Article - Issue 20, August/September 2004

The 35th MacRobert Award 2004

Jane Sutton

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What is the MacRobert Award?

The Royal Academy of Engineering’s MacRobert Award for innovation in engineering is awarded to an entry from any area of engineering or technology. The award is open to individuals or teams of up to five people from any size of company or institution that can show that it has made a major engineering breakthrough that is of benefit to society and has succeeded in commercially exploiting it. The Award was originally founded by the MacRobert Trust and is now presented by the Royal Academy of Engineering, a prize fund having been established with donations from the MacRobert Trust, the Royal Academy of Engineering and British industry.

MacRobert Award winner 2004: IBM

British engineers at global IT giant IBM have won the 2004 Royal Academy of Engineering MacRobert Award for an innovation that most people have never come across. WebSphere MQ software has helped businesses save billions of dollars by providing a failsafe means of exchanging business-critical information between computer systems, irrespective of their location and regardless of which hardware, programming language, operating system or communication protocol they use.

WebSphere’s development team, from IBM’s Hursley Laboratory near Winchester, received the MacRobert Gold Medal and £50,000 prize in London last month from HRH The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, at the Academy’s Awards Dinner, beating off stiff competition from Pilkington’s self-cleaning windows, Sharp’s 3-D displays and Delphi Diesel’s emission-busting injection systems.

‘Without WebSphere MQ we might never have enjoyed the full benefits of the e-commerce revolution,’ says Dr Robin Paul FREng, Chairman of the MacRobert Award Judging Panel. ‘When you realise how many IT systems have to talk to each other when, for example, you check your balance and transfer funds online you really start to appreciate the value of this innovation. By enabling seamless communications between computers, the engineers at Hursley have effectively created the oil that now keeps the world’s e-commerce machine running.’

WebSphere MQ was conceived at a time when organisations realised they were becoming totally dependent on a proliferation of incompatible, non-communicating information systems. Whilst the IT suppliers promoted replacement, upgrade or integration, Dr Tony Storey FREng and Tim Holloway came up with the simple – but heretical – idea that the right solution was to connect existing systems.

Launched in 1994, WebSphere MQ integrates servers, back office systems and databases, reliably handling hundreds of millions of messages every day. But like all simple ideas, WebSphere MQ was not easy to implement and the development team faced huge challenges along the way. These included having to support 40 different computing platforms, filing over 120 patents as well as having to transfer the original system to the Internet. But they did this successfully – and continue to improve it – such that WebSphere MQ is now an essential part of the mainstream infrastructure for over 10,000 customers, including more than 80 per cent of companies in the Fortune 100.

‘We are delighted that the IBM WebSphere software family has been honoured with this prestigious award by the Royal Academy of Engineering,’ says Graham Spittle, Hursley Laboratory Director and IBM’s Vice President, Business Integration Development. ‘WebSphere MQ is one of the most important and successful distributed system technologies in the industry today, and we are proud that this achievement was initiated by a UK team. This award recognises the importance of software as an engineering discipline in its own right, as much as it recognises the success of IBM WebSphere MQ. The MacRobert Award is an indication of the maturity of the industry and recognition of the significance of the role IT plays in the modern world.’

Aim of the Award

The aim of the Award is to recognise the innovative achievements of an individual or team and to publicise these to a wider audience. A panel of judges reviews all submissions and visits the short-listed companies that have been selected as finalists in order to choose the winner. The judges are drawn from all areas of engineering, each bringing their own expertise to the task. Competition for the Award is strong as the submissions must meet a number of criteria in order to be considered. Subject matter submitted must be innovative, commercially successful and of benefit to society.

Previous winners

Year Company Why

2003 Randox Laboratories Ltd for a fully automated diagnostic analyser

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2002 CDT Ltd for light-emitting polymers

2001 Sensaura Ltd for 3-D positional audio

The three finalists 2004

In another year, according to the judges, any of the four finalists could have won. Coming a very close second were:

Delphi Diesel Systems

Delphi Diesel Systems developed the E3 electronic unit injector advanced fuel system. The E3 will enable diesel engines to meet not only the next European and American emissions standards but also the stringent future emission controls Euro V and US07. Precise control of fuel injection means reductions in harmful exhaust gases, nitrous oxides and soot plus lower fuel consumption. Delphi’s advances have been made using a two-valve injection system instead of the conventional single valve and it is half the weight of competing products. They sold 50,000 units in 2003, mostly to Volvo, and are planning to produce 100,000 systems this year as new customers come on board in the US, Europe and Asia.

Team members: Barrie Barker, Robert Cross, Andrew Male, David Jewell and Simon Backhouse, all based at Delphi Diesel in Stonehouse.

Pilkington plc

Pilkington plc developed Pilkington Activ™, the world’s first self-cleaning glass. Window-cleaners worldwide will lament the development of this low-maintenance glass but it has the huge environmental benefit of slashing detergent use. A special coating of microcrystalline titanium dioxide catalyses the breakdown of organic material in sunlight. The same coating also makes water sheet out all over the surface, so rainwater can just wash away the dirt. Pilkington has developed a reliable process to apply the coating very precisely when the glass is still at over 650°C. The coating must be only 15 nm thick and accurate to within 1 nm to avoid distortions in the glass.

Team members: Dr Kevin Sanderson, Simon Hurst, Tim McKittrick, David Rimmer and Dr Liang Ye, all based at the Pilkington European Technical Centre in Lathom, Ormskirk.

Sharp Laboratories of Europe

Sharp Laboratories developed Look no glasses!, their electrically switchable 2-D/3-D displays, which can be used in the front line of the ‘War on Terror’. Airport security staff can now see the realistic 3-D images from their X-ray equipment without wearing uncomfortable glasses. Sharp’s technology gave us affordable 3-D for the first time last year in the NTT DoCoMo mobile phone – it sold more units in a week than all previous 3-D displays combined. To date, more than 3 million 2-D/3-D phones have been sold. The display achieves 3-D using the Parallax Barrier effect to direct discrete images on an LCD screen towards each eye. The user’s brain recombines these images as a 3-D picture. Uniquely, the Parallax Barrier can be switched off leaving a conventional 2-D display.

Team members: Dr Grant Bourhill, Adrian Jacobs, Dr Graham Jones, Jonathan Mather and Robert Winlow, all based at Sharp Laboratories on the Oxford Science Park.

The Academy encourages applications from a wide range of individuals/teams. Details of how to apply, as well as rules and conditions of entry, can be found at www.raeng.org.uk, or contact Clare Huddlestone at the Royal Academy of Engineering.

Jane Sutton

The Royal Academy of Engineering

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