An interview with Robert Hurlston
"I’d definitely recommend finding companies who take simulation seriously and are willing to invest in both staff development and toolsets/methods which can ultimately lead to better products"
Today, I had the pleasure of interviewing Steff Evans for the latest in our series of interviews titled 'Excerpts with the Experts', in which we learn what it takes to get to the very top of the simulation field.
Steff Evans runs Evotech Computer-Aided Engineering, on a consultancy basis in the UK. He support companies large and small with product development through advanced FEA. This is often based on pure engineering consultancy, training, software resales, or a combination of all three.
He is heavily focused on the technical deployment of a ground-breaking contemporary CAE platform, MSC Apex, throughout the simulation and CAE world. Through a combination of content distribution and online training, he brands himself ‘the Apex guy!’, posting interesting and varied articles to a global audience on best practice and workflow development to get the best efficiency from FEA workflows.
Hi everybody, and welcome to another Fidelis - Excerpts with the Experts, where we learn a little bit more about the path that led our simulation and CAE experts to where they are today, and what makes them tick!
Thanks Steff so much for joining us today. First, I’d like to ask you about your journey to get here (career and otherwise). Can you tell us a little about your career path to date?
Well, when I was young, I had no idea what career path I wanted to take, apart from being a professional football player aged eight! Like most engineers, I enjoyed maths and science at school, but I also had a very strong creative flair through drawing, art and design. I was obsessed with bicycles from an early age and competed regularly at BMX freestyle (where I ultimately achieved ‘pro’ competition status), and often ended up fixing broken bikes (or my teeth!) after crashes.
It was these interests that got me studying Mechanical Engineering at University. As well as the fundamentals, I really enjoyed combining the theory with practice, such that many of my projects were based around the design and analysis of two-wheeled vehicles. I remember once designing a set of novel BMX forks for a CAD-CAM project, which was one of my first ventures into business. I got a few sets made while the tutors were away from the workshop, which I sold to other riders to pay for a trip to the World BMX Champs in Germany.
It was through my University industrial placement at Raleigh Bicycles that I first become aware of FEA as a design tool. They had just released a titanium frame, which used a novel ‘glued lug’ manufacturing method. Unfortunately, many of the initial batch were returned due to the low tube stiffness (compared with steel) - the rider dynamics were so bad, that I got thrown off the bike a couple of times during testing. We used FEA to model different tube set variants and show how the stiffness could be improved. It was all very basic compared to the simulation I get involved with these days, but really illustrated the value of FEA as a design tool during the development process.
After my Degree, I took an Engineering Doctorate, looking at structural optimization for a sponsoring company who were involved in the packaging industry. They had a particular problem designing the rolling machinery required to apply uniform pressure to sheet materials during forming. I was tasked with developing a design methodology to i) predict the current machine performance and then ii) finding the optimal machine set up to ensure quality product. This was an open-ended project, which took me down several rabbit holes before coming up with a strategy that worked.
This ultimately ended up coupling a non-linear contact FEA model with a genetic algorithm optimization ‘brain’ to predict the optimal roller shapes. We went through many rounds of physical correlation to come up with a robust process that was mathematically sound and served the needs of the production environment. My Doctorate took a huge amount of personal drive and was super-satisfying to get ‘boxed off’. Having the title ‘Dr’ was very exciting at the time, but the novelty has worn off in the past few years! While FEA coupled with Machine Learning/AI is relatively commonplace now, it was a very new field in the 90s, and certainly gave me an interest that I’ve been lucky enough to follow up more recently.
After University, I took a job with MSC Software (the developers of world-class FEA platforms including MSC Nastran, Marc, Adams and of course MSC Apex), firstly in their technical support team, and then working more in technical consultancy and client training. Being exposed to so many different analysis problems and companies was an incredible learning experience, and something I would recommend to the aspiring analyst. I worked in a team with great people, who taught me a lot (thank you Darrel, Andy, Andy and Mike).
Given MSC’s links in the aerospace and related industries, much of the work I was involved with looked at lightweight structures across many different aircraft, space and Formula One programs. Their Nastran technology was (and still is) the certified toolset of choice across many, many companies, so my skills were very much in demand. After MSC I began working with many of the Airbus and BAE Systems supplier companies in the UK. It was during this time that I realized the importance of a robust and clearly defined simulation strategy in the development of such large-scale projects.
