Spotlight: David Williams, Engineering Consultant/Timber Grower

Tell us a fun fact about yourself

I was born in India, and once upon a time played in a rock band. I have a Ph.D in Astrophysics just like Brian May the guitarist of Queen, but alas we weren’t as successful as them!

Tell us about your career journey so far

I spent a few months in a steelworks before starting at Cambridge University, moving on to Manchester for my M.Sc. and Ph.D. I tried schoolteaching, then postdoctoral research at Glasgow University, eventually settling into maritime and offshore engineering. The sea is fascinating, albeit hostile, and building for that environment is a great challenge. I liked design work best and still do, though only part-time nowadays.

20 years ago forestry was totally out of fashion, but I reckoned renewable resources had to make a comeback. I used my savings to invest in several woodlands at very low prices. These now take up a lot of my time because they’ve become a serious business, with sustainable timber yield around 4000 tonnes per annum.

What was your favourite subject in school and why?

In my early teens I favoured Latin and English, oddly enough. But then I realised I had to concentrate on Science & Maths if I wanted to do interesting stuff in life. My headmaster pushed me towards Maths as well, and I’m grateful for that: I found computing, trigonometry & calculus difficult, but they’re essential in my work.

What subjects/qualifications are useful in your role?

Engineering all comes down to Applied Maths, Physics, Chemistry, practical experience and common sense. Good command of English also helps – it doesn’t matter how brilliant your engineering design is, if you can’t convince the client it will work.

Forestry adds biology, ecology and suchlike, but modern timber-growing also needs engineering and a clear understanding of economics and markets. Rather like growing wheat or barley.

What is your favourite thing about your job?

The best thing about engineering design is seeing things completed and in service. Though for equipment going on the seabed at 1200m water depth, you have to be content with just seeing it loaded out!

The best thing about forestry is surveying out on site in good weather (but no midges), with the trees growing well and birds flying around happily. It’s also satisfying watching your logs loaded up for transport to the sawmill, where they’ll be processed for housebuilding, fencing etc: though the ugly stumps left behind are reminders of the job of restocking that awaits.

What is a normal day in your role like?

When working on a big engineering project, I sometimes spent months on structural or piping analysis, gazing at the computer display screen all day. But then there’d be trips to fabricators to sort out manufacturing problems; trial lifts; loadouts and seafastening on the installation vessel. There’d be design reviews and HIRAs (Hazard Identification & Risk Assessment), site surveys, pressure tests, function tests. I’ve recently been doing some coding for an R&D job. So there isn’t really a “normal day”.

That’s also true in forestry, but there my key role is business planning – what needs doing, how much to spend on it, when to market the timber. Fortunately it doesn’t take up too much time, but nonetheless staring at spreadsheets is my most important task.

Suggest an activity that could be done at home that illustrates an aspect of your work?

Plastics (or polymers to be more precise) have a density quite similar to that of water, and it’s often important to know whether they’ll float or not. For example, Dyneema mooring ropes ( will float, whereas polyester & Kevlar ( will sink, which matters when using them at sea.

Try some plastic household articles in your kitchen sink. Polythene will float even in fresh water, but nylon will sink. You can simulate seawater by mixing 40 grams of salt into a litre of tapwater, and nylon should still sink. However, more expensive plastics like nylon are often combined with cheaper plastics, so a toothbrush may float despite the bristles being made from nylon.

In forestry, it’s critical to know the height of our trees. Why not try measuring the height of a tree in your garden or a local park. Up to 3 metres, it’s easy with a tape measure. Above that? Well, pages 9 and 10 of show how to estimate height of an isolated tree where you can stand well back. But as trees get taller and more tightly-packed, you’ll find it impossible to get a reasonable estimate by simple methods, and will understand why we need high-tech equipment.

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