MacRobert Awards 2008


The Royal Academy of Engineering’s MacRobert Award is the UK’s premier prize for engineering. It is awarded annually for an outstanding innovation, of benefit to the community, which has also achieved commercial success. It seeks to demonstrate the importance of engineering and the role of engineers and scientists in contributing to national prosperity and international prestige.

Described at its launch as “the Nobel Prize for engineering”, the Award was originally founded by the MacRobert Trust and first presented in 1969. Every submission is reviewed by a panel of judges drawn from the Academy’s Fellowship and from all areas of engineering. The Award honours the winning company with a gold medal and the team members with a prize of £50,000. Here, we showcase the four finalists for 2008 starting with this year’s winner, announced by the Academy’s Senior Fellow, HRH The Prince Philip Duke of Edinburgh KG KT, at the Awards Dinner on 9 June.

Touch Bionics‘ i-LIMB hand has been fitted on over 220 patients worldwide

Touch Bionics‘ i-LIMB hand has been fitted on over 220 patients worldwide


For years, the advances made in prosthetic hand technology have been limited to basic, incremental improvements. The industry’s conventional approach to the problem has been to produce pincer-like devices that mimic the opening and closing of a thumb and forefinger. These devices, whilst allowing patients to regain some of the most basic hand functions, have never really provided a comparable replacement to a real hand. Now, through a combination of extensive R&D and innovative engineering, Touch Bionics have brought to market the world’s first prosthetic device with five individually powered digits representing a generational advance in bionics and patient care.


The key innovation behind Touch Bionics’ i-LIMB Hand is the multi-articulating finger technology, which has underpinned the product’s success since its launch in July 2007. The i-LIMB Hand is developed using leading-edge electronic and mechanical engineering techniques and is manufactured using high-strength plastics. The result is a prosthetic device that not only looks and acts as a real human hand, but is also lightweight, robust and appealing to both patients and healthcare professionals.


The i-LIMB Hand is controlled by a highly intuitive control system that uses a traditional two-input myoelectric (muscle) signal to open and close the hand’s fingers. Myoelectric controls utilise the electrical signal generated by the muscles in the remaining portion of the patient’s limb. This signal is picked up by electrodes that sit on the surface of the skin.

Crucially, existing users of basic myoelectric prosthetic hands are able to quickly adapt to the system and can master the device’s new functionality within minutes. For new patients, the i-LIMB Hand offers a prosthetic solution that is unique.

The modular construction of the i-LIMB Hand means that each individually powered finger can be quickly removed by simply removing one screw. This enables a prosthetist to easily swap fingers that require servicing and patients can continue their lives as before, after a short clinic visit. Traditional devices would have to be returned to the manufacturer, often leaving the patient without a hand for many weeks.

Commercial success

The i-LIMB Hand has been a huge success since its launch, quickly establishing itself as one of the most exciting devices in the world prosthetics market. Since the launch, more than 220 patients worldwide have been fitted with the i-LIMB Hand and the company is rapidly expanding into more countries. Relationships have been built with a wide range of clinical companies, from the world’s largest to smaller, independent clinics.

In addition to significant uptake in the United States, Touch Bionics has also now cemented European partnerships, as well as with clinics and distributers in South America and Asia. In less than a year, global market perception of the i-LIMB Hand has evolved from an exciting technology prospect into a new standard in prosthetic devices.

Touch Bionics’ core intellectual property is patent-secured and, through the development of the i-LIMB Hand, the company now leads the upper limb prosthetics market in three core areas: cosmesis (skin), controls and mechanical form factor. Already, post-launch technical feedback has been absorbed into product improvements and is reflected in warranty-supported new product developments.

For further information, see

Intermediate stage in the manufacture of the Compact Soot Filter

Intermediate stage in the manufacture of the Compact Soot Filter

Efficient Compact Soot Filter for Diesel Cars, Johnson Matthey plc

There has been tremendous growth in the number of diesel driven cars on our roads. Today in Europe there are more new diesel cars than those with petrol engines. With this rapid growth there is a need for the potentially harmful soot, as well as carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons, in diesel exhaust to be tightly managed. Johnson Matthey has developed and manufactured a novel, efficient and cost effective compact soot filter that renders all three pollutants harmless and prevents them entering the environment.

