Continuing our Inspired Engineering series, Managing Director of Electronics, Tom Buckler, reveals how Cosworth has fuelled and fulfilled his childhood passion for technological innovation, and what the future of mobility means for the company.
How did you get into electronics engineering?
It’s never been enough for me to accept that things just are as they are; I have to understand how and why things work, and how I can make them better. It’s an inquisitive nature that I got from my parents – a need to ask questions, a need to understand. Before computers were commonplace in the home, I was taught the basics of electronics by my Dad and given cable, sensors, relays, batteries – really simple building blocks that you could connect together in so many different ways to create what you had in your mind. That’s what I still love about engineering to this day, you get to turn your dreams into a reality. I can’t think of many other professions that let you do that.
What shaped the early phase of your career?
Before I went to Bristol to study for my undergraduate degree, I spent a year at Pi Research, the company that is now Cosworth Electronics and where I am now MD. That year really changed my life; it is the best demonstration of how companies like Cosworth can have a massive influence in encouraging young people to study STEM subjects. Cosworth makes engineering cool! It takes it from the theoretical into the real world – you get to really make a difference. For me back then engineering suddenly became real – it went from a subject that really wasn’t pushed at school into something that made cars go faster round a racetrack. I’ve never looked back.
Were there any particular innovations or inventions that impressed you growing up?
The BBC Micro B. During the 1980s the BBC Micros were pretty much the only computers you saw in schools and I learnt the basics of programming on them. I loved the fact that programming them was so easy – you turned the computer on and there was a flashing cursor that just encouraged you to code! And the fact they made controlling things in the real world so easy really added to the appeal – making a robot move around a maze was so much more engaging than moving something around on a screen.
It’s for similar reasons I love the Raspberry Pi – both the product itself, and what the Foundation are doing. My son is just at the right age where I’m introducing him to Scratch and have just ordered a robotic arm, I love seeing the passion develop in him as it did in me all of those years ago.
How has the business changed over the years?
The Cosworth I joined 20 years was heavily motorsport focused and while it still plays an important part and remains a great proving ground for new tech, it is the automotive business that is driving our growth today. We’ve learned a lot from our automotive contracts, applying these skills across our whole business has delivered a step improvement in all aspects of our operations.
So, has Cosworth Electronics effectively rolled with the times?
As a business, we have adapted and understood where we really add value. When I started, we did nearly everything in house, now we outsource most of our manufacturing and have built trusted relationships with partners across the globe so we can still offer a “one stop shop” to our customers. Our focus today is the software – our software runs on our hardware, on PCs, on smart devices and soon will run on our customer’s infotainment systems.
But lots of the good things about Cosworth also haven’t changed – customers are still front and centre to everything we do, our motorsport pedigree means we can always find a solution even to the most complex challenges, we have some of the best engineers in the world working for us (our customers tell us that too!) and it still feels like a family – we support each other to find the best way forward.
With what projects are you most proud to have been associated over the years?
The next generation of our Performance Data Recorder, PDR, that we’ve just launched with General Motors stands out. It was a massively complex product developed over multiple years for a brand-new vehicle architecture from GM. We got some great feedback too – our main contact told me on a recent visit that ‘Cosworth is the only supplier where I get to work with true geniuses’. Not me, personally, of course but I know who she was talking about! Over the years we’ve developed some truly beautiful products of which I am really proud.
How do you define beauty in electronics terms?
I see beauty where others perhaps don’t – a piece of technology that just works, a well-structured piece of code, our new Badenia [black box] controller. But there are also products that are aesthetically beautiful, for example our steering wheels. One of our team recently added a feature which adds configurable backlight colours on the buttons and switches; not only are things like this really useful they also have a wow factor. It’s only really engineers who can get excited by the complexity of a black box, but our steering wheels truly are a work of art.
How is your leadership style?
Adaptable – every person and every situation needs a different style, and I see it as my responsibility to adapt to get the best out of everyone. I also believe there is always a solution…always a way forward…and I like helping people to find that. And I try to be humble, open, kind and have a sense of humour!
How does a Managing Director manage working from home, or remotely, in circumstances like we have currently?
Through all of our business continuity planning over the years I remember thinking that actually all we need is a great leadership team and great IT, with both of these in place you can deal and adapt to anything that happens. I’m pleased to say that I’ve been proven right – I couldn’t have asked for more from my team, and the IT has worked exceptionally well. The current challenges have brought out the absolute best in everyone at Cosworth, we’ve proven beyond a doubt how resilient and adaptable we are as a business.
What does Cosworth mean to you, personally?
It never ceases to amaze me what we can achieve with a relatively small group of incredible people. We are set some truly remarkable challenges – we always find a solution and we always deliver. Cosworth is not just a group of engineers operating independently, it is a group whose output far exceeds the sum of its individual parts.
What will the future of mobility bring for Cosworth?
Vehicles are going to become increasingly intelligent. I’m confident at some point we will have fully autonomous vehicles in certain environments, the question is when. At Cosworth, we’re more interested in the journey to full autonomy rather than the end goal because that’s where we can add the most value. We’ve got some great projects we’re working on behind the scenes at the moment, in one case repurposing some edge-processing technology we first used in motorsport over twenty years ago!
So, Cosworth’s motorsport experience does cross over to road cars?
Absolutely. Motorsport remains a great proving ground for new technology, and you can trace most of our automotive products back to their motorsport past. Of course, the requirements for automotive design and validation are completely different, but often the experience offered to the end customer is similar.
It’s why we are so proud of our partnership with TOCA to supply the hybrid system to this championship too, we’re looking forward to delivering a great system to TOCA whilst also learning and developing IP we can use in the future on road cars.
Cosworth is always looking to solve challenges, and we have a proven pedigree, but we’re also developing a great reputation in new areas, for example development of camera and high-quality video processing.
What about the future of motorsport?
Motorsport certainly has challenges to address in the coming years. To remain relevant, it has to adapt. Formula E has been excellent at targeting new audiences and all-electric racing, new series like Extreme E, is the right thing. The world will move much quicker to electric vehicles than some people think – the purchase cost is coming down; we’re seeing a real consumer push to be greener and technology has a great way of quickly solving the problems that today seem insurmountable. Motorsport has to take action to stay appealing for manufacturers and consumers alike.
The electronics business is located in Cambridge, how important is that?
Cosworth’s electronics business started out as an innovative Cambridge-based company and we remain that today – innovation is in our DNA. We have one of the best universities in the world on our door-step, and Cambridge is home to Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, ARM and many other technology companies; the area attracts the brightest and the best individuals from across the world, and our proposition is unique meaning we are able to attract and retain the best people. Fundamentally our products, our success, is entirely down to our people.
What advice would you give to anyone interested in pursuing a STEM career?
Just do it! If maths or any other part of STEM puts you off, just remember this is a means to an end to creating great things in the future. And I think you are guaranteed a great career. Technology is going to play a greater and greater role in all of our lives. Those involved in creating this technology are going to have a wealth of opportunities in the decades ahead.