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Nick Cooper FREng - Applying Newton's Laws

Nick Cooper’s portfolio of projects reads like a modern history of engineering, covering a broad range of sectors where mechanical engineers deploy their skills. Nuclear plants, oil rigs, planes and sculptures have all benefited from his design engineering. He talks to Michael Kenward about his passion for applying the basic laws of physics to solve diverse engineering problems.

"All I have ever done in my life is copy other people. It is all plagiarism." The implausibly modest Nick Cooper is talking about his way of working, which is to incorporate elements from a range of engineering disciplines to the seemingly unrelated projects he is assigned.

Cooper is just as at home reconfiguring the signalling and tunnels for trains and trams as he is creating artistic lifts and locks for canals. He has been inside most of the UK’s nuclear power stations and has been asked to sort out coal handling issues, wave power problems and wind turbines. Cooper doesn’t fit into a neat engineering pigeonhole. His brief is wide and the demand for his skills great.

Finding a niche

Cooper’s passion for jumping all over the engineering landscape helps to explain why his career got off to a slow start, unsure as he was whether to be an architect or engineer. Not knowing what he wanted to do in life after graduating in engineering science from Durham University, Cooper took the lead from a university friend and joined the General Electric Company as a graduate trainee. There, he worked on the dynamic control system of a submarine recovery vessel.

He didn’t feel at home at GEC and left after just three months, moving on to something with seemingly little engineering content: writing a bespoke job costing and accounting software package for Skeltonhall Ltd. This small engineering company was run by Mike Bennett, an acquaintance of his father’s. While at the company, Cooper also took part in the design of mining equipment.

He then took a year off with a young medical student friend, Chris Lavy; they cycled to Uganda and worked for a Tearfund hospital there. On his return to the UK in 1984, a couple of years after he graduated, Mike Bennett, who had left Skeltonhall, invited Cooper and Mike Turner to join him as the founders of a new consultancy, M G Bennett and Associates.

A radical approach

The company’s technology had fallen behind the competition, so McInnes asked Bennetts to quote for work on a new caster. McInnes turned down Cooper’s first fixed price offer. "He turned round and said, ‘I want you to think from the beginning to the end. I don’t want a fixed price, I want an hourly rate.’ He wanted us to think as widely as possible about the project."

Cooper enjoys this approach to engineering and the freedom that it brings to think from first principles. The project resulted in a patented hydraulic oscillating mould that was one of the fastest steel casters in its day. The design went from the drawing board straight into production in Korea. For Cooper, the joy was in being able to throw so many areas of engineering into the mix. "We used every bit of technology we’d got," he explains, "dynamic stress analysis, fluid analysis, thermal analysis and the generation of ideas."

The project didn’t just involve most of the tools in the mechanical engineering repertoire: it also fits in with another of Cooper’s pet themes, working from the basic laws of physics. As he puts it: "Newton only had three laws, so break jobs down to those. Don’t overcomplicate things. Look for simplicity." This is Cooper’s answer to a question that people have thrown at him over the years: how can he be in tunnelling one minute and working in steel casting or in wind turbines the next, sometimes even on the same day?

Going back to basics, and being willing to borrow and recognise good ideas, means that an engineer can bring a fresh eye to a challenge. Take the range of valves that Bennetts designed for a client. "Because you are not in the industry, you start thinking from first principles about what are the true requirements? What is it that we are actually trying to achieve? You think slightly differently. By not belonging to a particular sector, you are inevitably initiating innovation. I find innovation comes from first principles combined with an open and trusting culture."

Don’t overspecialise

With much of modern engineering done with computers, someone who claims to be awkward with IT might seem to be at a disadvantage. In reality, much as Cooper plays down his own computing knowledge, he appreciates the need to use the right software tools. At Bennetts, he explains, they always had the latest software. He also believes that today’s engineers should be able to switch between software tools.

Cooper’s advice to the junior engineers he works with is to, "get to know a drawing package, learn some finite element and fluids packages, learn control software." This shouldn’t be asking too much, as he feels that today’s junior engineers are as adept at multitasking as they simultaneously check out Facebook, monitor Twitter, and keep up with their emails without interrupting their work. Cooper believes encouraging enthusiastic youth to have ideas that facilitate innovation is far better than having ‘rules’ and processes that dampen imagination.

Newton’s three laws

This message is a part of Cooper’s advice to young engineers or, more importantly, to the universities that teach them. "It is the fundamental laws of engineering that you need to learn," he tells students. "It’s back to Newton’s three laws, Faraday’s laws, a bit of Hooke’s law and a bit of thermodynamics. This is what you need as a practising design engineer."

