Our colleague Andrew Dow recently had the opportunity to interview Paul Sheerin, CEO of Scottish Engineering to find out about what’s happening in the industry, his new role and the career path that took him there.
With so much to talk through, here’s part one of Andrew’s interview with Paul:
Part one: Electrocutions, finding your groove and the benefits of speaking American.
Andrew: Hi Paul, thanks for joining me today, remind me how long is it now since you’ve been in your current role with Scottish Engineering?
Paul: I’ve been in post for nearly a year and a half but my involvement in Scottish Engineering goes back quite a lot longer. I’ve been sitting on the other side of the desk as a member since the early 2000s when I brought Polaroid in as a member and I’ve been involved since then. Peter Hughes, a previous Chief Executive invited me to become a committee member which I had been for 10 years and that really helped deepen my involvement with the organisation.
A: And I know that your career has always been in engineering within manufacturing companies, what led you into this field? Was it something you were always interested in?
P: The truthful answer to that is no.
What I wanted to do since I was at primary school was to be a doctor, a GP. In the end I didn’t take that path, probably because I didn’t put the effort in to get the grades that I needed but falling back to engineering was easy though because I’d had hands on engineering experience from a young age.
There’s a famous story in our house that the first time I electrocuted myself I was 8 years old and had decided to take apart the light switch in my bedroom to find out how it worked…while the power was still on. My parents found me on the other side of the room.
“And that wasn’t the last time I’ve electrocuted myself either!”
A: I’ve got a 9 year old who thankfully hasn’t yet decided to investigate how light switches work but I’ll need to keep an eye on him!
P: Much harder to electrocute yourself these days, that’s thanks to good design! There were no screwdrivers required to get your hand in and play about to see how it worked. Design has really improved to make it less easy to be an idiot and electrocute yourself!
And that wasn’t the last time I’ve electrocuted myself either but that need to see how things work, stripping down your bike, replacing parts and getting it to work, all those kind of things just made it easy when medicine didn’t work out; it was clear that I was going to go to engineering.
A: So how did your engineering career begin and develop?
P: I did an Electrical and Electronics Engineering Degree at Glasgow University and to continue the theme of my failure to get the grades to go into medicine, I wasn’t a good student.
I was easily distracted and did not put an awful lot of work in but what I did do was work out that control systems engineering and software programming was my groove, that was the thing for me.
So after university I joined Nuclear Electric and to begin with worked on the Sizewell B project, specifically the electrical and electronic control systems and software programming and that was a brilliant gig. I was with them for about four and half years, it was a really exciting time, a project of real scale, size and ambition. I was in my early 20s and I got to spend time in the US with the main contractor. That opportunity really opens your mind up and gives you the taste and ambition for more of the same.
“I kid you not; they were looking for an Electrical Controls Engineer who could ‘speak American'”.
A: How long did you work out in the US?
P: My wife and I ended up moving out to Michigan for a couple of years and I worked in control systems before coming back to Scotland in the mid-90s…unemployed.
It wasn’t a full recession at that time but it wasn’t great either, my CV wasn’t flying off the shelf so there were a few months of checking the Glasgow Herald every Friday, making hundreds of applications, picking out companies and writing to their HR department to say I’m available before I landed an interview with Polaroid.
I kid you not; they were looking for an Electrical Controls Engineer who could “speak American”.
The project was based in Nashville so knowledge of the different electrical codes they use in America was going to be useful. I thought I’d be there for a couple of years and move on but it wasn’t to be because Polaroid was just so great. It was one of those organisations that was very merit based, so if you worked hard and had results you could work your way up through the organisation pretty quickly and that was definitely the case for me.
I joined as an Electrical Controls Engineer in 96 and I had a Manufacturing Director role by the year 2000 and I was MD by 2005 so role after role after role, different work, different places around the world; it was fantastic.
It was a real privilege to be there and a real privilege to work with the people I worked with there. It did take me a bit away from engineering, although design and engineering was still at the heart of Polaroid products, the role itself was a real eye opener into the wider world of business, how you not only engineer and manufacture good products but then sell and market them.
Progressing into a broader business role is typical for a lot of engineers in their career but you can never get away from being an engineer; no matter how you look at things you can always say, “you can do a spreadsheet for that!”
“What has changed however is the connectivity and the ability to then turn that data into hard business sense.”
A: Your roles changed significantly but it seems your interest in engineering never changed, what do you think have been the biggest changes you’ve seen in Engineering and Manufacturing?
P: That’s a tricky one because it would be obvious to reach for Industry 4.0, Internet of Things, but the truth is whilst connectivity is enabling that more now, back when I joined Polaroid we had rows of Sony automated robots making cameras and that was the only way we could manufacture our products AND be competitive.
The central data collection systems allowed us to look at our productivity, our yields and our run rates. This was the same way Polaroid made sunglass lenses and the same way we made film; all of these were connected into ERP systems so in that respect there’s not that much that has changed.
What has changed however is the connectivity and the ability to then turn that data into hard business sense. It was difficult in those days to understand how that data connected with what customers actually wanted. Take sunglasses, because of the lag times you’d look at where the trends were, the colours, textures etc and design a collection, then you’d have to take an educated guess that people were going to buy it. Today, using connectivity, you can do tests in the market, you can look at where the trends are much more quickly. So the ability to follow much leaner processes, to not just be buying a bunch of inventory on the hope that someone will buy it; that’s a game changer.
A: You’re talking about Polaroid having Sony robots online there in the mid/late-nineties; Polaroid must have been right up there with the high-tech companies?
P: I think we were and it’s interesting because I was quite surprised, there were quite an elite group of companies in the US that were like a club that was really into best practice sharing. You didn’t have to look too far to see some really good examples of how to turn automation into efficiency and not just the moving parts but the data as well and how reporting and systems can do that. So yes it was a really good time to be around and Scotland really still benefits from that legacy.
Keep an eye out for part two of our interview with Paul Sheerin; learn who his engineering hero is, hear his advice for those starting out in their career and find out more about the changes Scottish Engineering manufacturers are experiencing.
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