Article - Issue 37, December 2008

Response to broadband in the UK; Response to Palme D'Or; Technology Strategy Board

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Response to Broadband in the UK

In the September Ingenia 36, Dr Peter Cochrane wrote an excellent article on broadband services, setting out the urgent need to get on with the job of providing a universal fibre optic service or ‘fibre-to-the-home’. Sadly, his article delivers exactly the same message as the Mountbatten Lecture I gave at the Institution of Electrical Engineers, in November 1988, some 20 years ago.

Here I made the point that the successful modernisation and expansion of telecommunications services lay in the extension of optical transmission to the local subscriber or access network, serving more than 30 million telephone users. Why?

Firstly, the existing copper distribution network had then, and still has today, inferior voice reception. Secondly, UK business and domestic markets wanted advanced services which needed optical cable networks. Today, we are still seriously reducing UK industrial and commercial competitiveness, and delaying the development of desirable, even essential social services, by using copper in the last mile and not installing fibre-to-the-home.

At the time of the lecture, France, Germany and Japan were developing fibre optic services with financial support from their governments. Funding from the UK Government wasn’t forthcoming then and isn’t now, but Government still has a clear responsibility to define the regulatory regime. By failing in its duty to set the rules over the past 20 years, the British economy and society have not seen the real benefits of information technology.

But it wasn’t just a lack of regulatory framework that impeded progress, a serious lack of market awareness was also to blame. In the late 1980s, a demand for these services had not been created and marketing needed more attention.

As I said then, the market was waiting for decisive action and the communications industry should have been set free to exploit this revolution to the benefit of all. The Catch 22 situation that low cost networks could not be built until demand drove down component costs would have been broken by vigorous marketing of new services and pump priming risk taking. What’s more, better quality and cheaper services had always led to higher traffic growth and the returns usually exceeded original investment calculations.

When I delivered my lecture 20 years ago, I said we were leaders in optical fibre technology as applied to long distance and high capacity business systems. I also predicted the large market of local networks was yet to come and, to maintain our position, local network development and construction had to forge ahead. It hasn’t and, as Peter Cochrane said in his article, “We are not even in the top ten, our ranking is actually somewhere in the latter teens.”

Over the intervening years I have tried to influence BT and the Government about the imperative need and the failure to act is giving us a slower and worse service. Yes, extending optical transmission will be a huge task with a completely new end-to-end fibre optic network taking years to achieve. But to start, fibre optic cables could be applied in piecemeal fashion in existing networks.

The current situation of using existing copper connections is like a dog walking on its hind legs. It’s clever but not the best way to walk.

Sir William Barlow FREng
Past President, The Royal Academy of Engineering
Former Chairman of The Post Office (including BT)

(See previous article: Broadband in the UK)


The P & K artificial hand with fingers flexed. The thumb may be passively rotated in opposition to suit grip.

The P & K artificial hand with fingers flexed. The thumb may be passively rotated in opposition to suit grip.

Response to Palme D’Or

We read the account of the MacRobert Award to the i-LIMB bionic hand with interest ( Ingenia 36). Coincidentally we have just published a biographical article on Alexander Pringle, who developed an earlier version of a man-made hand that had a functional grip. Pringle, as an engineer, and his partner Surgeon Thomas Kirk represented an early partnership between their respective professions, whose attention to the same challenges led to artificial limbs being designed and manufactured in Belfast during the 1920s and 1930s.

In 1918, some 41,000 ex-servicemen had undergone amputations during the First World War, over 25% of whom required artificial arms. Pringle’s solution to the problem of functional grip was founded on anatomical dissections conducted by Kirk, emulating the tendons in human hands through the use of wires acting within the coils of springs forming fingers and leather secured on the outer surfaces to resist compression and thus promote bending when the wires were tensioned. A ratchet mechanism, operated by the opposite hand, controlled the wires rather than through a shoulder harness used by other designs.

The arm included use of light-weight Certalmid, a combination of certus glue, muslin and celluloid developed during the First World War. Pringle and Kirk sought to demonstrate the capabilities of their invention to accomplish everyday functional tasks. In the absence of broadcasting media they embarked on demonstrations in hospitals and working mens’ clubs, with ambitions of tours to Europe and America. There are no records of the latter; however, limbs were exported around the world for almost two decades.

Pringle and Kirk would have surely have been delighted by the progress through contemporary technology to address the same problems that they faced, prompted by the continuing challenges to emulate and compensate for structural and systemic disorders of the human body.

John Orr
Professor of Biomedical Engineering
Queen’s University Belfast

Sir Bernard Crossland FREng
Professor Emeritus
Queen’s University Belfast

Further reading: ‘The Lives of Great Engineers of Ulster Vol. III’,
ed. B. Crossland and JS Moore, 2008.

(See previous article: Palme d'Or)


Technology Strategy Board

After reading the article from the Technology Strategy Board ( Ingenia 36), it is good to see that further funding will be going into innovation research over the next three years. Loughborough University is one of several leading universities working on the Innovation and Productivity Grand Challenge that is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and Economic and Social Research Council. Our project looks into how the UK can enhance its economic competitiveness by increasing innovation and productivity. We are now collating our findings to present next year, when the project comes to a close.

Research with GKN Driveline has focused on the role of people and their environments, whether an executive, a manager or an operator. Our research has shown that an empowered workforce encouraged to be innovative allows them to contribute to their own productivity. This results in a more satisfied workforce, increasingly motivated to generate further ideas and improve their own working environment.

After working in this way with the employee cells at a GKN plant, it has been reported that one cell is making a presentation of their improvements at board level and another cell is now a model example for the rest of the plant. What these results aim to highlight is that innovation success is dependent on people and their motivation. So, invest in innovation success but, in the face of the credit crunch, it is important that businesses do not lose sight of their people!

Professor Neil D Burns
Professor of Manufacturing Organisation
Loughborough University

Further reference: www.lboro.ac.uk/departments/mm/research.html

(See previous article: The role of the Technology Strategy Board)

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