He feels universities should forget about producing perfectly-formed graduate engineers who can hit the ground running with a particular expertise, in finite element analysis, for example. "Students learn to become an engineer in the work undertaken in the years after they leave university." It doesn’t help that the education system’s focus is about passing exams, says Cooper. His experience with new graduates when they start work in engineering is that, too often, their approach is, ‘Ask me an exam question and I will answer it’. "Design engineering is about creating the question and answering it. It is about having the vision to know what the right question is to ask, and then to answer it with full marks."

Cooper also thinks that idea generation and innovation are intuitive abilities that cannot be identified by exam questions. He says that often the best ideas come from operators, machinists and draughtsmen and that it is vital to listen, learn and give credit to the full spectrum of engineers from academics to fitters.

An important advantage of concentrating on the building blocks of engineering is that it doesn’t force an engineer into premature specialisation. As Cooper works though his portfolio, he explains how he has taken ideas from one engineering sector and applied them in another, often by throwing out traditional thinking.

Cooper illustrates this by describing his work on the Airbus A380. Bennetts had failed to get an earlier contract, but the engineer in charge, Andy Levers, remembered the company’s pitch and sought its help in designing the creep forming process and equipment for the wings of the A380. The creep forming process used by Airbus starts with an aluminium sheet that is machined down to the required thickness profile. The task then is to take that flat metal sheet and to shape it into the right aerodynamic profile for the wing using creep forming. This involves forcing the metal sheet into the required shape and heating it for 24 hours. "Then you bring it out and it should spring back to the aerodynamic profile," Cooper explains. "If you have got the profile with no residual stress in it, you have got the best starting point for an improved fatigue‑life for the panel."

Traditional thinking would, says Cooper, "take a huge sheet of aluminium, mount it on a steel frame and machine the surface to the desired tool shape." But what do you do if the shape, around 40 metres long and weighing 40 tonnes, isn’t quite right? You can’t hold up production for weeks to machine another shape. And where do you get a machine that could handle the job?

Cooper devised an array of adjustable ‘dagger boards’ that could be arranged to emulate the required shape. "The solution was to manufacture an accurate, very flat base table, then laser cut dagger boards that sit on the table. The dagger boards then make a surface. Then you put a thin stainless steel plate onto the boards. When the plate is sucked down, it forms the surface defined by the dagger boards." You can then put the aluminium sheet on to the steel, heat the assembly and the aluminium will ‘creep’ into the right shape. "So if we then need to adjust the creeped tool shape, we just have to reprofile a few laser-cut dagger boards, which only takes a few days."

Artful borrowing

Clever thinking is easier if you are prepared to borrow, or, as Cooper might put it, "plagiarise", ideas from different areas of engineering. Cooper borrowed from his own thinking on another project that required shaping metal. This time, the call came from George Ballinger at British Waterways. Ballinger, who had already commissioned Cooper to work on the Falkirk Wheel, wanted to create an imaginative entrance to the Forth and Clyde canal.

Cooper worked with the sculptor Andy Scott to design and build two 30 m-tall horses’ heads, the Kelpies. Traditional approaches to individually shaping each structure’s 3,000 or so stainless metal panels would have strained the project’s budget. Cooper devised a construction method that pulled the flat metal plates into the required shapes. This simple solution brought the price down from a possible £5,000 a tonne for shaped steel plates to £1,500 a tonne for profiled flat plate.

The benefits of transferring techniques and approaches from one engineering area to another are so obvious that one wonders why more engineers don’t seem to go down the same road. Cooper has an explanation. "We have lost the heritage of engineering in a lot of what we are doing. Then there is the way that engineering design is going in the UK towards specialisation and ‘catalogue design’. People buy from suppliers and just plug it together. They don’t question the use of the component and ensure that it is the best fit within the overall specific system.

He illustrates this phenomenon with the example of finding bearings for the Falkirk wheel. "I went out to every bearing supplier with the loads, the forces, this drawing," he says, pointing to his portfolio. "They all came back and gave me a 25-year warranty and designs for a bearing. When we analysed it – Bennetts used to take finite element analysis to extremes – right down to the balls of a bearing and the pre-loaded bolts, we noticed this bearing here opens up." Cooper’s team got around this by simply rearranging the bearing support in the finished project.

Cooper also believes that there is a tendency to overmanage projects. This attitude doesn’t encourage individuals to think about what is right but rather to follow a process. He says that: "Engineering design is like art, it flows and applies science like an artist applies paint. Intuitive thinking backed by engineering science must be allowed through the design."

