Education: University of life is just the job for Torsten

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The Independent Online
ENGINEERING STUDENT Torsten Gerhardt looks intently at the array of gauges and instruments that are laid out in front of him for testing.

The laboratory where Torsten, a final-year Master of Engineering student, has been testing instruments for the past 18 months is much like any other - a small glazed room that contains shelves of electronics, racks of tools and a few discarded spares lying in a box on the floor.

However, Torsten is not working in a laboratory in the engineering department of London's City University, where he is doing his studies. The testing and design work he is carrying out is for the Ford Motor Company, and the gauges on the test rack are speedometers and rev counters for the latest Ford Fiestas and Mondeos.

Torsten spends two days a week in the design office of Ford's Visteon plant in Enfield, north London, where he has his own desk, computer terminal, business cards and even voicemail.

Downstairs from the first-floor design office is a major automated manufacturing plant producing instrument displays bound for insertion into the whole of Ford's European range. Elsewhere in the factory, giant presses form the dashboard panels for Ford Fiestas.

"Coming here was probably the best decision that I ever made," said Torsten, who is 30 years old, while sipping a cup of coffee in the factory cafeteria, which overlooks the forest of machinery that makes up the production lines.

He took a year out of his engineering studies to work in the factory's current model development unit. Here he joined a team of designers who are responsible for improving quality and reducing the cost of components.

However he enjoyed working there so much that he decided to stay on doing two days a week this year - and is due to submit his development work on a new liquid crystal display mileometer as his final-year engineering project.

He came up with the idea not as a theoretical investigation, but as a practical way of saving Ford $2.5m (about pounds 1.5m) a year to replace the mechanical counters currently fitted to cars.

Torsten explained: "At college you are all young people, and you muck around and try to have a good time and learn something at the same time, but you don't know what you are learning it for.

"However, when you have managers who are telling you 'Just do it, I want to see the result', then you are not just working for yourself. For me it was a completely different experience.

"What I have here is a company with masses of resources that wants to develop things in order to save money and to improve quality. I could use all these facilities and I have spent maybe pounds 20,000 on prototypes. At university they might have given me a budget of pounds 500.

"When I started I was terribly scared every morning. But I have been very privileged to work here and show that I have some skills."