how to reduce them whilst maintaining the same if not better level of product quality. When developing new products to address specific needs, financial cost can stimulate some creative solutions, as we need to constantly keep up with global developments in steelmaking and technology.
All in all, my first impressions of industry have been quite good. Though the style of work is quite different from academia, the people at British Steel are very helpful, know their work really well, and there is the opportunity to work on very interesting projects if you have the will to do so. Now I've completed my first placement in rail, I'm off to see the beginning of our business taking on my next placement in Ironmaking.