At the end of 2015 I took the plunge and set myself up as Evotech CAE to allow me to support many companies directly. Through my experience and knowledge of the market, it was a natural choice to pair with MSC, firstly as a software customer, and then as a software reseller. It requires an immense amount of dedication and tenacity to grow a new business on your own, but the past few years have been an incredible learning experience, and I’m getting to a point where I want Evotech to be.
As we’ve just heard, we all started from somewhere. Who were your role models or mentors, and what did you learn from them about simulation, engineering, and life in general?
I’ve been lucky in that I’ve been surrounded by some very, very clever and driven people throughout my career, from my Doctorate supervisor, Professor Jan Wright at Manchester to my early career mentors and colleagues, like Dr Arthur Hickson at MSC and Peter Cartledge at FACT, plus many, many more whose names I would struggle to remember (sorry everyone!).
That said, the biggest influence on my engineering career and life has been my Dad, who taught me the value of working through a problem with a clear mindset, along with the perseverance to get a project completed (“1% inspiration, 99% perspiration”). My Dad taught at my secondary school for Design Technology and early CAD and helped nurture my passion (I still have the working pinball machine I made for GCSE). I got to shout ‘Dad’ across the class, much to the amusement of my fellow students!
Hopefully, I can pass on some of this onto my eleven-year-old son, Sol, through the design and make projects we do, like bike conversions, loft bed builds and tree house construction (check out our YouTube channel, ‘Sollyvision’ for more of our adventures).
That’s great! Thanks for setting the scene. Let’s learn a little more about what you do currently. What does a day in the life of Steff look like?
My typical working day starts early with a 40-minute walk to my office in the city center, rain or shine (there’s a full set of waterproofs in my bag at all times). I always listen to a podcast (usually an interview with comedians, over anything heavy) whilst walking, as it is a fantastic way of clearing my head and letting new ideas percolate to the surface. I work in a co-working environment, so am surrounded by great, motivated people, many of whom are driving their own businesses too.
My week is split between the ‘day to day’ tasks from building and analyzing FEA client models and holding training webinars to supporting companies with software sales and queries, through to longer term projects, such as online course development or social media campaigns. I generate a fair bit of content for LinkedIn, which really helps cement Evotech and my personal brand as ‘the Apex guy’. I’ve found that putting a face to my company really helps when engaging with new clients.
I always keep a ‘to-do’ list with me, which really helps focus the mind, and allows me to box off the tasks that could suffer from ‘mission creep’. Working late or at the weekend is a necessary evil running a business on my own and supporting global clients, but I try to remain as rigid as I can about shutting the laptop after a long day.
OK, so we know what you do… but why do you do it? What about your job drives you to get out of bed in the morning?
I am driven about many things related to my work, but I would say that variety is the most important thing, and I certainly get that with Evotech. Having access to powerful, contemporary tools that can make a real difference to a product’s development and performance is very satisfying and rewarding. Much of my career has been around aircraft development with long development cycles, but the effort/reward ratio certainly isn’t the same as with some of the smaller, agile companies I work with now.
Being a company owner, with many interests outside of work (mainly around my awesome son, Sol, and my wonderful and supportive partner, Jenny), I have always striven to have a good work/life balance. I’m passionate about the technology I work with but realize the importance of variety during the working day. I often tell people that I don’t have a job – just a hobby I’m lucky enough to get paid for!
Awesome! Now, let’s get a bit more specific. What is your preferred simulation software?
That is an easy one – MSC Apex! Without this trying to sound like a sales pitch, Apex really is the most powerful toolset out there at the moment. There are multiple technologies in there, like FEA-specific direct modeling, a Python API and external solver support coupled with arguably the most intuitive CAE GUI around today.
Apex really has allowed me and Evotech CAE to be competitive in busy marketplace. Many FEA tasks, such as model build or post-processing, can be lengthy with legacy toolsets. The new technology in Apex has allowed me to dramatically reduce the time taken from concept to result, ultimately allowing my clients to develop better products with reduced costs.
If you want to check out an overview video I recently published, which covers many different technical and commercial use cases, take a look at,
And are you working on anything particularly exciting at the moment?
