Inventing the New Small Wheel - Technicians Make it Happen

The ATLAS New Small Wheel is a revolutionary piece of technology. At a staggering 10m in diameter, its instalment will increase the capacity of physicists at CERN to detect some of the most elusive elements of the universe. Jamie Pinnell, 29, Design Mechanical Engineering Technician, was key to making it happen. We sat down to discuss his journey from putting posters of the ATLAS experiment on his bedroom wall, to helping to design, manufacture and install its latest upgrade.  

Hi Jamie! What do you do as a Design Mechanical Engineering Technician at CERN?

Me and my team design and build the largest and most complex parts for the largest science experiment on earth, the Large Hadron Collider, located in a tunnel 100m underground.

Why are technicians like you important to your industry, and the world at large?

CERN, the largest particle physics research laboratory in the world, thrives thanks to an enormous workforce spanning a wide variety of disciplines and skills. And like many large scientific institutes all around the world, we are heavily dependent on our engineers and technicians. Everything here is designed and built by them! Our modern lives wouldn’t be possible without the kind of experiments we’re doing at CERN and that's all thanks to the talent of the people who have designed and built these colossal machines. Not just directly the science that comes from the results of the experiments, but the technologies created to solve the problems that inevitably come up on these projects as well.

What couldn’t happen without you and technicians like you?

My time at CERN has been mainly focused on one particular project; the New Small Wheel is a next-generation muon detector for the ATLAS experiment at CERN. It is a 10m diameter, 100-ton beast, made up of millions of parts, and I have been very lucky in following this project from its initial design, all the way to installation later this year. A 7-year journey that started in the design office working on kinematic systems to accurately align car-sized particle chambers, through to designing the main structure of the Wheel, on to putting together these huge pieces and preparing the wheel to do science. And later this year, lowering the wheel into the cavern to its final position on the LHC. As a multi-skilled technician, I have had great luck in being able to work on the design, calculations, procurement, testing, and building of everything on this project from the smallest supports and clips, right up to a 16-ton transporting tool to move it 2km down the road (a journey that will take an entire day!)

What’s the best bit about your job?

I get to do the most unbelievable things that I never imagined I’d get to do! Sure, I get to machine lots of pieces and build lots of assemblies and design lots of equipment, and if that’s all I did I’d still be happy… But I get to do a lot more! I have a cherry picker and a crane license because the equipment I build is so big, the only way to do what I need to do is with the use of these machines just to get around it! I am one of only four pilots in the world trained to drive the ATLAS Movement machine, a system custom-built to open and close the huge parts of the experiment, the biggest being a 1200-ton calorimeter, on rails 10m up…and it's done by floating it on air like a hovercraft. I also got to design and build one of ATLAS’s largest parts, and all of this machinery is buried deep under the French-Swiss border, a great place to live where a good fondue is never too far away!

What skills/ attributes do you normally need to do your job? Are you applying them differently in this context of the global pandemic?

Problem-solving, problem-solving, problem-solving! It sounds so obvious when you say it but it’s actually the way you think about things on the job. When we’re faced with problems, we think back to how we’ve maybe seen these problems before, how we solved them then; maybe you’ve seen somebody do a similar thing on a different project? And it's regularly about breaking the problem down into smaller parts, finding the core issues and working your way back from them. Another important facet of this is being open to your team's ideas. If you’ve been working on something for a very long time, it can be hard to let go of what you’ve come up with. You will naturally want to keep going at it until it works, but often this is not the best way, and a fresh pair of eyes will help you through. Regarding this, CERN has a very collaborative culture, and this culture has been strained by the COVID-19 pandemic. Meetings have all moved online and casual meet-ups no longer happen. This is how and where a lot of the great ideas and inspirations at CERN take shape and we have all felt this absence of opportunity. But we have adapted, as everyone has, to this new way of working. Hopefully soon we will see the return of the coffee catch-up.

Has your daily routine changed at all due to the pandemic? If so, how?

Not so much for me. During the initial lockdown, we were in the middle of assembling the New Small Wheel, a carefully planned out operation and all of this suddenly came to a halt. The border between my house (in France) and the CERN entrance (in Switzerland) was closed and so my boss had to drum up some design work for me so I could connect at home, but luckily, I have the skills to jump straight from one type of work to the other. As soon as we were able, I was one of the first back on site as our project was of high importance to get the machine back together, keeping masks on, hands clean, and 2m apart…. Which was very weird.

What would you say to either a young person thinking about a technical career and/or a fellow technician?

Oh, this is a fun one that I never really have a straight answer for as I had no idea what I wanted to do until I was already doing it. But if I think back all I could say would be: “don’t put yourself in a box”. Sounds easy right? When I was younger everything and everyone seemed to be in different boxes. You do certain subjects at school and then you should go off to uni and then you should get a job… What job? What Uni? I didn’t know. I guess I was a bit lost. I had several interests; I was good at certain things but never knew how to put it all together. Then I visited Rutherford Appleton Laboratory at 16 and loved the place and really wanted to work there, but I wasn’t good enough at physics or chemistry even though I had a strong interest. And yet two years later, I was there as a technician in training on their apprenticeship scheme. A job I never imagined, at a place I couldn’t see how to get into and in the end, none of those boxes mattered. It turns out my interests in physics, chemistry, and design lead straight to a job designing, using material sciences, for the centre for European physics. In the end, it all just sort of came together, now it seems so obvious looking back!



How can I become a technician?


There are many pathways to becoming a technician involved in science or engineering.

If you’re coming up to 16 you could study A-levels, applied general qualifications, a T-level, or do an apprenticeship.

You could then gain more of the skills needed in the workplace with a higher apprenticeship, higher-level qualification, or experience in the workplace. Check out the stories of technicians below for inspiration:


Can you tell me more about CERN?


If you are a technician and would like to learn more about CERN's Technician Training Experience, click here. 

Want to learn more about CERN's experiments? Click here.



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