Avoiding hurdles

Forget about process, is Cooper’s message to young engineers: think of your work as a race over hurdles. "Too often we do jobs like overcoming hurdles. Here is a problem, how do we do that? We overcome this one, then we overcome that one. You end up with a dog’s dinner. Innovative design is about saying, ‘I’m not going over those hurdles, I’m going to go around the outside.’ It is about clearly seeing where you are going." To complete the racing analogy, Cooper adds: "The secret to innovation is having a clear vision of the finishing line at the beginning of a task."

Cooper also worries about the insistence on using engineers who are suitably qualified and experienced persons (SQEP). That’s another way of limiting innovative thinking. In some sectors, such as nuclear power, for example, there aren’t many design nuclear SQEPs around to call upon. Cooper has helped design cranes, high‑integrity bridges, and access gantries where the probability of failure is just as significant and he feels that: "Too often SQEP relates to time served in an industry rather than the ability to deliver a quality engineering solution. To evaluate an engineer’s ability to do the job you need to know the whole package, their attributes and abilities as well as their skills."

Then there is the related problem of the focus on risk. While the engineering world worries about micromanaging risk, Cooper thinks that it can lose sight of the bigger picture. He cites an example from the oil and gas industry. He was working with a business that was making huge efforts to manage risks such as banging your head against a beam, falling over a pipe or dropping things from a crane. However, it had not spotted the most significant problem: a valve that was supposed to cut off the flow of gas and isolate the pipeline. "I said at the end of the survey: there is only one fundamental risk here; it is that the isolating plug fails. The rest of these are important but distract from the critical risk."

Cooper doesn’t want the smaller issues ignored, just put into perspective. In this case, the real risk went back to the original designer, now retired: 25 years ago, he had worked on a set of criteria that had passed into conventional wisdom. Later engineers just ‘twiddled the design’ to get new products. By going back to basics, Cooper had spotted a fundamental flaw.

Cooper has now also gone back to basics with his career. After selling MG Bennett to Atkins in 2008, Cooper worked with the company to see through various projects before deciding to reinvent himself. He now acts as something of a ‘flying engineer’ who likes working with medium-sized engineering contractors in the business of delivering projects and hardware.

‘Clydesdale horses

Andy Scott with Clydesdale horses during the topping out ceremony of The Kelpies in Falkirk in November 2013. The sculptor’s work acknowledges the efforts of the working horses which used to pull barges along canals and worked in the fields where the steel horse heads now stand © Michael Gillen

As well as being a freelance consultant, he is working as the technical director of the multidisciplinary contractor C Spencers with Norman Haste FREng. He is advising on access systems for the dehumidification of the suspension cables for bridges using a new type of crawling access gantry. There are also plans to build a global network of rotating buildings, drawing on their engineering experience from bridge, offshore and tunnelling industries. And they are looking at old coal-powered stations, converting them to biomass. The aim is to create a "problem-solving contractor, prepared to tackle bespoke challenges."

Cooper also wants to help other engineering businesses to avoid those hurdles and head straight for the finishing line. His current ambition, he explains, is to help engineering companies and specifically their young engineers: "to enhance, promote and deliver quality engineering solutions. The UK is full of brilliant engineers, we must encourage, enable and allow them to be brilliant and to sing their praises."

With signs in the UK of renewed interest in manufacturing and engineering, Cooper may have made his move at just the right time. He is guardedly optimistic about the country’s newfound interest in engineering, but he feels that the UK doesn’t listen enough to "the doing engineers, those who stay in, and do, engineering and really understand it."

He admits that it may not be easy to persuade politicians, for example, as to where it makes engineering sense to invest in projects. "Sometimes, in government, I think they are slightly hoodwinked by sales patter instead of looking at the reality." How do ‘doing engineers’ get their message across? "Let’s get a few raw Newton’s-first-law facts together and say these are the only routes that are really worth going down."

Career Timeline and Distinctions

Born in Huddersfield, 1960. Graduated from Durham University, 1982. Co-founder of M G Bennett and Associates, 1984. Managing Director of M G Bennett and Associates, 1998. Structural Design Award for the Irvine Bridge, 1999. The Southern Association of ICE award for the Forton Lake Bridge, 2001. Saltaire Society Award and the Structural Steel award for the Falkirk Wheel, 2002. Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining Gold Medal as a team member for the A380 Creep Forming team, 2004. Elected a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, 2006. Presented the Higginson Lecture at Durham University, 2007. Joined Atkins following acquisition of M G Bennett and Associates, 2008. Started J N Cooper & Partners 2012.


Michael Kenward OBE has been a freelance writer since 1990 and is a member of the Ingenia Editorial board. He is Editor-at-Large of Science|Business.

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