Top 100 interview: Rowena Innocent, Spectris

Posted on 22 Mar 2022 by The Manufacturer

Rowena InnocentThe Manufacturer Top 100 2021 alumni Rowena Innocent is currently spearheading the Spectris STEM strategy having led research and product development teams in high tech manufacturing businesses for over 25 years. She is passionate about building collaborative innovation teams by creating a safe environment to explore and break boundaries. Innocent’s interest in diversity and inspiring future scientists and engineers began at school and has been close to her heart throughout her career. She is proud and honoured to be a Trustee of NMITE (a new higher education engineering institute), a fellow of the Institute of Physics and a STEM ambassador. Innocent’s also excited to be supporting the launch of the Spectris Foundation, whose mission is championing equal opportunity for those  with a passion for technology and the desire to engineer a better world.

What is your role at Spectris?

My role was created in March 2021, and I have two quite different but related focus areas. The first is to set up and manage the Spectris Foundation, a registered charity championing equal opportunity in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) education. The other part of my role is to support the businesses within the Spectris Group to define and execute a strategy to attract and retain STEM talent, a key driver of growth and future sustainability.

What does it mean to you to be part of the Top 100?

From a personal perspective it’s lovely to be recognised for my contribution to manufacturing having worked in the industry for nearly 30 years. The relationship between research, product development and manufacturing is fundamental to problem solving and innovation, therefore I was delighted that the awards celebrate all contributors to successful manufacturing. However, more importantly, the Top100 showcases role models in the industry, and I hope that I can inspire more women to consider a career in manufacturing.

What do you think are the key attributes which led to you being nominated?

I believe that diversity of thought is key to success and, as such, I work hard to continually expand my network and learn from the people I meet. This has raised my profile externally and I’ve really enjoyed and benefitted from building relationships across industry, academia and the charity sector. My current role aligns well with the Top100 pledge particularly ‘close the skills gap’ and ‘recruit the right talent’. I think these aspects combined with my leadership experience in manufacturing organisations contributed to my nomination.

What do you find most inspiring about working in manufacturing and when did you realise this is the career for you?

I studied physics with astrophysics at the University of Leicester. During the summer holidays of my second year, I applied for a student placement at Druck Ltd, a pressure sensor and instrument manufacturer. This was the lightbulb moment for me, seeing how the physics I was learning at university could be applied to real world problems. I loved the sense of achievement of designing something new, bringing it to life through the manufacturing process and delivering it to a customer. After university I joined Druck Ltd as a development scientist and stayed with the company for nearly 20 years.

Who or what has been the biggest influences on your career in manufacturing?

I’ve worked with many inspiring people over the years, but Mike Bertioli, one of the Co-founders of Druck was a role model who I always admired. He was a very talented engineer but also humble and caring. He always showed an interest in what anyone was doing no matter what your seniority, and he would often take the time to visit me in the lab to see what I was up to.

What’s the biggest challenge you have faced in your career so far and how have you overcome it?

Diversity in engineering has always been and sadly remains really poor. According to the Women’s Engineering Society (WES), in the UK, only 12% of engineers are women. That means that I have often been the only woman in the room, and I’ve become very used to sitting at a conference or internal meeting surrounded by men.

I strongly believe that diversity of thought is a huge differentiator for problem solving and is increasingly important when solving todays challenges, particularly in relation to the sustainability development goals. So, not only will it be a more inclusive industry if we had more diversity in engineering and manufacturing, we would create better solutions for a healthier planet. I have a lifelong passion for encouraging young people to enjoy STEM subjects and consider careers in STEM related industries.

This started with volunteering when I was at school, when I got involved in various STEM outreach projects in my early career. As the size of my team grew, I set up student programmes and became a STEM ambassador. In 2019 I joined NMITE (New Model Institute for Technology and Engineering) as a trustee. NMITE is a disruptive higher education institute offering students the chance to gain an accelerated MEng degree in three years and has specifically removed maths and physics A level as entry requirements to broaden accessibility to studying engineering.

In my role as Group Head of STEM strategy I have helped to set up the Spectris Foundation whose purpose is to remove barriers to STEM education. By supporting these initiatives I hope that the next generation of women in STEM roles can enjoy a more balanced and diverse working environment that better appreciates the value that ‘different’ can bring.

What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in manufacturing during your career?

The digital revolution has been the biggest change. When I started work in 1993, we still had a drawing office with everything on film and testing in the factory was largely manual – taking readings and typing them onto calibration certificates. I remember learning to programme and developed some limited automation solutions for the products I was working on. Today, software and digital solutions are rapidly replacing hardware in design and manufacturing. The use of IoT and AI are redefining the industry – it’s an exciting time to be an engineer.

What are the biggest challenges that are facing manufacturing as a whole and how are you and your company seeking to address this?

The perfect storm created by the pandemic is a real challenge. On one hand, supply chains have really struggled to keep parts for manufacturers flowing, especially electronic components. On the other hand, the shift to remote and digital solutions, along with the increased need for vaccines and medical solutions has really ramped up demand.

One of the most positive outcomes of the pandemic is the realisation that flexibility of working location and times does not necessarily result in loss of productivity. At Spectris we have also prioritised the health and safety of our employees, ensuring that our teams in the factories that have to be on-site to build product have felt as confident, safe and supported as possible.

Can manufacturing learn anything from any other sectors?

The health and education sectors are both in the top five when it comes to diversity. It’s possible there are opportunities to learn about creating a diverse culture, recruitment practices and making manufacturing a more attractive career option from these industries. This needs to be combined with more outreach to schools to provide role models and give students the confidence that they could succeed in a manufacturing career.

What sort of growth/change has your company implemented/gone through over the last 12/18 months and how has this been managed?

We saw a recovery in all markets during 2021 and, in particular, we’ve seen increased demand from the pharmaceutical industry. In July 2020 we communicated our net zero commitment which includes reducing absolute Scope 1 and 2 emissions by 85% by 2030 from 2020, and achieving net zero by 2030: and reducing absolute Scope 3 emissions by 42% by 2030 from 2020, and achieving net zero by 2040.

What do you think will be the long-term legacy of this current period of unprecedented change with the manufacturing sector?

I believe that the pandemic has accelerated digital manufacturing over a tipping point. Whereas before 2020, adoption of automation and digitally augmented manufacturing was really only being embraced by a few thought leaders, going forward it will be necessary for survival, providing increased productivity and resilience against future disruption.

What advice would you have for any younger people who are considering a career in manufacturing?

Give it a try, do some work experience – there are some great online work experience providers now that means you can learn about multiple industries remotely. There are a lot of different types of manufacturing and a vast array of roles – although this can be a bit daunting to understand, it does mean that there is something to suit everyone, so don’t worry that you don’t fit the manufacturing stereotype, in fact that’s exactly why you will bring new ideas and add value.