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Sarah Hughes: Powertrains

Research conducted by Sarah Hughes has helped a leading company to save around £500,000 a year.

Sarah spent most of her four years on the EngD based at her sponsoring company, Jaguar Land Rover, in Gaydon, Warwickshire. Her project 'A Customer Focused Methodology for Computer-Aided Engineering of Automotive Power-Train Systems' had two aims: to reduce the cost of product development by moving away from the use of prototypes to more computer-based testing, and to improve the quality of vehicle systems based on what the customer wanted, particularly in terms of durability.

Sarah took the results of surveys carried out by market researchers and used statistical techniques, simulation and dynamic modelling to turn customer requirements into an engineering specification. The company was then able to advise suppliers – of gearboxes for instance – what was needed depending on factors such as mileage and environment. While her early work looked at off-road vehicles, eventually most of the research was conducted on Jaguar’s S-type and XK models.

Sarah says: “There was a tendency to do testing in the way it had always been done but I was trying to re-establish the link with the customer. Some farmers will drive off-road every day, which takes a major toll on the transmission, but other people will just do the school run.

“By reducing the number of prototype vehicles there was a major outcome on the cost-reduction side and my estimate is that something like £500,000 a year was saved to the company as a result of my work.”

Sarah, from Portsmouth, had little industrial experience behind her, having completed a four-year MSc in Physics at Imperial College. She had a short spell working at Oxford Applied Research but decided to take the EngD route after she was made redundant.

During the the EngD she completed a higher-than-average 16 modules at the campus. “My first degree was very technical with minimal exposure to management training so it was extremely valuable to do modules in areas like change management and innovation strategy with people from different companies.

“The modules helped me to understand the culture of the company and the way in which different people might behave. A lot of people didn’t really understand the EngD or what I was trying to do for them, so I learned about how to work together.”

Sarah is now working for PA Consulting Group in London, in the Decision Sciences Practice, a division which uses modelling techniques to find business solutions for clients from industry and government.

“The experience of the EngD continues to be massively useful because I learned how to be very self-supporting and guide my own research in the context of real business problems.

“When I talk to a client now, they themselves often don’t know what they are trying to achieve. I can use my experience in research to guide them to a structured definition of their problem and their needs. This helps me to ensure that I can deliver the best possible solution for the client."

Sarah Hughes