MacRobert Award 2013


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

The award was 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 across 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 three finalists for the award in alphabetical order. The winner will be announced at the Academy Awards Dinner on 17 July 2013.

Concrete Canvas has been used as an alternative to traditional concrete solutions in over 40 countries and in many different applications, such as this slope protection project in Madrid

Concrete Canvas has been used as an alternative to traditional concrete solutions in over 40 countries and in many different applications, such as this slope protection project in Madrid


Concrete Canvas Ltd has developed a flexible, cement-impregnated geotextile that hardens on hydration to form a thin, durable, waterproof and fire-resistant concrete layer.


Concrete Canvas (CC) was developed by Peter Brewin MEng and Will Crawford MEng during their postgraduate degree studies in industrial design engineering at Imperial College London and the RCA in 2004. It was originally made for the award-winning Concrete Canvas Shelters, inflatable concrete buildings that require only water and air for construction. The shelters have been widely used in major civil infrastructure and construction projects worldwide.

Concrete Canvas is a fabric impregnated with a high-strength dry concrete that sets rapidly to give a durable concrete surface when sprayed with or immersed in water. The material structure consists of a three-dimensional fibre matrix linking two faces: a porous face that retains the dry concrete powder allowing water to pass through and an impermeable face. A bespoke dry concrete mix is trapped within the fibre matrix, which controls the separation of the faces and aids hydration by ‘wicking’ – the absorption of a liquid by a material in the manner of a candle wick. It also reinforces the concrete once set. Unlike most concretes, it is not classified as an irritant and is less damaging to the environment.

CC’s design means that it can be cut using hand tools prior to hydration, requiring few people and little training to install. Other strengths include being easier, faster and less expensive to install than conventional concrete methods. Ditch-lining projects using the material have achieved installation rates of over 400m2 a day, compared to between 30m2 to 120m2 for traditional concrete solutions.


Sales of the material began in 2008 and have doubled year-on-year, with 85% of sales consisting of exports. The speed and ease with which the material can be installed as well as its technical advantages have led to a wide range of applications, from intercepting and channelling glacial meltwater at high altitude in the Atacama Desert to helping prevent erosion on slopes in the United Arab Emirates. CC is currently being used in over 40 countries.


The material has been engineered to enable 100mm of poured concrete to be replaced with just 8mm of CC for many applications. As a result, 90% less concrete by mass can be used for a typical installation, directly reducing the CO2 footprint and environmental impact of construction projects. The bespoke dry concrete mix also has a much lower alkaline reserve than OPC-based concretes and a very low wash out rate, leading to the material gaining approval from the Environmental Agency Biodiversity team in 2010 for use in live water courses.

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The X-Max detector is used inside a scanning electron microscope to analyse samples less than 100μm wide. Maps then show the distribution of the individual elements and how the chemical composition varies across the sample

The X-Max detector is used inside a scanning electron microscope to analyse samples less than 100μm wide. Maps then show the distribution of the individual elements and how the chemical composition varies across the sample


Oxford Instruments’ NanoAnalysis division has produced the ‘X-Max’ which allows the chemical analysis of samples with features a thousand times thinner than a human hair to be made inside an electron microscope. Maps then show individual element as well as phase distributions.

There is a wide demand for the X-Max technology. Semiconductor manufacturers want to lay down tracks of circuitry on chips under 20nm wide and to analyse materials that are causing a fault. Materials scientists want to characterise ever-smaller sections of substances for strength and fatigue life, and forensics laboratories need to analyse gunshot residues not visible to the naked eye.


The technology used to perform this microanalysis is called Energy Dispersive Spectrometry (EDS). When a high-energy electron in the microscope beam strikes an atom of a sample, an X-ray is emitted that is characteristic of the material being stimulated. By measuring the spectra of the X-rays, it is possible to identify which elements are present and their relative composition. Once the elemental composition is known, simple computation can derive the various chemical phases present.

