Spotlight on TEC Women: Nancy Ashburn, head of engineering

Engineering affects all of our lives. Anything that’s designed, built, manufactured, or distributed will involve engineers working together to tackle problems and come up with solutions.


We spoke to Nancy Ashburn, head of design and engineering at Watson-Marlow Fluid Technology Group in Falmouth, to find out what makes engineering such an exciting area to work in.


Portrait of Nancy Ashburn, head of design and engineering at Watson-Marlow Fluid Technology Group

Nancy, tell us what Watson-Marlow does and why it’s important.


We’re a big multinational engineering company that’s owned by a bigger FTSE 100 company, Spirax-Sarco Engineering. We have circa 1,500 people around the world, and over 350 of them are here in Falmouth.


We make fluid path components: pumps, tubing, clamps, everything associated with moving fluid from one point to another.


We’re behind lots of things you see in your daily life. For example, we meter the chemicals that keep water clean for South West Water. Our pumps have been used to dispense the fruit part of fruit corner yoghurts.


Excitingly, our pumps are being used right now by labs and biopharmaceutical companies working on a COVID-19 vaccine.


"Our pumps are being used right now by labs and biopharmaceutical companies working on a COVID-19 vaccine."

What kind of roles are involved in the work that Watson-Marlow does?


We have a huge range of roles. Obviously we have lots of engineering roles. But there are also all the jobs that are associated with creating, manufacturing, marketing and selling the products.


It means there’s lots of opportunity to move around the company and work on different things.


What does your role as head of design and engineering involve?


I lead a team of around 35 people, overseeing everything around new product development. That involves looking at the products that are out there in the marketplace and making sure we constantly produce new innovative products.


Then there’s everything associated with engineering: designing, lots of testing and lots of lab work.


It's very multi-disciplined with mechanical designers, electronics designers, software engineers, material scientists, test engineers, and production engineers. There are never enough engineers and we always need more!


"There are never enough engineers and we always need more!"

Our team also supports the products after launch. That might mean changing the design to suit different customers, or changing older products because the components inside them are no longer available.


Can you describe a typical day?


At the heart of every day is thinking about and looking after the people that work for us. There are no typical days, everyone is very different. That's part of what makes it challenging, but also lots of fun.


Some days I'm looking ahead at the products we're going to need in the next 1-5 years. Where is technology going? What are the big themes in the marketplace?


A really big theme at the moment is sustainability, so for example we're looking at how we can make products that use less energy, using parts with a low carbon footprint, ensuring we're working positively for the environment.


Other days are spent making sure that the products we're developing are on track, or making sure that we're supporting the products that are out in the field to keep our customers happy and successful.


What do you love most about your job?


I love the idea of taking something from a concept to a product and watching it go out to customers to do great things in the world.


We've launched products recently that have been used directly in the COVID-19 fight. When I see TV interviews with people involved in vaccine research, and in the background there’s one of our pumps, that's really inspirational for me.


When I see TV interviews with people involved in vaccine research, and in the background there’s one of our pumps, that's really inspirational for me.

What path did you take from school to where you are now?


I always loved the sciences at school. I like the natural world and because we lived near the sea, marine biology sounded quite nice.


So I planned to study marine biology at university, but in my gap year I got a job working for Watson-Marlow. They were just bringing in Computer Aided Design and I thought it was really interesting. That was 30 years ago and I've never left!


I've always liked how things work, and my love of engineering has only grown. I started off in Computer Aided Design, then I moved into project management. My love of engineering really kicked off when I used to walk into our electronics labs and see engineers turning motors and lighting things up.


That led me to take a degree in electronics, and then I got really interested in the manufacturing side and took a master's degree in manufacturing engineering. Then I got interested in materials and I did a PhD in the materials side of things, and then I became head of electronics research and development.


Not many girls think about engineering, and very few girls study it at GCSE or A level. What would you say to girls thinking about engineering as a career?


Don't get stuck on the idea that it’s only about maths or engineering subjects.


At the heart of it, engineers are people who are curious about how things work, and there are roles for all kinds of people. If you love maths and you're really analytical, we can cater for that. If you're creative, we can cater for that.


Engineering has roles for all kinds of people. If you love maths and you're really analytical, we can cater for that. If you're creative, we can cater for that.

A lot of careers can be short-lived these days, but in engineering they don't have to be. You can move around different roles, and in the larger companies, you also have the opportunity to travel and live and work in other countries.


What would you say to parents who might think engineering is for boys?


Don't have any preconceived ideas. Post-COVID, some careers are going to be potentially in short supply. There are huge opportunities in engineering and a lot of stability with a fantastic career path.


Those opportunities are open to all, so please encourage and support your daughters to take advantages of the opportunities in engineering.


Where can girls and parents find information about careers in engineering?


Most engineering companies, including Watson-Marlow, have a careers page and many will have a young careers page.


Getting work experience in an engineering firm is a really good idea. You can get a feel for what engineering involves and see whether you like the culture. And look out for apprenticeships, because you'll find they will grow.


Any final words of encouragement?


Think about the products of the future. You can be part of making of them happen. For example if you're driven by what's happening to the climate, you can be part of the change to help make things better. You can design products that can make a difference. Be part of that change: get into engineering!