Allen Cao: a multi-disciplinary approach to engineering

15 December 2017

Author: Allen Cao


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Even though I have always been a big fan of engineering and science, my childhood dream was to become a writer. Authoring two novels and three collections of poetry made me well known in the local community, and also consolidated my passion for this career. However, things changed after I stepped into high school and found a new paradise of physics and mathematics. Fascinated by the logics and equations that I never saw in any literature work, I was eager to learn more and dive deep. As a result, I graduated with the highest academic record and obtained an offer from one of the top universities in China focusing on engineering and science.

My undergraduate major is in automation, incorporating lots of theoretical studies and skill training. Hoping to see how the knowledge I obtained can be applied to constructing the ‘real world’, I decided to study mechatronics for my master’s degree. This is a multi-disciplinary field, combining mechanical engineering, electronics, computer engineering and systems engineering. Because of my undergraduate experience, I was able to develop a new algorithm to control the motion of a 3D printer.

Watching how the machine moved automatically and accurately, based on the rules I defined, I found joy and pleasure in solving problems using subtle computational modelling and optimisation. I left China and came to the UK in 2013 to study for my PhD at Imperial College London. Driven by my curious nature, I chose a different major again, focusing this time on ‘turbomachinery aerodynamics’. This looked at the flow of air through turbines via computational fluid modeling and analysis.

At a first glance, it may appear that I studied in a totally unfamiliar area. However, I soon found out that the skills I learned during the past years helped a lot in this area. The following year, I invented a new optimization method that can notably improve the energy efficiency of a turbine. The technology has been protected by Imperial College with two international patents and is being acquired by a well-known engine company.

After finishing my PhD, I joined Amazon as a research scientist, bringing all my knowledge together. My current job sees me developing models and optimising various operational processes using computational approaches. This includes working out the best locations for warehouses and plotting the transportation routes between vendors, warehouses and customers. This is an interesting job but is also demanding! Due to the fast expanding business, there are new challenges and opportunities every day.

Looking back to my path, it is the search for a universal methodology that motivates me to try different subjects of engineering science. From this, I also learned to think out of the box and to find innovative solutions by identifying hidden links between subjects. As a conclusion, ‘driven by interests’ and ‘think different’ are two keywords from which I benefit a lot, and which I will continue to follow in my future engineering journey that is yet to be discovered.

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