Engineering the finishing process
A holiday job at an electroplating company got Ian McDonald hooked on the technology, and he is now general manager at Robert Stuart, which applies the science to components for civil aircraft and engine manufacture
McDonald: compares his job to conducting an orchestra
Tell us a bit about Robert Stuart
Robert Stuart is a family-owned business formed in London in 1945. I manage a business that primarily treats components for civil aircraft and engine manufacture. My focus is split between directing 90 staff, liaising with clients and developing the company's longer-term strategic planning. In many ways, it is like conducting an orchestra - I have a team of exemplary staff and I just have to listen to the team's advice, keep them in tune and formulate where we are going.
Where did you work before joining Robert Stuart?
I have always been fascinated by flight because of a love of science fiction and my first sight of a Douglas DC-3 at Coventry airport as a child. My father was an engineer and I had a burning ambition to be a mechanical engineer but took a holiday job at an electroplating company and was hooked. I studied materials finishing technology at South Bank University in London. As my career progressed I relocated to the USA and worked for a domestic supplier, but after three years I returned to London and set up a fledgling company developing bespoke technology for use in my preferred industry, aerospace. We developed our own systems, eventually patenting processes for treating gas-turbine blades with a chemical plating system depositing a cobalt-composite matrix. I returned to mainstream process treatment systems running the process treatment operation for a division of Lufthansa Technik. A move to another smaller treatment company allowed me to progress to managing director.
When the opening to work with Robert Stuart was offered it was an opportunity you don't turn down. Robert Stuart was the first company I visited as a fledgling technical chemist 30 years ago.
Why is metal finishing so important in the industry?
Every component on a flight-capable vehicle, be it aeroplane or satellite, has some form of process treatment - chemical process, physical non-destructive testing (NDT) or painting. Our services include a significant range of electroplated treatments applying metallic coatings for corrosion and wear resistance, various anodising treatments for aluminium and titanium, dry film lubrication systems, and chromate or phosphate treatments. We apply more than 100 different wet paints and have graduated to the newer generations of water-borne coatings. Our NDT will verify if a component has hidden defects that pose a risk to its operational life. The technology we operate was a relatively new science when the Wright Brothers first flew and has been developing to support the needs of heavier-than-air flight ever since. We are generally the last procedure in a component's progression to being flight capable, so our customers often look for their work to be returned yesterday, not just in time. However, our industry is becoming recognised as critical to flight engineering and airframe manufacture, which in the longer term will benefit us all.
How would someone interested in a career in your highly specialised area go about it?
Process engineering is growing in complexity and diversity. If you are going to work in this field you need to have a significant commitment to aerospace engineering and materials science. Our next generation of professional engineers are going to have a degree background in aeronautical engineering or materials science. You need to be stimulated by aircraft and the process of manufacturing and maintaining them.
What are the best and worst parts of your day?
The best part is when it all works. We orchestrate a host of inter-related complex technologies and it is satisfying to operate a living company. The worst part is having to complete the paper trail of statutory legislation that allows us to run a business in our constrained world, but it does make us better in the longer term.