Where did all the Boffins go?
Francis Spufford writes about the British Boffins of yesteryear who weren’t seen, partly because they were socially awkward but mostly because their operations were secretive and only came to public attention years after. The results of their efforts were legendary – Concorde, Mobile Phone Technology, Human Genome Project, Beagle 2, Prospero satellite e.t.c. were all made by the so called Backroom Boys.
‘The backroom boys’ is a phrase from the 1940s. It’s what industrial-age Britain used to call the ingenious engineers who occupied the draughty buildings at the edge of factory grounds and invented the technologies of the future. Almost always, they were boys, or rather men: for historical reasons, but also because there is perhaps an affinity between the narrow-focused, wordless concentration required for engineering and a particular kind of male mind
We should rue the loss of such Man-Boys, because Engineering or as I like to think of it, Applied Physics, has immediate, tangible societal impact. In comparison to the Sheldon Cooper types that like to think in blue like the water on a beach in Barbados, Engineers (Should) think in red – like the blood of a Homo Sapien when hurt (Assuming Aliens, if they’re out there bleed a different colour). In other words, real life solutions to real life problems.
Bristol is home to the University of West England or as it used used to be known as Bristol Polytechnic – a name which meant a focus on vocational skills rather than the higher learning slant of it’s Oxbridge counterparts. If you studied at a University, it used to be the case that were expected to stay in academia doing research. Attending a Polytechnic however, meant getting a job straight after, where the knowledge and skills you’ve gained can be immediately applied, something that particularly suited the Engineering profession. This also meant the Polytechnic had an incredibly strong link with the Industry it serves.
All of this changed in 1992 when such Polytechnics as UWE were granted ‘University’ status, all jumped at the offer. What this meant for the Engineering was an increasing shift towards theoretical learning as a University should, practical skills suffered as a result, the balance is now near impossible to redress. In the latest publication of ‘the Engineer‘, the opinion section discusses the ‘Lives of Graduates’. I particularly share the sentiments of an Anonymous contributor which I quote below:-
“This won’t be popular, but I have to say that, at the time of graduation, a graduate engineer is no engineer. Sorry, but Universities do not produce fully functioning expert assets…it takes 10 years to become a expert. a degree demonstrates an ability to learn and absorb concepts at a certain level – nothing more.”
Backroom Boys @ UWE
I have however noticed that UWE is currently bucking the trend of the useless engineering graduate, particularly in its robotics department. Take the case of Silas Adekunle, who started his own Entertainment Robotics company with full support from his University. If Reach Robotics (The company he started) is the result of a 3 year Undergraduate Degree, clearly UWE’s robotics department must be doing something right. If you think this is merely an isolated case then think again.
Another one of UWE’s success stories is that of a start-up called Omnidynamics, that names Greg Gruszecki and David Graves as Directors and Founders. The company describes itself on its website thus:
We effectively design and create bespoke technological solutions specialising in robotics. As pioneers in our field, we are continually envisaging the possible. Our natural ability to think laterally coupled with dynamic problem solving, allows for limitless creativity and imagination.
Strooder and the 3D Printing Revolution
The Company’s first technological solution is a product called Strooder, aimed at the 3D printing industry and hobbyists alike.
The application of this relatively new technology is not only limited to Industrial manufacturing, allowing not only rapid prototyping, envisaging a future where an aircraft’s whole outer shell (Fuselage) can be printed. It also has huge day to day use in potentially every home. Just as the printing press eventually made its way from the factory to the office and eventually to every household, the 3D printer too is projected to follow the same path.
A website called shapeways, already allows early adopters to buy models of products that you can print yourself from a 3D Printer – something which sooner or later will become readily available and affordable. Maybe not a Gun, but you can print an iPhone case, keyring, cookie cutter, toys, jewellery and an endless list of other items. Strooder is aimed at such new use of 3D Printing.
3D Printers require a spool of plastic filament fed through the system that the printer translates to a finished product through its the layer by layer production method. These filaments can either be bought ready made, but there is another possibility of making them yourself from plastic materials at home you would otherwise put into your local council supplied recycling box.
Strooder allows you to feed in crushed plastic materials or pellets to produce your very own filaments in various sizes at the touch of a botton on its slick, user friendly display screen. It comes preloaded with settings for melting different plastic materials and customisable settings can also be created by the user. User friendliness aside, it’s other selling points are safety and cost reduction estimated at 5 times lesser than off the shelf filament spools. The product also allows colouring and even colour mixing.
Bristol Robotics Lab
Some will argue that Steve Jobs was not an engineer, some are quick to claim him as one of us, one thing we can all agree on was the innovative nature of the man who was the partner to the more technically gifted Steve Wozniak, both are responsible for every product with an ‘i’ in front of its name. The iPod changed the way innovation was thought of.
The omnidynamics boys are seem to have in them attributes of the two Steves, Engineers from Universities and are surprisingly the finished product rather than the rough cut that is usually to be expected.
There is one singularly factor contributing to the success the University is experiencing, which is set to continue into the future – its Robotics Lab is recognised as the biggest and best in the U.K. Theory meets practice in this building, Engineering innovation strives in such environments. Maybe we can cancel the call for the return of the Polytechnics?
If you agree that such meeting of theory and practice found at UWE is what the Engineering Industry desperately needs, then I’ll urge you to support the Strooder, Kickstarter campaign here.