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Dr Nicola Symonds PhD, BEng, MRAeS, CEng

Operations Director of nC2, Forensic Materials Engineering Consultant

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Dr Nicola Symonds is the Operations Director of nC2 Engineering Consultancy, Business Unit within the University of Southampton. The Unit provides services direct to industrial customers, leveraging the specialist skills and equipment of the University. The Mission of nC2 Engineering Consultancy is to support the engineering of safer and more efficient products through reliable testing, scientific examiantion and expert opinion.


Failure analysis provides the answers and stops us repeating errors


Nicola runs the day-to-day operations of the nC2 business unit, this is both a technical customer facing role combined with management of the staff of the unit. A typical customer could be from almost any business sector but with a surface engineering, tribology or materials issue that they cannot solve themselves. This could be a failed component, a technology they want to explore, training, testing, applied research etc. The company could be a multinational or a small innovative SME. Further information about the unit can be found at 



Nicola gained both her degrees from the University of Southampton: B.Eng. Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering, followed by a doctorate in Engineering Materials. Her thesis “Impact and wireline wear resistance of downhole coatings” was sponsored by British Petroleum and involved both impact, erosion and wear testing of polymeric coatings.

Nicola left University in 2000, and after a year as an engineer with BAe Systems made the move to the Ministry of Defence, where for ten years she investigated aircraft incidents and accidents as a Forensic Materials Engineer.  She led investigations of military helicopters and fixed wing fighters and transporters, and assisted the AAIB in many civilian aircraft accidents.  During this period Nicola was elected Member of the Royal Aeronautical Society and became one of the few female Chartered Engineers in this country. She also was granted a Visiting Research Fellow position here at the University of Southampton.

Prior to her current Enterprise role, Nicola was a part-time Senior Research Fellow within the National Centre for Advanced Tribology (nCATS). She led several research projects since joining the University in 2011. The first (2011-2013) involved designing and running a new high-speed impact rig to examine the high strain resistance of thin coatings, for DSTL. The first of her two current rail projects, to diagnose and predict the bearing failure of train wheelsets, was conceived by Nicola from her ongoing research under the 'Green Tribology' EPSRC grant. The second "the Adhesion Riddle" was the result of Nicola winning a grant competition to look at ways to clean the railway lines.

Through her consultancy work Nicola bceame very interested in the friction testing of metal on ice and in 2015 become a phd supervisor and is working with the British skeleton bob team.

Research interests

Nicola is interested in understanding the way materials fail, thereby to prevent future failures through improved design.  Failure mechanisms of specific interest include wear, fatigue and overload.

Her research includes both fundamental work, where damage is created in a laboratory environment, and direct industrial examples removed for investigation via research or consultancy routes.

Other research projects

High Strain Impact of Multi-Layered Coatings
A project sponsored by DSTL and EPSRC, Nicola led a team who looked at the improvements that thin multi-layered coatings brought to the impact performance of metals, ceramics and composites.

Forensic Examination of Rail Axles and Bearings
In 2013 Nicola was awarded an EPSRC grant to research axle-bearing failures on trains, with significant industrial support from Perpetuum, Southeastern and Bombardier.  This ongoing work to look at the vibration signatures of failing bearings is carried out by Nicola and Dr Ilaria Corni. This relationship and research has continued and is currently underwritten by an Innovate grant awarded spring 2018.

The Adhesion Riddle
in 2014 Nicola was awarded funding from RRUKA to led a multi-person team investigating the potential for ultrasonics to be used to clean compacted debris from the contact surface of railway lines, thereby improving wheel adhesion. The 9 month project determined the effectiveness of StarStream and its successor for rail head cleaning

Impact damage to thin nickel + tungsten carbide coating.
Impact damage
Showing part of the High Velocity Impact Rig
High Velocity Impact Rig
Rail research
Rail research
Rail axle bearing research
Rail axle bearing

Research group

national Centre for Advanced Tribology at Southampton (nCATS)

Affiliate research groups


Research project(s)

The Adhesion Rail Riddle - Ensuring Trains Can Brake

Investigating rail axle bearing damage



Nicola has given many guest lectures to aerospace and professional groups across the south of England about her role in past air-accident investigations. Nicola has also provided workshops for the annual Dragonfly day on fractography and tribology. This on-campus day is designed for year 9 female students to encourage young women to consider the benefits of further study, and careers, in science and engineering. In the hands-on workshops the students get to learn using the various teaching demonstrators Nicola has designed. Bigger versions of Nicola's demonstrators have been put in the Winchester Science Centre to teach the principals of Tribology to the general public.

Nicola will be presenting a keynote lecture to attendees of the 2015 TEAtime lecture series.



  • Chair the regular nCATS Research Fellows group meeting. 
  • Assistant laboratory manager for the nCATS facilities.
  • Instructor and manager of Tallysurf machine
Students using wear demonstrator
Students at Dragonfly day
Tribology is everywhere
Tribology is everywhere
At Winchester Science Centre
Large scale tribology demonstrator
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  • Co-I for 2017/18 undergraduate Part 3 individual project about Forensic Material Investigation of Engine Injectors
  • Assisted Part 4 Group Project students
  • Guest lecturer for Part 4 Materials Engineering Course (annually 2015 onwards)
  • Fatigue and Failures labs for Part 2 students (annually 2015 onwards)
  • Co-I for 2015-2018 Phd student

As a recognised, experienced and accomplished Forensic Materials Engineer with a proven 10 year background in both military and civilian air accident investigations, with a natural aptitude for quickly analysing complex situations and identifying key physical evidence, Nicola has been called upon to examine many broken components and systems.  The industry sectors Nicola has provided failure investigation consultancy for (with examples) are shown below:


  • Hovercraft blade failur
  • Failed water valve
  • Broken anchor
  • Cracked welding


  • Aero-engine seal components
  • Bronze bush wear


  • Third rail shoe arm
  • Door hinges

Personal injury

  • Motorbike crash
  • Broom handle laceration


  • Serial number restoration
  • Friction of steel on ice test rig design

Please email for all consultancy enquiries.

Macro fractography: defining the origin of failure
Macro fractography
Destructive examinations
Destructive examinations
Composite failure
Composite failure
Micro fractography: fatigue striations in aluminium component
Micro fractography
Non-destructive examination: CT of failed valve
Non-destructive examination
Dr Nicola Symonds
R2001, B15, Highfield Campus

Room Number : 15/2001/M47

Dr Nicola Symonds's personal home page
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