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BT's Alesha pioneers 3D printing in Leicestershire
Alesha swapped the battlefield for an engineering career and hopes she can inspire others looking to follow in her footsteps

Alesha Richardson

Alesha Richardson, 33, joined Openreach – the local network business, which is part of BT Group – in 2011 after spending nine years in the armed forces. And, having started as a phone and broadband engineer, a succession of inventive ideas have seen her carve out a new role in charge of an emerging 3D printing team, part of BT’s Supply Chain, in Leicestershire. Her work involves identifying potential solutions to practical issues, before designing, modelling and manufacturing bespoke parts and accessories which can be used throughout the business to improve customer service. She does this using a computer programme for design, before bringing her creations to life through a state-of-the-art 3D printer.

Alesha told her story in support of International Women in Engineering Day, an initiative set up by the Women’s Engineering Society (WES) to celebrate the work women do, as well as showcase the great careers available in engineering. Alesha said “Leaving the forces can be daunting but I’ve not looked back since joining BT” she said. “It’s such a big company with lots of opportunity, and was an obvious choice for me after specialising in communications during my time in the forces. I like the fact that no two days are the same and there is always plenty of work to be getting on with. “I’ve been a 3D hobbyist for many years and it’s a passion of mine, so it’s brilliant to combine my work with something I really enjoy doing. It’s proving popular across the business too, wherever we can identify the need to produce bespoke products to order. That’s particularly true in areas where we’re innovating fast – like the broadband network and customer service. We sometimes need a unique bracket, tool or piece of equipment to make a task more efficient, and I can produce them really quickly and to exact specifications using the 3D printer.”

Alesha joined Openreach after 9 years in the army, serving with the 9th/12th Royal Lancers, based in Germany, where she was responsible for the communication systems used on tanks. She applied for a job as a Customer Service Engineer, fulfilling a lifelong ambition to work for the company: “I’d always wanted to work here since I was a young child as it looked like a fun company to work for. My first job as an engineer was really rewarding as I was out fixing faults and installing new phone and broadband services for customers.”

Alesha recently moved roles after her talent for 3D printing was identified during an internal competition. A new team was created for her at Magna Park, Leicestershire, which is now responsible for leading and producing all of the company’s 3D Printing work. And it’s having a big impact already. Working with BT’s top research and development facility at Adastral Park, Suffolk, a number of prototypes have already been created and are being used by engineers.

One of the most significant so far is a plastic ‘needle' for threading cables in the green roadside cabinets when engineers are connecting new customers. A trial found the needle reduced the time it takes to thread cables in the most congested roadside cabinets by half. Other ideas also in production include a special adapter to route and accommodate larger cables underground, and an anti-tamper flood drain to protect Openreach’s roadside cabinets, which deliver broadband into people’s homes.

Openreach Chief Engineer, Andy Whale, said: “It’s great to see young engineers designing tools that we can use in the real world to improve customer service. We’ve had some really positive results already and we’re expecting even more new tools and techniques to emerge as we get more experiences using technology like 3D printing. We’ve got more than 25,000 engineers, completing more than 177,000 jobs each week in exchanges and at street cabinets, so we’re always looking for opportunities to simplify the way we work and deliver better service for our customers.”

What advice would Alesha have for any women or girl thinking of following in her footsteps and choosing a similar career? “I’d urge anyone in the same position as me to seriously consider a career in engineering. Typically, it’s thought of as a male-dominated profession but it really is open to men and women. If you have something you’re passionate about then you should definitely pursue it. If you’re interested in finding out more then look online at the opportunities that are available – Britain has some of the most exciting and cutting edge engineering projects happening right now, and Openreach building a better, broader and faster broadband network is just one of them.” 

Openreach has invested in hiring over 1,500 people this year, including 250 apprentices and graduates. The business remains keen to further increase diversity in the workforce, including the recruitment of more female engineers. It recently joined forces with other technology firms to create a new mentoring scheme – Step into STEM – which encourages schoolgirls to pursue Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics careers. Across the UK, Openreach has hired 5,000 engineers and more than 900 apprentices and graduates over the last four years.

Find out more about our Trainee Engineer Scheme.