Case Study: Greg Bowie
Apprenticeship into engineering
Greg remembers having a curious mind as a young child. He loved looking at things to see how they work, which drove his parents mad! At school he was good at maths and science, and joined the Royal Air Force Air Cadets. He was never interested in going to university, so left school at 16 and took up an apprenticeship at a tool moulding company.
“I was never sort of an academic kind of person, and I find that for me a much more valuable way of learning is getting your hands stuck in, working out how things work …”
Healing broken bones
Greg is currently a manufacturing engineer at Invibio, a company working on biomaterials for medical applications. He uses his hands-on skills and creativity to create and test trauma plates, which are used to hold broken pieces of bone together and allow them to heal. When someone suffers a nasty fracture, they might have one of Invibio’s plates surgically implanted to help stabilise the injury while the bone grows back.
Usually trauma plates are made of metals such as titanium or steel. However, Greg and his team are developing a new material which combines carbon fibres thinner than human hair and plastics.
Greg says the way the material is engineered is much closer to the natural structure of bone, which can lead to good biocompatibility so the plates will encourage broken bones to heal faster. But there are other advantages too:
“When we have these carbon fibre reenforced plastic plates another benefit is that they can X-ray through the plate and see how that bone is developing and healing.”
Learning from failures
When starting his journey into engineering as an apprentice, Greg became resilient by learning from his mistakes. One of his favourites quotes is, “You can’t let your failures define you. You have to let your failures teach you” (Barack Obama).
Being resilient and patient helps him better to understand the best ratio of carbon fibres to plastic and how the materials should be layered together.
“We’ve got some understanding [of] how the material may work, but we need to make it, we need to test, it we need to see if it fails, how it fails, and [work out] what we need to change.”
In particular Greg and his colleagues need to understand how much carbon fibre reinforced plastic plates bend without breaking (this is called flexural strength), and how tightly screws can be inserted through the material. It goes without saying how important it is to study these properties before a plate goes inside a human body.
Under the sea and other medical applications
Carbon fibre reinforced plastics have become common engineering materials, used everywhere from car components to tennis racquets. They’re also used in pipes for deep sea applications. Being able to tailor the strength and flexibility of the material, they can be ideal for encasing pipes which will have to sit on the seabed without being crushed by the high pressures.
Invibio is also developing other materials for medical applications. For example, they 3D print porous (sponge-like) plastic materials as spinal cages. This allows bone to grow into the implant as well as growing around it.
Gregs loves that his engineering work, and the biomaterials and products he helps to develop, make a difference and improve people’s lives.
“That is what I love about where I work now, it’s an interesting field to be in.”
Going back in time
Greg had a superpower he would like to be able to time travel. Not necessarily into the future: to go back in time, to see how engineers and inventors developed the things they did. That said, he is curious about where biomaterials technology is going to be in 10 years’ time.
“How many bones can we fix in the human body with these plates? Because it not necessarily always suitable for all the applications giving the existing manufacturing process that we use …”