David Alleyne formed a start-up company from Imperial called Guided Ultrasonics Ltd that is now the global leader in its field. 

What did you learn during your time at Imperial, both in class and out?

"Apart from the technical skills I think one of the most important things is learning how to work as part of a team. There are many elements to this from the supervision and management of the project through to technical support. My time doing research taught me that it’s not just about what you do, although you get the PhD and they say it’s your work, it’s also about how you take inspiration and ideas from other people. Those people that you interact with become your colleagues, friends and confidantes for the rest of your career."

Can you tell me about your studies at Imperial?

"My focus was on non-destructive testing. I researched guided waves with a view to seeing whether they could be used for inspections in industry. A guided wave is an energy wave which is guided or trapped by the system it’s travelling in. For example visualise a string that you pull tight and flick. You’ll see a wave propagate down it which is a guided wave because it’s trapped by the boundaries of the string it travels along. In pipes or plates or railway lines you can use guided waves to travel a long way down the system because they’re trapped within the boundaries of the system. It allows us to do what we call longer range inspections or screening. Rather than testing just under a sensor, which is very time consuming and it’s easy to miss something – you can have a sensor in one location and inspect a large area on either side of the sensor."

What’s your fondest memory of your time at Imperial?

"The people I met and the work they did – some of them inspired me, some of them gave me confidence."

What jobs have you done since graduation?

"I stayed on at Imperial and did a post doc in the same field, guided waves. Then in 1998 I left to start up a company called Guided Ultrasonics that now also calls on the expertise of eight other Imperial PhD graduates. Based on my research results, we make equipment to do longer range inspections.  

We’re a global company - more than 90% of what we do is exported out of the UK - and we’re the leading company in the world in this area. We make equipment for testing pipe lines in the petrochemical and power industry and for testing railway tracks for companies including Network Rail as well as railways in Holland, Belgium and Japan. We also have recently done some nice research work for a system of checking grease tubes on Rolls Royce jet engines. The recent crash of the A380 in Singapore was the result of a failure on a grease tube on one of the engines. So now they’re looking at using guided waves to inspect grease tubes without having to strip the engine down which would cost a lot of money. As well as this bespoke, development type work, we’re also doing work where we just produce large numbers of sensors, for example for monitoring pipe line conditions for companies such as BP in Alaska."

What have been your career highlights?

"My career highlight is seeing something that I’ve worked on at Imperial in my PhD and post grad work become globally accepted as inspection technology  and to see that this is now the technology that’s used everywhere in the world including America, Asia and Africa. We’ve also trained thousands of people around the world so far in using guided waves, and the people who took up the license for the technology have trained thousands in turn. So there’s tens of thousands of people now who’ve been trained or make a living as a result of this research work that we did."

What are your plans for the future?

"I want to continue to develop and grow the company, consolidating that lead that Guided Ultrasonics has in the area that we work in. I’d also like to participate in general in developing technology - as I get older my individual goals about what I want to achieve become more global in terms of wanting to put something back."

What would be your advice to current students.

"Enjoy your time, it goes so fast. It goes without saying work hard, but don’t get too despondent if things don’t go well – that happens to everybody and you have to understand that when you make mistakes and you have to adjust for that, that’s when you learn the most about your work and about yourself. This helps you develop your character, because in life, in business, and in science, there’s always setbacks that you have to overcome, or at least attempt to overcome."

What’s the most difficult decision you’ve had to make?

"I think in business the most disappointing thing I experienced was when I had very good people who were very talented, but for some reason it didn’t work either within the company or within industry. You have to make a hard choice, you have to make a change to the direction in which you thought things were going. Sometimes when you do that you realise that it hasn’t been a success and you just have to accept that. There’s a variety of reasons so there’s no call to point fingers, including at yourself, instead actually analyse the situation and look for the best way forward. I always look for a positive outcome - either I learn something, or I can actually affect change by doing something."

What are you most proud of in your life?

"You sometimes work hard for recognition, and the true recognition is from yourself and your immediate friends and family. When I get recognition of the things that I’m working hard for from those people closest to me, it makes me very proud."

Do you have a favourite quote or saying?

"I’ve got lots and lots of them, for example ‘the harder I work the luckier I get’. A lot of them are about motivating people within the company - as the MD or senior director if I’m upbeat and confident, no matter what the situation, they gain confidence from that. I was born in Barbados so ‘take it easy’ ‘cool’, ‘chill’, those are the sorts of things I say."