Loads of potential: Interview with James White, Caterpillar

Written by: Paul Fanning | Published:

His work with Caterpillar was not the only thing that won James White the Design Engineer of the Year Award, as Paul Fanning discovers.

For James White, the path to the coveted position of the British Engineering Excellence Awards Design Engineer of the Year for 2012 began – as with so many engineers, with an innate desire to see how mechanisms worked. "From an early age I was into taking things apart and building things," he says. "First of all Technical Lego, then Airfix kits and then flying model aeroplanes. It seemed like a natural progression."

White received his award in recognition of his work with Caterpillar at Desford, Leicestershire. He has worked at this location ever since graduating from Loughborough University, first as a contractor and now as a senior design engineer with the company.

During his time with Caterpillar, White has gained a broad range of experience. This has included designing structures, hydraulics and systems for use on the company's excavators, wheel loaders and backhoe loaders. This sort of diversity of experience, he believes, is something that is a major benefit of working for a large, multinational. "It feels like every project I've worked on has been totally different to previous ones, so you end up building up new levels of expertise in different areas. There are always new challenges. As you move into different teams and undertake different projects, your experiences inform everything else you do. So my experience in lines routing, for instance, will alter the way I approach other aspects of design to take that into account."

A recent project saw White lead the development of three loader arm assemblies. The two-year project has for the first time given Caterpillar a family of loader arms with a common design for its backhoe loader products. The project also reduced the number of loader designs from five to three and increased manufacturability and assembly efficiency.

During this project, White directed analysis, performance, electrical and hydraulic development teams through Caterpillar's design process and worked with suppliers to produce the optimum structural design, whilst ensuring this did not constrain cost-efficient, robust machine design. He also hit all long and short term goals over the two-year project. In addition, White is named as the designer of an innovative clamp protected by design rights and has a patent pending for an element of the next-generation loader arm design.

Impressive as his achievements with Caterpillar were, however, there was another element to White's activities that drew particular admiration from the BEEAs judges. He has been a mentor for an Engineering Education Scheme Project developing a tyre test rig. Over the six month project, he provided the team with guidance in planning, technical design, manufacture, report writing and presentation skills. He also supported the team during a three-day residential workshop. In addition, he has so far given five work experience students an insight into engineering and is in the process of creating three engineering experience design projects for future students.

This scheme is one that has particular resonance for White, as it was through an Engineering Education Scheme that he came to study engineering and pursue his subsequent career. He says: "It was ironic that I did an engineering education scheme project myself and then went on to mentor a team of students. I kind of came full circle, really."

He believes that, having undertaken a similar scheme himself made a big difference to his approach to his role as mentor. "Students are generally told things rather than being asked to think about things or develop ideas, so I really wanted to get them to think outside the box," he says.

Other lessons White is keen to impart include attention to detail, but as important, he believes, is a willingness to work with others. "You have to be able to work as a team player, " he says. "You're not just designing a product, you're guiding it and managing it through a process to get it to where your initial idea reaches production. Along the way, you have to harness the skills of your colleagues in many other areas. You don't have to be right all the time. Others have skills and knowledge you need to make use of."

His most fundamental advice for success, however, is to keep designs as simple as possible. He says: "Simplicity will make your design more robust, lighter, lower cost, with fewer parts and easier to assemble. Generally, the best thing is to keep things simple, but it's not as easy as it sounds. It's much harder to design something simple than it is to design something complex."

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