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Finding the perfect fit in engineering

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How Ellen Robson found her calling at Renovo Solutions


In 4½ short years Ellen Robson has gone from complete beginner to qualified CNC precision tool grinder, with a role in design, production, and operations management at Renovo Solutions


When Ellen Robson left school at 16, she didn’t know exactly what career to pursue, but she knew it would be in engineering. She grew up surrounded by a family of engineers, though she also witnessed the hollowing out of manufacturing in the northeast of England, where she lives. So, when she interviewed with Antony Gray, who in 2019 was creating the first new tool grinding company in the region in years, she knew it was the perfect fit. It was also a chance to help reverse the loss of industry in the area. Now she’s an ANCA CNC precision tool grinder at Renovo Solutions, in Stanley, United Kingdom. She’s also a finalist in ANCA’s first female Machinist of the Year contest, held in 2023.

When Robson joined Renovo, it was a 3-person company: Gray (who’s an expert tool grinder), Robson, and another apprentice. She immediately began a formal apprenticeship that had her in the shop four days each week, with Wednesdays at college. Although she’s only now finishing up the program to earn her certification, Robson already has a hand in design, production, and operations management at Renovo. That’s owing in part to Gray’s approach to teamwork and trusting employees to do what’s needed.

“That’s the good thing about Renovo,” Robson explains. “You have free rein. We make our own programs and we can change anything on the program when we’re at the machine. Nothing is locked.” Before that point, the operators also create the tool prints, she adds. The design itself is generally brainstormed among Robson and other team members, plus Gray, who has gathered the customer’s requirements. Gray then assigns the job based on workload and the operator “has it from start to finish,” as Robson put it.

The COVID-19 pandemic hit soon after Renovo formed, and Robson recounts that one of their first big successes was grinding custom step drills for a manufacturer of hospital beds. Robson even paused her apprenticeship to devote more time to supporting customers as the world seemingly shut down. “I was really involved in producing one hit port tools for ventilator manufacturing,” she recalls.

Another firm struggled with producing a large diesel engine piston. Starting with the customer’s hand sketch, Robson reverse engineered the part, draw it in AutoCAD, and then designed a tool that would create the required form in one hit. It took several iterations of on-site testing to arrive at a final design. But Robson’s tool ultimately cut the production time from 4 hours to 1, and reduced tooling cost by more than two thirds.

Robson now devotes most of her time to regrinding, which is arguably more challenging than manufacturing, and where everyone starts at Renovo. She also serves as a project manager, making sure jobs get done on time. Though she hastens to add that everyone has input on deadlines, each employee has a direct connection with the customer, and each feels responsible for customer satisfaction. “Everyone works really well together,” Robson observes. “And if, say, one of the lads has a machine that’s not running fast enough, we’ll look into what can be done to change it. We help each other in different ways. It’s quite good.”

As for being the only female she ever meets in manufacturing? “Everyone can probably solve anything if they put their mind to it…I know everyone in here can. If they find something wrong, they know how to fix it. And if you don’t, then you ask someone. It’s not divided by gender.”

26 February 2024