Our MD Laura Is In The News
2 July 2020
Laura Bishop of Infinitas Design named in prestigious list to celebrate sustainability on International Women in Engineering Day
Laura Bishop has just been named in the Women’s Engineering Society Top 50 for 2020. Here she explains the journey that has led to the top accolade, in an exclusive interview for H&V News
It was a surprise to win a place in the Top 50 and very humbling. I don’t always consider what I’m doing out in the field as I generally just get on with the job – so it was wonderful when I found out that I had been nominated in the first place. Just to be recognised for what I do in this way is great. I work alongside some other great engineers, both men and women, whom I’d say are also worthy of an award, so when I heard that I had been selected as a winner I was chuffed, to say the least.
A different approach
I set up Infinitas Design in 2014 after taking redundancy from E.ON. I had been engineering manager for the microgeneration team and had gone on to help set up the commercial heat team, offering ESCOs for large heat pumps and biomass boilers on the back of the renewable heat incentive scheme launched in 2011.
That was my first experience of working in this industry, as opposed to the mechanical design industry I had been in up to that point. I’ve always been interested in the environment though – my dad was something of an eco-warrior in the 1980s – and being an engineer gives the perfect opportunity to utilise my skills and experience to further the path we’re on to reducing fossil fuel usage, reducing carbon emissions and improving air quality.
With Infinitas Design, I am free to offer engineering design services to a wide variety of customers without the shackles and bureaucracy that come with working for a large company. Most of my work is in large ground- and water- source heat pumps, which are clean technologies and with decarbonisation of the national grid, can be completely carbon zero.
The customers I work with are local authorities, schools, consultants and private individuals with the aim of getting them away from burning fossil fuels and on to an alternative heating system – and ensuring the solution provided is both cost-effective and will work technically.
A varied career
After graduating in Engineering at University I moved to Derby to join Bombardier Transportation on its graduate training scheme. I worked in the Metros department, which designs vehicles mainly for underground systems, so I was able to work worked on the London Underground train redesign.
That was my first real exposure to 3D modelling, virtual reality and rapid prototyping, which was in its earliest stages back in 2000. Before E.ON I worked for Rolls Royce, on its solid oxide fuel cell programme, and Babcock on its nuclear submarine upgrade – it has been a varied career, but I have always been a design engineer. It just shows how one career choice can open up such a variety of opportunities.
My current role is again very varied. At its core, I am an engineer, but I also have to be a project manager, administrator and business developer. I am also the teamaker! Much of my job is people-facing so I also have to be good at listening and converting people’s ideas and wishes into practical solutions.
On a daily basis, I might be giving initial advice to customers thinking about going down the renewable heat route; carrying out site surveys of plant rooms and buildings with a view to equipment upgrade and replacement; or I might be doing energy modelling and feasibility studies; or designing new systems with 2D schematics and 3D modelling for plant rooms. After six years of doing this job, I have more photos of plant rooms, pumps and control panels on my phone than anything else!
What I would say to anyone considering this as a career is if you enjoy maths and science, this is the career for you. There are so many opportunities and varieties of jobs that mean you could be doing something different nearly every day and there are so many learning opportunities.
The career prospects are excellent as well – the lack of people in the industry means you will be in demand – and there is opportunity to change the way we generate heat (and cooling) in this country.
People used to say to me that being a woman engineer didn’t necessarily mean I had to wear overalls and get dirty, I could just as easily be working in an office. As if that was an enticement to the industry! The reality is that on some days, I am scrabbling around on a plant room floor in overalls and others I’m suited up and visiting clients in nice offices. I enjoy both aspects and regardless of whether you’re a man or a woman, both aspects can be done and enjoyed by anyone.
The biggest challenge I see is the lack of people coming into the industry. Trying to recruit engineers is hard enough. Trying to recruit engineers with any kind of knowledge or ability in the low and zero carbon heat sector is almost impossible. One thing I feel very strongly about is to catch kids when they’re young with information about engineering as a career. There has been lots written and talked about in schools and STEM subjects are now given more emphasis. However, this doesn’t seem to follow through to college courses and university. Or the apprenticeship schemes, particularly if you are not a large business such as Rolls Royce. Having been down the apprenticeship route myself to try to recruit, I was shocked at the lack of basic skills that potential apprentices have such as basic maths, spelling and grammar. I’ve employed a couple of school and uni leavers over the last 6 years and again, I have been somewhat underwhelmed by their academic abilities. This job is not just about being academically good of course, but maths is so important in this role.
My concern is shared by many others in the industry who struggle to recruit. Maybe the much hyped UK green revolution will change this and encourage people to look at building services engineering and ‘green’ technologies as career options.
I love a good initiative! I now sit on the ground source heat pump association council. I have recently set up a series of webinars using people from the heat pump industry with acres of experience to talk about all aspects of the technology – from borehole design, to funding heat pump projects, to the future of the heat pump market in the UK. These are open to anyone to join and hopefully are spreading the word about heat pumps.
I joined the District Heat Divas group a couple of years ago, a catchy name for a group set up to bring together women working in all areas of district heat in the UK to offer support and swap ideas over breakfast and good coffee. We had our first conference last year, which I spoke at, and it was strange to see so many women at a ‘technical’ event. It was open to all, but I think for some women, it was a refreshing change as usually you are one of the only women in the room and that can be intimidating for some.
An exciting industry
I know that building services [ital] can be a very dry subject. As I’ve already mentioned, I’m a mechanical engineer first and foremost who just happens to be working in the building services industry.
I actively tried to avoid building services when I started out and just concentrated on the renewables side, which is the part that gets me out of bed in the morning. However, unless the customer doesn’t want to integrate their new heat pump with an existing wet system, you are going to have to understand pump and pipe sizing, control valves and strainers – it’s unavoidable as most customers do want their heat pump connected to their pipework and emitters!
Two things really interest me about the industry though: firstly, how do we move away from traditional fossil-fuelled systems such as gas and oil on to low and zero carbon heating systems such as heat pumps of all kinds? Secondly, each project is different and it’s like a puzzle: I can refer back to projects for some aspects of how I did it before but each project opens up a new set of problems and things to solve and it’s a continual brain training exercise to fit the right technology with the existing system. I never get tired of that.