I tend to spin a few different plates at all times, ranging from direct client support to medium/long term projects for my business. Since the beginning of the year, I’ve been lucky enough to develop relationships with eight new client companies, in addition to an existing base of around twenty five to thirty companies.
In terms of current projects, I’m working with three motorcycle and two bicycle companies all interested in battery power as a means of future development, a racing go-kart company and two general engineering fabricators looking at FMCG process machinery.
I also have the structure of two more Apex-focused online courses, which I use to back fill any free time I have (which isn’t that much, but I have to push myself at times!).
On a personal level, I’m trying to relearn a BMX trick I last did when I was eighteen, called a ‘double-decade’. I’m 50 in September, so want to hit one on my birthday. It’s taking quite a bit of effort just to get started, but I have a new bike and am in ‘Rocky-style’ training every day (although without the raw eggs). Watch this space for a LinkedIn premier when I do it!
We’ve all worked on things that we’re particularly proud of or that we enjoyed more than our typical work. What is the coolest project you’ve ever worked on?
That’s a tricky one, as there have been so many, from trains to planes to automobiles. Next-generation aircraft, Formula Ones cars and satellites are all very cool, but I sometimes find it hard to get that much satisfaction from them, as the development cycles are so long, and the use cases so far removed from me.
That said I’d probably have to say something that combines my passions inside and outside of work, so it’d have to be one of the bike projects I’ve worked on. I’ve had a hand in the next Team GB Olympic track and TT bikes, numerous mountain bikes and some pretty radical BMX design work. Riding through a forest at 50mph on a mountain bike I helped design gives a job satisfaction you don’t get in an office!
What does ‘cutting edge’ simulation look like today, in your opinion?
If you went on the current development by CAE software vendors, then I’d have to say better coupling of multi-physics simulation, cloud-computing, optimization, AI and blockchain to drive more agile manufacturing, with additive and related technologies. It’s true that all these areas will influence product development for the next few years, or even generations, but there’ll be leftfield thinkers that’ll shake things up from this linear development. One of the great things about being an engineer is seeing so many new developments come to fruition.
I’ve been thinking a little outside the simulation box here – this might sound crazy, but imagine a material that could be used to morph and ‘self-optimize’ to deal with the environment in which it functions? Something real that essentially performs the same task as topology optimization, but in a physical environment. A plane that can be trained to be light, a car that can be trained to be fast or a battery that can learn to last forever? Probably all a bit ethereal, but this can’t be that far away, right?
You’ve clearly made it to a point in your career where we’re calling you an ‘expert’. A lot of our readers aspire to get to this point in their own careers, too! What is one piece of advice you would give an aspiring engineer that might help them grow in their simulation career?
One piece of advice? Wow – that’s hard. I don’t think I could condense it down that far, so here are some thoughts…
There are so many opportunities to learn great simulation techniques and usage these days. When I started, I was dumped with a set of Ansys reference manuals that were incredibly difficult to digest and learn from. These days there are a multitude of YouTube references to help. If you’re looking for a book, I’d certainly recommend Dominique Madier’s text, ‘Practical FEA for Mechanical Engineers’.
On the job training is vital too, and I had many jobs across different industries when I started. I’d definitely recommend finding companies who take simulation seriously and are willing to invest in both staff development and toolsets/methods which can ultimately lead to better products.
OK, well thanks for all of that. Here’s a fun one to finish with. Who, alive or dead, would you love to sit down and have a drink and a chat with? Why? and what would you ask them?
Hmm, one person? Tricky. There are many people who have influenced me, and certainly many famous names that have intrigued me, but to be honest I’m happiest sitting in the garden with my Jenny, enjoying a drink, a bonfire and a giggle, while Sol chats and fires Nerf bullets at us from his treehouse. That’s a pretty good way to spend the day, in my book!
Well that was fantastic! Thanks so much again for taking the time with us today. We wish you continued success in your career – and I’m sure our paths will cross again very soon!
Thanks to you, Robert – I really enjoyed talking to you!
Evotech has a flagship online training course ‘Intro to FEA with MSC Apex’, which has been taken by over 250 engineers in the last year. This gives a thorough background to both the theory and the best way to address FEA tasks with Apex.
The first lesson in the course is available for free, and there’s a 14-day free trial of Apex available too. Check out the link for more information,