Diesel engines are fuel efficient and produce less carbon dioxide than petrol engines, but controlling their exhaust emissions has always been challenging, especially the soot produced which causes health concerns. Legislation will soon force all new diesel cars in Europe to be fitted with soot filters, but this involves major technical challenges as well as problems of restricted space, weight and cost. The Johnson Matthey Compact Soot Filter overcomes all of these hurdles. This was a major achievement because previous systems had multiple components that were heavy, costly and less energy efficient in use and to manufacture.

Innovations – Design and Manufacture

Johnson Matthey’s innovative concept was to control harmful soot, hydrocarbon and carbon monoxide emissions from diesel cars with a single component. It is small enough to fit directly on the turbocharger in the restricted space on the engine. In this location heat losses are minimised, so thermal efficiency is high and all the exhaust heat is available to catalytically remove hydrocarbon and carbon monoxide pollutants whilst driving. High thermal efficiency also means that less fuel is used in initiating the carefully controlled periodic burning of soot trapped in the filter.

An innovative flexible precision manufacturing process had to be developed to enable all the catalytic and filtration functions to be incorporated into the small filter. Precise amounts of nanosized catalyst on microsized thermally stable materials are placed in the filter walls at precise locations along its length. This new robotic process uses the minimal amount of platinum and it enables incorporation of the less expensive palladium. Being just a single unit, much less manufacturing energy and materials are needed than in previous designs and this, together with its optimised production, makes the Johnson Matthey Compact Soot Filter particularly

Multiple Community Benefits

Thermal efficiency and its low weight contribute to reduced fuel use and carbon dioxide emissions. The single component design has a major manufacturing energy and material savings – unlike other designs, the Compact Soot Filter has no separate oxidation catalysts for a fuel additive requirement.

New environmentally friendly manufacturing plants in Hertfordshire have provided 300 new jobs and, most importantly, use of the new filter makes a significant contribution to improving air quality in an energy efficient and economic manner.

Successful Commercialisation

The Compact Soot Filter is a technical and commercial success. It is the leading emissions control technology for diesel cars and it has become a major revenue stream for Johnson Matthey’s environmental business. Manufacture started at the Royston site in Hertfordshire for export to European car plants and demand has steadily increased. Already 1.5 million have been manufactured and fitted to cars, and 4,000 new cars are equipped with one daily.

For further information, see

Hundreds of dime-sized detectors can be manufactured on a single silicon wafer

Hundreds of dime-sized detectors can be manufactured on a single silicon wafer

Chemical sensors on a silicon chip, Owlstone

The ability to detect and measure airborne chemical compounds quickly and accurately has become increasingly important for industries such as defence and security, industrial, automotive, environmental and consumer. Owlstone, which began life as a spin out company from the University of Cambridge in 2004, has developed and brought to market a device to meet current needs that is one hundred times smaller and one thousand times cheaper than existing technology.

Conventional ion mobility spectrometry (IMS) is used by practically every airport and military organisation around the world. While capable of detecting low quantities of threat agents the units are bulky and expensive, which makes it impossible to deploy them into soft targets, such as the London Underground, government buildings and public spaces. Additionally these devices experience frequent false alarms, which lead to panic and loss of confidence in the solution.


The Owlstone microchip solution is a ‘dime-size’ detector, with the ability to rapidly detect a broad range of threats at very low concentrations with high confidence. At the heart of this platform is a breakthrough silicon sensor that can be reprogrammed to detect a wide range of airborne or dissolved chemical agents in extremely small quantities. It works by using a proprietary form of Field Asymmetric Ion Mobility Spectrometry (FAIMS), a sensitive and proven method of trace detection.

The Owlstone FAIMS solution has improved sensitivity and improved selectivity at reduced power. Hundreds of devices are made on a silicon wafer using micro- and nano-manufacturing techniques, which significantly reduces the size and cost of each unit.

Another notable innovation has been the fact that the sensor is easily reprogrammable to detect variable threats in different situations. The same core technology can therefore be applied to meet application needs across a wide range of markets.

