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Drivers of Innovation: Engineering's Transferrable Skills Offers Unlimited Possibilities

UL Project Engineer Seán Flannagan has helped demonstrate safety throughout his career. An advanced materials professional, he recently completed his IFE Level 3Certificate in Passive Fire Protection. Flannagan explained how engineering's transferrable skills allow him to work on a wide range of exciting projects.

Seán Flannagan poses for EWeek picture. He's wearing a dark grey jacket with the red UL logo on its left pocket.

February 17, 2020

Engineers are essential drivers of innovation, developing many of the products, systems and processes that we rely on in life. Their work crosses all industries – from sustainability to medicine, fashion to public safety, and much more. In recognition of their significant contribution to society and to increase young people’s interest in engineering and technology careers, the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) founded Engineers Week in 1951.

UL Project Engineer Seán Flannagan solves problems using the transferrable skills learned while studying engineering at University. Flannagan works primarily with the certification of Intumescent coatings for fire protection. A materials professional, his previous roles were in the aeronautical industry and the civil nuclear sector. Flannagan’s job with UL is his first time working in the fire industry.  

Flannagan noted during our interview that he recently completed his IFE Level 3Certificate in Passive Fire Protection. Passive fire protection attempts to slow the spread of fires by fire-resistant walls, floors and doors. Attendees who successfully pass the exams achieve internationally recognized qualifications. 

“I was very interested in fire protection studies and wanted to learn more about the factors that affect effective passive fire protection measures,” he said. “The courses showed me the range of active fire protection systems and how these systems align with passive fire protection measures.” 

What excites you about engineering?  

I enjoy how you can use knowledge and theoretical study to solve problems in real life and how we get to see a mathematical equation come to life in an experiment. Engineering has given me transferrable skills that have allowed me to work on a wide range of exciting projects. From qualifying new composite materials for use on the Airbus A380 to testing bearings for aircraft landing gear, working on the extension of nuclear power plants' lives in the UK, and now in my role at UL, the fire testing of steel protection, I’ve experienced it all. What other careers would allow you to go from testing 2mm thick pieces of composite material for aviation use to fire testing 8-foot tall steel columns? 

Is there a defining moment in your career where you thought to yourself, “Yes, I’m living the life!”? 

That would be the first time I was promoted to a team leader role. I moved to a different location to work in the nuclear industry, which brought a different mindset from my previous position as a materials engineer in the aeronautical industry. In this new job, I organized the technicians who worked with me to help ensure that the lab was working much more efficiently. Subsequently, they promoted me to team leader, and I took great pleasure in seeing the technicians, who now worked for me, develop from young people straight out of school into extremely competent engineers. I remember an immensely satisfying moment when one of these technicians came to tell me about a major issue he’d had with a test. He had solved the problem and informed the client himself. That moment, without question, was truly gratifying. 

What’s the most challenging engineering project you’ve worked on to date, and how did you overcome the difficulties it presented?  

The most challenging project I faced was qualifying a new intumescent material for a UL customer. It was difficult as it was my first full qualification of material, from manufacture to final design, for UL. The project involved organizing a set of tests at our new German facility in Rosenheim and witnessing the material and additional specimens being manufactured in the UK, then shipping these additional specimens to our Northbrook, Illinois, laboratory for environmental testing — making this quite an international project.  

I overcame the difficulties on this project by being well organized, planning the testing well in advance, frequently communicating with the clients, and tapping into the wealth of knowledge available to me from my engineering colleagues in Warrington and Northbrook. 

What’s in your future?  

[Seán Flannagan] I am getting more involved in the qualification of materials to British standards, European standards and UL standards.  Each standard requires different types of fire tests and ways of carrying out the analysis for certification. One of my colleagues is mentoring me on these projects. I’m also working towards becoming a senior engineer with UL, and I have started the process to become a Chartered Engineer. 

 Any new standards or certifications on the horizon?  

Looking to the immediate future, we are expecting more projects relating to the new UL Category Control Number – BYFH. This new CCN covers the certification of steelwork protection for hydrocarbon ratings. This certification will help make the world a safer place by ensuring that the materials used for the harshest conditions on oil rigs and refineries are certified as being tested to be suitable for use in those environments and the harshest fire conditions.