College of Agriculture, Engineering
and Science (CAES)

UKZN Engineering Alumnus Working with McClaren

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Mechanical Engineering alumnus Mr Stephen Johanson has carved a career for himself in the automotive industry, driving forward advancements in hybrid technology at McLaren Automotive Ltd in the United Kingdom, where he is Engineering Manager for Electric Drive Systems.

The vehicles that have punctuated Johanson’s work at McLaren make use of hybrid technology and the integration of the battery, electric motor and motor control unit. He worked on the McLaren P1, a halo car for the company, and while in the Electric Drive department was involved with engineering the high voltage battery, e-motor, inverter, high voltage cabling, charger, and the testing and development of these systems.

After completing his studies at UKZN in 2005, he made his entry into the industry at DESign Group in Durban, landing the job before his final exams were over and working at the company for three years.

Johanson settled on engineering as a career path following a year off after high school to attend Bible College and to research potential vocations. He was accepted for all Engineering Disciplines at UKZN, his first choice university because of its proximity to home and the strength of its engineering programme. He made his final choice to study mechanical engineering while in the lines at registration, and said he enjoyed the experience of studying at UKZN, making special mention of Professor Glen Bright for bringing the subject to life.

Key skills his studies at UKZN equipped him with were learning how to think analytically and to adopt a positive approach to work.

After his time at the DESign Group and on a quest for adventure before settling into domestic life, Johanson and his wife Jo-Ann went to the United Kingdom and joined friends at a London-based church. Johanson worked for a time with a landscaping design company and then took on a role at Honda Engineering where he worked for two years, followed by a short travel break after which he landed the dream job at McLaren in 2012.

Johanson said he experienced a ‘euphoric moment,’ after getting the McLaren post.

Johanson providentially ended up in McLaren’s hybridisation division, and a contract position soon turned into a permanent role as a design and project engineer. Johanson is now Engineering Manager for Electric Drive Systems at the company where he has worked on three hybrid cars and leads a team of 17.

The massive learning curve of working on the P1 came with some perks, including getting to put miles on the eye-catching vehicle on weekend jaunts. During a lull in hybrid vehicle development, Johanson worked in research at McLaren for a time before re-joining the hybridisation team as principal engineer. He has since worked on the McLaren Speedtail and Artura models.

‘Being part of this team brings me a lot of joy,’ said Johanson. ‘Working for McLaren does mean there is a name to live up to, but McLaren has great products and that keeps you motivated.’

While there is a strong sense of pride in the roll-out of a vehicle after the four to five years it spends in development, as a team leader Johanson says there is more to finding fulfilment in his role than simply the high tech vehicles he works on.

‘There is great product and amazing technology but the best thing about McLaren is the people – the company puts a lot of effort into developing people and relationships,’ he said.

Despite the challenges brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic that took the form of several redundancies, McLaren’s strong business plan is advancing towards the development of a full electric vehicle.

For up-and-coming young engineers interested in the automotive industry, Johanson suggested getting into the hybridisation and the electric drive industry early and building up experience in this relatively new technological field to give oneself an edge.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photograph: Supplied