What is it like being an aerospace engineer?

The world of engineering is a diverse one. In many cases, it is a male-dominated profession, but this need not be the case. To learn more about aviation engineering, we spoke to Ying Wan Loh, a space buff who works at Rolls-Royce in aerospace manufacturing. She recently won the Young Woman Engineer of the Year Award, presented by the Institution of Engineering and Technology in the United Kingdom. She shares her experience becoming an aerospace engineer and also provides tips for other women aspiring to become engineers themselves. 

What sort of aviation engineering projects are you working on?

As a manufacturing engineer in aerospace, I have worked on quite a few interesting projects. One of the most exciting projects had to do with hybrid-electric aircraft propulsion. I researched that for four months during my graduate scheme. As the world looks for ways to be more sustainable in the future, hybrid-electric aircrafts could revolutionize air travel. During that time, I researched key enabling technologies such as batteries with high energy densities and superconducting materials for electric networks. In recent years, it is great to see more focus on hybrid-electric propulsion and the progress we have made. For instance, the ACCEL project at Rolls-Royce aims to break the speed record for electric planes in the coming months.

Apart from that, many of my other projects focus on continuous improvements in our factories and supply chain. I use Lean Six Sigma tools to improve current practices and reduce waste in the process.

How do these aviation engineering projects relate to your interest in space?

I have always had a passion for space. During my undergraduate studies, I worked on an ultrasonic drill for space exploration. An ultrasonic drill replaces a conventional rotary drill with a percussive drill driven by piezoelectric materials. It was very exciting. I was in the same lab as many other people working on various space projects – from cubesats to space debris removal. Also, during that time there was a lot of talk about space drilling. People were interested in mining asteroids for minerals and drilling into planetary surfaces to use materials to 3D-print structures in space. I completed my project and the work was publishedin an AIAA journal with my supervisor and other team members. 

Projects like this helped me secure a job with Rolls-Royce, where I now work in the civil aerospace division. Here, I gained a deeper understanding of how aerospace parts are manufactured and how tight engineering requirements often push the boundaries of science and technology.

As an IET Young Woman Engineer Award winner, do you have any advice for aspiring women engineers?

Currently, women make up around 12% of the engineering workforce. However, we have reasons to be hopeful that this will change. During this year’s International Women In Engineering Day (#INWED20), organizations and individuals around the world came together to showcase female engineers in different industries. I have seen female engineers working on everything from fighter jets to vaccine manufacturing. Engineering is a rewarding career that can have true impact on society.

My advice for aspiring women engineers is to stay curious and continue to explore engineering. Engineering is an extremely diverse field and there is something for everyone. Take time to learn and reach out to people in different fields. Most people I know in engineering are very supportive and happy to answer questions about the profession! In my experience, I have had times when I struggle with self-confidence in the male-dominated profession. I never gave up, though, and I have found a great support network of men and women, some of whom I have never met in person. They have happily answered my questions and given me advice, a total stranger. One other thing: find your passion and align it with your career aspirations. I know of many successful female engineers who worked in the toy industry, femtech, and even on the conservation of an old steamship!