Mechanical Design Engineer turned entrepreneur: Interview with Marcos Gonzalo Mael

Published: Feb 06, 2018 By

Marcos Mael - Square [square]Marcos Gonzalo Mael combined his passion for innovation, a natural artistic flair, with his background in industrial engineering to co-found a stop motion animation company, UPuno. In this interview, Marcos gives his advice and insights into the challenges he has faced working as a successful design engineer and entrepreneur.

 

What is your full title and what does your current role involve?

I currently work as the Co-founder and Company Director at UPuno. We are a stop-motion animation company that designs and manufactures armatures - an articulated metal model that sits in a character, rigs and other components for the industry. We also make bespoke puppets and action figures.

As a start-up company, you inevitably end up doing a bit of everything involved in running a successful business. However, my main role at UPuno is as a Mechanical Designer. It depends on the day, but often I am dealing with customers who have contacted me for a new armature for stop-motion animation, or a new component. I work closely together with them to look at their requirements and feasibility for mechanical design. I have to ensure things are cost-effective from a business perspective, and that the project meets the customer's budget requirements. This can restrict what you can and can't do. Ultimately if you have a generous budget, designing an end-product is much less of challenge. Your design skills and innovation truly come to the fore when you have to bring things in within budget.

 

"As a start-up company, you inevitably end up doing a bit of everything involved in running a successful business."

 

Another element of my role is dealing with suppliers. I collaborate with them to ensure they follow any designs and drawings we have produced to the correct specification. This includes choosing materials and ensuring parts are produced within the timeframes we require. I also spend some time assembling components as they arrive, like armatures.

Can you briefly describe your education path and what inspired you to focus on mechanical engineering?

In 2005, I completed a MSc in Industrial Engineering, a five year course, at the Universitat Polit├Ęcnica de Catalunya in Barcelona. It was a broad training. I covered subjects like physics, chemistry, maths - including sub-specialisms like algebra, computer science, renewable energies, management studies, fluid mechanics and mass and heat transfer. I really enjoyed the latter subject as it was very challenging and required a number of algorithms to be programmed for calculations. I also liked the mechanics aspects of my studies.

The course provided me with a great foundation and excellent tools to troubleshoot and deal with any challenges in my working career. Although we didn't cover everything, I normally new how to start a project I was faced with, and more importantly, where to look for critical information.

In terms of inspiration, I have always been intrigued about how things worked and wanted to modify them since I was a kid. I would have a toy and try to adapt it in a different way. I remember having a Scalextric track, and feeling that the cars just going round and round weren't exciting enough. So I attached a few extra cables that meant I could run them off the track as well.

 

"In terms of inspiration, I have always been intrigued about how things worked and wanted to modify them since I was a kid."

 

I used to watch special effects in films and try to understand how they were done and recreate them. I loved art and drawing from a young age. I got good grades across the board but was really interested in Maths, and also how things work. I spoke to careers advisers at my school and they suggested engineering may be a good fit for me.

How do you apply the knowledge in your current work?

I am continually drawing on my knowledge from my mechanical engineering background and education. For example at UPuno, I use a number of software packages for mechanical components design. I also design organic components for stop-motion characters, like a face or body, that require specialised organic modelling software. Some examples include Draftsight and Blender. I was trained to use of all these packages during my Masters and subsequent work experience.

In mechanical design, the first step in making your design real and tangible is creating a drawing. Our drawings are what we use to communicate with the suppliers. You need to specify tolerances - or margins of error for sizing, if you don't have the correct knowledge here, things may not work. On the flip side, the more tolerances you give a supplier, the more costly the item will become.

There are a considerable number of calculations needed and I regularly draw on the foundation of mathematics I gained during my MSc. For example, if you design a novel rig that needs to be able to lift a component, you need to factor in the weight to be lifted and a number of other parameters to ensure you have the right data and calculations for the final design.

What sectors did you work in after your MSc? What was your experience in these roles?

My first role was an internship at Hewlett Packard, whilst I was still studying my MSc. It extended my degree a bit, but the work experience was invaluable. My one year position was as a Mechanical/Production Support Engineer at the interface between two departments inside the desktop printers division. The first role was in the printers diagnosis department where they received any broken-down printers from customers. Our role there was to take them apart to evaluate the problem. We didn't fix them, or act as a repair centre, just find the source of the issue so we could pass information back to the designers to rectify or improve issues in the future. The second role was providing support for the printers manufacturing centre in Europe. I was based in Barcelona, but we were managing the production in Hungary at the time.

I really enjoyed my internship and liked the challenges I faced, alongside a great team. However, I realised quickly that I needed to improve my English. When I was dealing with international teams, I always had to have a colleague with me who spoke better English, acting as a kind of translator.

I knew this wasn't the way to go, so I decided to move to England for my next role.

My next job was as a Mechanical Design Engineer in a company called Welding Alloy Group that manufactured welding wire and bespoke modular welding equipment, based in Royston in Hertfordshire. I worked as part of the team designing mechanical components for the machines they produced.

My English improved quickly, and the fact I was in meetings within a few months discussing complicated elements of my design in English fluently was a great feeling. Another highlight was the first design I did on my own- an enclosure box for an electrical component. I had to use a new software programme to complete it, but it was similar to something I used in my degree so I was able to adapt. I remember arriving at the shop floor and picking up this tangible component I had designed - that was very cool and so rewarding personally. I quickly realised that the design of larger elements and machines needed the input of the whole design team. There were only limited things you could do on your own.

