From taking apart remote-control cars to becoming a nationally recognised engineer, Professor Darren Williams has a long list of achievements to show at only the age of 34. As he says himself: “I have reached a very accomplished level within engineering, obtaining my doctorate, becoming a Professor, winning multiple awards, and being professionally recognised by achieving Chartership and Fellow status. I want to showcase these achievements in order to inspire the black community and demonstrate that reaching the top of any profession even at a young age is possible.”
Graduating from the University of Sheffield in 2008 with a 1st class honours MEng in Electronic, Automatic Control and Systems Engineering, Prof. Williams is now the Director of the Joining 4.0 Innovation Centre, focusing on advanced manufacturing techniques and digital manufacturing solutions. A partnership between Lancaster University and TWI Ltd, his group looks at and develops new digital technologies (like Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning (ML), and cloud computing to name a few) that can be used by manufacturers. TWI has over 600 members like Rolls Royce, Ford, and BAE Systems that benefit from implementing these digital technologies in their systems.
Prof. Williams explains: “Lots of data [is] created from welds (big data), containing the ‘key process variables/indicators’ of the system. We are able to utilise AI or ML technologies to make sense of the data, and effectively control systems, transforming them into intelligent digital manufacturing systems. Enabling humans to easily understand if a system is operating as it should (ensuring productivity, defect free manufacture etc.).”
What started Prof. Williams on his path in engineering?
Always having an “inquisitive mind”, Prof. Williams wanted to understand how things worked, especially anything electronic. He remembers his mum telling him off one Christmas for taking apart the remote-control car he was given as a present – luckily, he could put it back together perfectly! Prof. Williams explained that his family was always supportive and passionate about him becoming an expert in whatever field he decided to venture into.
Following his interest in all things electronic, Prof. Williams began building computers for family and friends and chose to study electronics, engineering, maths and physics at college. Again, he reflects on the support he had from teachers and then professors when at university who saw his passion and encouraged him to continue. One of his professors encouraged him to apply for a summer placement with Rolls Royce, which Prof. Williams thinks contributed to him being awarded the Nicholson Prize for obtaining the highest results in the department: “I did a summer placement and was submersed in industry – it was really hard – but then coming back to university that year felt really easy.”
This is the first in a long list of prizes that Prof. Williams has achieved through his hard work and outreach activities. He was awarded the Sheffield Graduate Award which recognises the work done outside of studies to gain experience and skills. He explains how these awards have contributed to his career and motivated him to work harder: “I noticed putting those on my CV and then looking for jobs was really impactful. So, I kind of noticed the return of investment for these types of awards. You put effort in, win an award and it makes you stand out, people do recognise what they are.”
Alongside several manufacturing awards won throughout his career, and STEM Ambassador of the Year 2017, Prof. Williams was the winner of British Black Business Awards ‘Science Technology Engineering Maths: Rising Star’ in 2018, which recognises and celebrates achievements of Black people in business. Out of thousands of applicants, Prof. Williams won this “for demonstrating continuous excellence and achievement within engineering”. After praising the support he got from family, teachers and mentors, he is now in a position to be a mentor and role model to the next generation of engineers. This is highlighted by him being shortlisted for the Positive Role Model award at the National Diversity Awards.
How important was having supporters and mentors?
“What that triggered in me was understanding and knowing how valuable those key influences are so once I did start my full-time employment, I actively sought out those types of key influence people. For example, I remember looking on LinkedIn and seeing someone similar, who looked like me, who was in a position where I would want to be in, say, ten years’ time. So, I sought them out, established a relationship with them and they became my mentor. [It was] important for me to get that independent viewpoint and helped me strive to get to where I am now.”
Understanding how important it is to have someone who looks like you to look up to is partly what drives Prof. Williams in all the volunteering he has done. He explains, “having that person that can inspire you, who comes from a similar background to you, it gives you that belief and faith that it can be achieved.” He is in a great position to show young Black students what they have the potential to achieve: “even though I’m accomplished and confident about it, it’s still powerful to spread and make other people aware that it can be done. I’d love to see someone who’s younger, more energetic than me who’s doing better things than me.”
What outreach is Prof. Williams now involved in?
As well as sitting on various committees and boards, and running STEM activities, Prof. Williams and two colleagues have recently set up a social enterprise called Edu-Cater Global. The aim of this is to connect STEM education and industry across the world with a diverse range of people. Last year, in Africa, they set up a conference for over 100 people which received huge engagement and great feedback. This year they have continued with online webinars and aim to continue to expand their global reach. They hope to inspire and energise the next generation to make an impact on their communities through STEM and industry.
What advice do you have for young Black students interested in a career in STEM?
“Try and seek out inspirational people, people who you can speak to who might act as a mentor or a guide for you,” says Prof. Williams, highlighting the importance of finding support and someone to look up to. He stresses the importance of networking, reaching out to people and finding mentors, as well as work experience. His explains how work experience is so valuable in giving you an insight into what career you may want as well as the opportunities it gives you to meet people: “You might even come across other inspirational people that you meet while doing the work experience; so work experience and networking are key, without those key influences I wouldn’t be speaking to you right now I don’t think.”