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Engineers, Drivers of Innovation: Advanced Materials and UL's Seán Flannagan

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 explains how engineering's transferrable skills have allowed 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, in 1951, the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) founded EWeek, which will be held February 16–22, 2020 this year.  

Inside UL spoke with UL Project Engineer Seán Flannagan to learn more about the profession. 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.” 

[Inside UL] What excites you about engineering?  

[Seán Flannagan] 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 the life of nuclear power plants 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? 

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

[Seán Flannagan] That would be the first time I was promoted to a team leader role. I had moved to a different location to work in the nuclear industry, which brought a different mindset than the one from my previous position as a materials engineer in the aeronautical industry. In this new job, I was able to organize the technicians that 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 especially 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. 

[Inside UL] What’s the most challenging engineering project you’ve worked on during the past year, and how did you overcome the difficulties it presented?  

[Seán Flannagan] The most challenging project I faced last year was the qualification of 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 not only organizing a set of tests at our new German facility in Rosenheim but also 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 by being able to tap into the wealth of knowledge available to me from my engineering colleagues in Warrington and Northbrook. 

[Inside UL] What’s in your future?  

[Seán Flannagan] I am getting more involved in the qualification of materials to British standards and European standards as well as 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. 

[Inside UL] Any new standards or certifications on the horizon?  

[Seán Flannagan] 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.  

Are you interested in learning more about passive fire protection? UL International UK, in partnership with the Association of Specialist Fire Protection, offers a Level 2 Foundation Course in Passive Fire Protection. Learn more about the course and our upcoming sessions

About Seán Flannagan  

Flannagan holds a Bachelor of Engineering in mechanical engineering and a Master of Science in Advanced Materials, both from the University of Limerick in Limerick, Ireland. He has recently passed the IFE Level 3 Certificate in Passive Fire Protection.  

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