While the technology to do this has been around for several decades, the challenge has been to meet the growing market need for finer resolution – to move from microanalysis to nanoanalysis. In order to detect X-rays being emitted from a feature only 10 nm wide - only 100 atoms - it is necessary to reduce the width of the scanning electron beam. This necessitates reducing the accelerating voltage of the microscope, which means fewer X-rays will be emitted. A larger detector inside instruments enables the detection of the weak X-ray signals.

X-Max was developed from a long line of X-ray sensor developments produced in the 1980s and 1990s. These devices have evolved from requiring liquid nitrogen cooling to ensure adequate signal to noise, to the development in 2006 of the first detector based on silicon drift detector (SDD) technology. However, this was limited to an active area of 10mm2.

In 2007, the company launched a project to improve the capability of SDD based EDS detectors, addressing all of the design and manufacturing limitations to produce a range of detectors with active areas up to 150mm2, and class-leading analytical specifications.

The improved design and manufacturing processes behind X-Max make these larger area detectors feasible. Apart from the SDD device itself, it has been necessary to develop thinner area X-ray transmission windows, ways of stopping other undesirable particles or radiation from entering the detector, as well as innovative mechanical designs to overcome the associated thermal and mechanical challenges of working in the vacuum of a microscope.


X-Max currently provides a 50% greater sensor area than any competitive system. It can capture more input data from a given signal and reduces data acquisition to minutes as compared to hours. Over 3,000 units have been sold, 95% of which are exported.

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RealVNC software allows a computer screen to be remotely accessed and controlled securely from another device across the internet. The products are widely used throughout industry, government and education as well as by individuals.

First developed 20 years ago, VNC™ was initially distributed free-of-charge as a market-making initiative. Today, there are a billion copies worldwide, and it is available on more kinds of computer than any other software application. VNC protocols are an official part of the internet alongside those for email and the web.


The philosophy behind VNC is a universal system that works between any kind of computer, for example those running Windows, Mac, or Linux, or any other device with a screen.

This is made possible by a focus on software that is engineered for extreme portability and testability. The key to making the system feel interactive is to transmit screen changes intelligently and efficiently across networks of different speeds and latencies. A number of patents protect these innovations.

This long-term strategy has allowed RealVNC to generate new markets as devices with screens proliferate. For example, VNC products were the first of their kind for smartphones and tablets.

In a partnership with Intel, a recent family of computer chips now includes a remote access capability directly in silicon that works even if the software on the computer itself is faulty. Powered by VNC technology, this novel approach is set to transform the IT support industry.

The company’s technology enables users of Google’s Chrome browser to access applications on their remote desktops. VNC is also at the heart of the automotive industry standard to allow a driver or passenger to use the familiar applications, music and video on their smartphone from screens built into the dashboard and seatbacks of vehicles. Looking further forward, the company is poised with influential technology for the emerging 'Internet of Things' in which consumer electronics and household appliances are networked and accessible remotely.


RealVNC has been highly profitable from the outset, and has grown organically without external investment. Over 90% of revenues are exports, and reinvestment of profit sustains the company’s growth through innovation.

Products for desktops, laptops, servers, smartphones and tablets provide a core revenue stream. Uses include providing help and assistance to those with computer problems and remote working and collaboration across organisations and continents. The products are widely used throughout industry, government and education as well as by individuals.

VNC is the only remote access software which is small and portable enough to be embedded in third-party products. This has resulted in partnerships with major companies which is accelerating growth.


RealVNC technology reduces travel and saves energy through remote working and by allowing computer problems to be resolved without the need for IT support workers to be physically present. VNC is widely used to provide help, teaching, expertise and even medical diagnosis to parts of the world without the necessary local expertise. It has also created the ability for family members to support each other remotely.

As an exporter with a UK cost base, RealVNC makes a strong contribution to the SME-led growth of the economy and an ecosystem of businesses base their products and services on VNC technology.

The company has been recognised for its innovation and international trade. RealVNC has exceptionally earned three Queen’s Awards for Enterprise in the last
three years.

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