Benefit to the Community

Owlstone’s dime-sized chemical sensor chips are reprogrammable, which means they can be easily adapted and deployed in a range of applications. Among these is dealing with the threat of terrorism in public places such as airports where the miniscule apparatus can be discreetly used by police and security forces to search for explosive devices or toxic chemical agents.

Another area that finds the technology useful is medicine where it can be used to look for signature chemicals that relate to diseases and illnesses such as diabetes. The Owlstone chip allows for non-invasive diagnosis (via the subject’s breath, for example) to be carried out for a fast and accurate appraisal, a factor that benefits both the patient and the health service.

Owlstone are also using their technology to develop instruments for protecting workers against gas exposure in heavy industry and creating advanced precombustion smoke detectors.

Commercial Success

The original team of three researchers at the University of Cambridge who founded the company has grown to a staff of over 30 who are based in offices in the UK and the US. Multi-million dollar contracts have been won from the US Government Department of Defense while bluechip companies have also shown significant levels of interest in the product.

Further information:

TAP‘s Automated ULT Robotic Storage allows medical samples to be maintained at ultra-low temperatures over a long term period, thus allowing for large-scale research to be carried out

TAP‘s Automated ULT Robotic Storage allows medical samples to be maintained at ultra-low temperatures over a long term period, thus allowing for large-scale research to be carried out

Polar - automated ULT robotic storage, The Automation Partnership

Biobanking promises huge medical benefits by storing vast libraries of individual samples of tissue and biofluids for research. Manual methods become impracticable for large inventories and until now no credible automated system has existed that could deal with the ultra-low temperatures required whilst preserving sample integrity. TAP has created an automated repository capable of safely storing millions of biological samples at the required temperature of -80°C whilst allowing random on-demand robotic access. Their product, POLAR, is a proven solution in operation at the UK Biobank and is generating interest across the globe.

The UK Biobank project is the world’s leading programme that seeks to create a large-scale resource for research into genetic and situational factors in disease. The potential for such a resource is to uncover root causes for disease, and transform healthcare through personalised medicine. Using samples from 500,000 volunteers, it will generate 10 million individually unique samples of blood, plasma or urine, for example, that must all be stored continuously at -80°C over the 25-year term of the project in order to prevent degradation. Until TAP’s POLAR development came to fruition, no such resource existed.


POLAR combines TAP’s existing technologies in robotics, sample tracking and automated inventory management with innovations in refrigeration and robotic ultra-low temperature (ULT) access.

The key innovation in POLAR is the ‘tiled wall’ of robotically accessible drawer fronts which form part of each ULT storage module and is the basis of patent applications in Europe and the US. Only one robo-drawer ever needs to be opened at one time to access samples, exposing just 0.2 % of the accessible area. The principal benefit of this design is that the 10 million samples stored within nine 30 m3compartments will retain -80°C conditions during heavy usage and even in the event of a robotic failure whilst accessing the samples; thus preserving the integrity of the samples inside.

In order to maintain the required ultra-low temperature, TAP has pioneered the use of liquid nitrogen as a refrigerant. This obviates the need for complex cascade mechanical refrigeration plant which would be a significant capital cost. Intrinsically simple and reliable, this approach has lower maintenance overheads and building service requirements.

In addition, a separate electrically powered conditioning system maintains a -20°C environment inside the robotic enclosure that surrounds the compartments to ensure samples remain frozen during robotic pick-placing.

Further innovation is embodied in the machine control for the robotics, to account for the thermal expansion that occurs when -80°C storage drawers are pulled out into a -20°C robotic aisle. This includes both active datumming (the method of moving something to a known accurate and repeatable position) and real time adjustment to sensed postions, ensuring reliable unattended sample storage and retrieval

Commercial Success

POLAR has been very well received in the market. The initial breakthrough came when TAP won the contract from the UK Biobank for an ULT robotic storage facility. Since then TAP has secured one export sale based on its POLAR technology and are agreeing terms with another potential buyer in the USA. The sales pipeline for POLAR is now a significant proportion of TAP’s future business and has transformed the outlook for sample management opportunities.

For further information, see,

Download Article 895KB