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Professional Profile: John Kell

Thu, 29 June, 2023

With 2023 marking the hundredth anniversary of The Welding Institute, we have been speaking to our Professional Members to hear about their careers in engineering and their memories of The Institute and TWI.

EUR ING John Kell MBE CEng FWeldI has personal ties to TWI and The Welding Institute that go back longer than most, having actually lived on the site of our headquarters at Abington Hall from when he was just four years old!

John’s history with the Institute began when his mother took the role of housekeeper at the organisation’s newly-built conference centre in 1968. The conference centre and upgrades to Abington Hall were implemented to provide student accommodation for those attending welder and NDT training courses at TWI, plus conference facilities. Abington Hall also included the British Welding Sports and Social Club facilities, complete with a bar, darts boards, a full-sized snooker table and a golf putting green.

John as a young boy on the grass in front of the old hall at Abington
John as a young boy on the grass in front of the old hall at Abington

Living in the flat on the top floor of Abington Hall, John recalls long days playing games around the grounds of the estate with his older brother. With a grandfather who was a marine engineer and who served in The London Scottish Regiment and was injured during the notorious first day of the Somme during World War One, and a father who spent over two decades as a career soldier with the Royal Tank Regiment and Royal Mechanical and Electrical Engineers, it is no surprise that John took an interest in engineering as well as in the military.

Of course, the ties between Abington Hall, the military and The Welding Institute date back to 1946, as the end of the Second World War saw the army, who had used the Hall during the war, vacate the premises and the forerunner to today’s TWI, The British Welding Research Association, buy the hall for £3850. Indeed, the first fatigue research activities on the site took place in a former army hut under the guidance of Dr Richard Weck.

TWI Career

Living nearby to South Lodge, Dr Weck was someone John and his family knew well, with the former Director General of BWRA and The Welding Institute even providing John with books for his university studies. John studied for a manufacturing systems engineering degree at Portsmouth and worked as a design engineer for Lufthansa in Hamburg as part of his sandwich degree course.

By this point, John had already built up his engineering experience close to home after joining TWI as an apprentice in 1980 under the direction of training supervisor Ray Hood. Having sought to go into the technical drawing office, time in the machine shop led to John joining the electron beam (EB) department, where he operated an EB welding machine under the supervision of Tibor Szluha, all while doing part-time studies and being allowed day release for training, where he gained his ONC and HNC qualifications.

John (left) with Tibor Szluha (right)
John (left) with Tibor Szluha (right)

TWI’s head of EB at the time, Dr Alan Sanderson, encouraged John to progress his academic career further, so he headed back into full time education at Portsmouth University in 1989. While he took some summer work at TWI to earn extra money during his studies in 1990 and 1991, John was back with the EB department at TWI in 1993. Now a Senior Project Leader working on out-of-vacuum EB and equipment build projects for nuclear waste containment vessels, and offshore pipeline fabrication projects.

A period of time between 1999 and 2001 saw John leave TWI and head over to Milwaukee in the USA, where he worked for a Tier 1 automotive company as Senior Advanced Manufacturing Engineer, supporting new joining process development, lean manufacturing process implementation and 3D discrete event simulation and robotic modelling. On his return to the UK, he undertook running his newly formed manufacturing consultancy, before his career once again led him back to TWI for seven more years, this time as business development manager for the automotive and motorsport sector.

John’s working time at TWI encompassed around two decades and included time in the machine shop, the electron beam department, the manufacturing support group (where he worked on the 3D modelling of production lines and was part of the Welding Engineer Helpdesk), and as a business development lead and manager for TWI’s automotive operations. Working across the oil and gas, nuclear, aerospace, automotive and defence sectors, John’s time at TWI saw him travel to South Africa, Sweden, France, Germany, the United States, New Zealand, Mexico, Canada and Japan as well as spending time working out in the North Sea!

While he now works as a principal R&D specialist for the government, John’s association with The Welding Institute has continued.

Professional Membership, Chartered Engineering and the Next Generation

John was previously the Chairman and a committee member of the Eastern County Welding and Joining Society (1995-2007) as well as being on The Welding Institute’s Education Committee, and now is in his second term as a member of the Professional Board. He originally became a Professional Member of the Institute during his time at TWI, starting at technician grade and progressing on completion of his engineering degree.

His membership set him on the way to becoming a Chartered Engineer, which John notes is an important measure of engineering competence, providing validation and a level of assurance to employers.

John explained that he would readily recommend engineering as a career, professional engineering institution membership and chartered status to others, as it not only differentiates you in the workplace, but is also useful for securing further professional and personal development, industrial contact networking, and can end up in one securing higher value and rewarding career opportunities. With some employers preferring engineers with chartered status, this move can offer career and social mobility for young people.

Indeed, John remains keen to use his expertise and experience to guide and promote engineering as a career, including as a Major - Officer commanding 3 Company Cambridgeshire Army Cadet Force, where he helps promote STEM.

John in dress uniform with his MBE medal
John in dress uniform with his MBE medal

Career Advice

His varied experience makes John perfect for offering advice to any young people who may be considering a career in engineering. Even as industry seems to transition from a hardware to a software-based focus, there is still a need for engineers and technicians as well as those employed in design, innovation and research and development.

Looking back on his own career, John revealed that he wished he had been more confident dealing with senior managers in his early days as a technician, but is also keen to stress the value of his apprenticeship.

Having taken time doing an apprenticeship as well as studying for a degree, John recommends the apprenticeship route for those who may not be as inclined to progress a degree, as it provides a working knowledge of a role that may only be shown in theory at university. This knowledge can prove invaluable as you progress through your career, even up into management, as you will carry a real understanding of life on the ‘shop floor’.

Whichever route you choose, it is clear that engineering has given John career fulfilment and professional recognition, while The Welding Institute has remained a staple for most of his life!

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