“Scanning the chocolate eggs was an example to illustrate my work to the general public and to get more youth interested in engineering,” she smiles. “My three-year-old boy is now also enthusiastic about what his mother does.” The young researcher is specialised in the measurement techniques of CT (computed tomography) scanning and uses X-ray equipment to create 3D models of industrial components.
“The method is the same as in the medical world, where CT scanners make images of, for example, your heart or brain, without having to open up your body to look for possible irregularities,” explains Kiekens. “We apply this technology to precisely measure and detect internal flaws of industrial components, without damaging them.”
The scanners can X-ray through steel five centimetres thick and create an internal 3D model in half an hour.The amount of radiation needed for this purpose would be deadly for humans.
Industrial CT scanning has only been done for about five years, and the interest in it is steadily increasing. One reason is the growing importance of additive manufacturing or 3D printing, in which materials printers create solid objects from a 3D digital model by laying down successive layers of material.
Kiekens does research for high tech companies such as LayerWise and Materialise, both in Leuven and both specialised in 3D printing. “Because the industrial components are developed in one piece instead of assembled, scanning is the only way to check the often very complex structures inside,” she says. “Today, almost every industrial sector adopts this technology.” The components she scans are for autos, airplanes and space technology.
To win the title of Engineer of the Year, Kiekens had to convince a jury made up of representatives from the building, energy, industrial, education and media sectors. “Apart from her technical know-how and link to the business world, she impressed them with her ability to translate difficult concepts into images that everyone can relate to,” says Marc Boriau, managing director of XPE Engineering. The Antwerp employment agency organised the award to put engineers in the spotlight and to inspire more youth to study for this bottleneck profession.
“Engineers have an image problem,” notes Boriau. “They often enjoy working behind the scenes more than promoting their achievements. We need to show children and their parents the interesting dimensions of engineering and emphasise the value of the profession.” Flanders, he says, “needs more engineers”. Boriau especially hopes the example of Kiekens will motivate more female students, who are gravely underrepresented in engineering studies. In the future, XPE wants to extend its competition to involve pupils in secondary education and engineering students in their final year of higher education.
Kiekens, who teaches students herself at Group T, acknowledges the misunderstanding among the general public and youth. “Too many pupils think engineering is a purely technical job, while the work is very diverse, and creativity plays an important part,” she says. “To broaden their minds, I challenge the students to find solutions for everyday problems, such as traffic congestion, and to think beyond the technical aspects.”
In cooperation with the Belgian development NGO World Solidarity, Kiekens also helped students of Group T to create a new type of smoke oven that people in the West African country Benin could use to smoke fish without standing in the smoke all day. The smoke oven has improved health conditions considerably and can be constructed with cheap materials available in the country. Kiekens: “Engineering students need to experience that their ideas can make a difference in the everyday lives of many people.”