One thing to point out is, I think it's critical to have a mentor in whatever role you are in, someone that has good knowledge of the industry and that you can trust. That can really help in a team environment.

 

"I think it's critical to have a mentor in whatever role you are in, someone that has good knowledge of the industry and that you can trust."

 

My next role was as a Design Engineer at Atlas Converting Equipment Ltd, based in Kempston in Bedfordshire. The company specialised in manufacturing machines for the packaging industry. My interview experience was really good, where they asked me about all the knowledge I had gained during my Masters. I was excited about being able to use that training. I stayed with the company for seven years.

I found an excellent mentor in this role - a senior colleague. One of my first projects involved looking at components that were always breaking down in the packaging machines, and needed repair. They asked me if I could look into rectifying this. I think as I had come with a fresh pair of eyes, I decided to redesign the part in a completely different way. I also drew upon knowledge from my internship, where I had designed printer parts as well.

Once I'd designed it, the team agreed it could work, but since it was a very different approach to what they'd tried some individuals were cautious. My boss, who at the time was also new at the company, approved it. It worked very well and we actually took out a patent on that particular component. I always kept a close relationship with the shop floor and service team. They gave me great feedback too, including comments that it was the best component they'd ever seen for that specific function.

I invariably tried to backup my designs with the formulas, physics and mechanical concepts. I think this approach helped me to get promoted into my next role at the company as Project Leader. I moved on from component design and was given the task to design a whole new machine.

It was a huge project that took 3 years. I had great support from the cross-functional team l was managing. The sub-teams included electrical engineers, software automation engineers and the mechanical design team. In addition, from the commercial side of the business was the sales team, and also I always got the shop floor involved as invaluable advisors. Although the latter commercial colleagues didn't have engineering training, their input was really valuable as they were customer-facing. I often got them to check specifications and had a great relationship with the sales manager. I gained considerable international experience on the project, through having to liaise with a design team in India and Switzerland.

After the end of the design period of 3 years, we started receiving all the components and putting the machine together. We had three patents come out of the unique components we designed and I was very motivated by the work. After we completed the build, we introduced the product at world-wide exhibitions and it was received very well. It was the fastest machine in its class at the time, and turned into a commercial success.

At the end of that project, I was left thinking, we've completed this excellent work but what's next? The next natural progression would have been for me to become a Senior Manager, but that's something I wasn't interested in. I would have been too far removed from the design challenges I loved.

I think essentially, I am very passionate about innovation - taking that next step in improving a device, process or machine so you can progress. There has to be a risk-taking element there, otherwise you will not make advances. Equally, you have to fail sometimes, as that's when you learn the most. Although, I think for me the risk-taking needs to be controlled and I always base it on prior knowledge, calculations and input from others, so I never go in blind.

How did you take the decision to start your company - UPuno?

I started doing some design activities outside of work to challenge myself, including building a robot, a 3D printer and stop-motion animation. I realised that stop-motion required mechanical component design in the form of armatures. These models were a huge contrast to the large machines I had been designing. The components were very small, so it felt very challenging. In the process, I realised there was a demand for the production of stop-motion characters from animation film studios and hobbyists worldwide.

I started to research what was available on the market, and felt I could improve on existing products, providing additional features and more cost-effective stop-motion models. It was at that point I spoke to my partner about finding new challenges and she had the idea to start our own business for stop motion components. She was very supportive and encouraging and that's how UPuno was born. Our skills complemented each other, as I could deal with the mechanical design and with her software engineering training she could help with the website, online shop, and also a plan for motorised robotic components that would need software automation.

What disadvantages and advantages do you see in running your own company?

So on the down-side, it is sometimes hard to switch off, and you often have the business on your mind. When you're an entrepreneur, you are investing your own money - the risks feel a bit higher, so you put in more effort to make things work. Sometimes it's easy to lose sight of the fact that things take time, and you can become impatient with gaining a return on your investment.

Dealing with suppliers can also be tricky as they promise you one thing and change the process, or make a mistake with the design or the budget. Administration work can sometimes be arduous, but you can always pay someone to take that over. Gettings funds can also be difficult to do.

From my perspective, the advantage of running your own business is the incredible flexibility it gives you. You can take your own decisions and don't have to seek sign off. It has also opened up the opportunity of working from anywhere for the majority of the time, (although, that's not always possible with the mechanical assembly). I love the creative challenges it brings and the opportunity to determine your own working environment.

 

"...the advantage of running your own business is the incredible flexibility it gives you. You can take your own decisions and don't have to seek sign off."

 

I enjoy the direct feedback you get from customers. I never received that to the same extent in a larger corporate company. For example, we recently worked with someone from an animation film studio on a bespoke project and they thought the finished piece was amazing. Feedback like that is priceless.

I am also looking forward to creating further jobs and employment opportunities. Our vision is to expand and move the whole industry forward. I found it satisfying helping those working in the animation movie industry, as those films are a passion of mine. I aspire to make things easier, faster and cooler for animators.

From experience, what 3 pieces of advice would you give other engineers wanting a successful career?

  • Find what your passion is and follow it. You can be good at something but your passion is something different. That will act as a driving force in your business through tough times. You'll need to work hard, and working on something that you are passionate about will help.
  • Get a good mentor. Find someone who can guide you from the beginning and throughout your career. You will progress faster and with solid knowledge.
  • Back up your decisions with solid maths and physics calculations. If you are a mechanical engineer, it will help with convincing others with your designs, even if they are risky. It will also give you some piece of mind that your designs have a good chance of working. It removes some of the hesitation you face when designing key elements - especially if they have the potential to be dangerous or potentially life-threatening components.

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