The people who make it happen (part two)

Your new-look Engineering & Technology first went to press a year ago and, to celebrate the anniversary, the editors here publish a list of who we believe to be 25 of the most influential figures in the world of engineering and technology today. Continued - part two.

Tom Knight

Mixed biology with engineering

Tom Knight brings an engineer's view to synthetic biology. His aim is to move beyond genetic engineering, and apply principles of rational design to living organisms.

Although people such as former student Drew Endy are more widely known, it is Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professor Knight who has been responsible for setting many of them in pursuit of biology as an engineering discipline, and he is not, he stresses, a biologist. 

"I started out in computer software, then computer architecture and then IC design," Knight told E&T.

While studying the impact of semiconductor processes on IC design, Knight foresaw a change. Semiconductors are running out of atoms. Even with the high concentrations used today, there may be just a hundred dopant atoms in the channel of a transistor.

Such low numbers mean that firing ions at a semiconductor and hoping for the best will not work. "You need to put atoms where you want them. That is chemistry, not physics."

Knight's insight was to realise that bilogy is very good at chemistry, so why not exploit that fact?
Knight started to work with DNA in the mid 1990s: "I learned that every time you do a biology experiment you do two: one to do the thing you wanted and one to isolate a piece of DNA. And you don't want to do that experiment. It's a bit like a medieval craft."

Experiments often fail mysteriously. "You have to have 'good hands'," said Knight. "But you don't want an apprenticeship programme. If you want this to be a technology there has to be a cookbook. It has to be reliable and work every time."

Knight has developed such recipes, publishing them on the Web, and hopes to spread the development of synthetic biology through ready-made DNA 'components', or BioBrick parts.

Knight sees concepts from fields such as electrical engineering being vital to bioengineering. Electronics can be explained, he said, using Maxwell's equations. But few people employ them: it's too hard. They use simpler models. "With simple equations you can begin to think of electronics in terms of intuitive models to let mere mortals know what is going on."

James Dyson

Visionary artist who became a pioneering engineer

By his own account, James Dyson does not qualify to be on this list, regarding himself an "an artist who is trying to call himself an engineer", according an interview he gave two years ago. And yet he is the iconic British inventor whose technological innovations have won him great fame, wealth and a knighthood.

It is now folklore that, while a student at the Royal College of Art in London he created his first product, the Sea Truck, which still sells today, and then went on to invent the Ballbarrow with its spherical plastic wheel. But he was unable to sell his idea of a dual cyclone vacuum cleaner to a manufacturer throughout the 1980s. By necessity, the artist became the engineering leader who founded a design and manufacturing centre in Wiltshire, UK and patented the Dyson Digital Motor, which is used in the Dyson Airblade handryer. The 'ball' and 'vacuum' designs have now been fused in the form of the Dyson Ball cleaner.

Dyson is a vehement supporter of engineering and science teaching in schools to provide the design and manufacturing bedrock he believes that Britain needs to compete with Asian economies. However, lack of government support appears to have scuppered his plan to build a design and engineering school in Britain.

What next for the Brunel-inspired inventor? "When I have considered relinquishing total control, and taking a back-seat consultant's role, I have remembered how Isambard Kingom Brunel never accepted such a position in his life," Dyson has asserted.

Top ten fictional engineers

Tony Stark MIT electrical engineering graduate who becomes Iron Man in the Marvel comic and movie.

Edwin Drood Civil engineer whose mysterious disappearance is the basis of Charles Dickens' final, unfinished novel.

Victor Hatherley Hydraulic engineer who suffers an unfortunate amputation in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes story 'The Adventure of the Engineer's Thumb'.

Professor Bernard Quatermass Head of the British Experimental Rocket Group and central character in a series of landmark British TV series and films.

Michael Scofield The structural engineer who gets himself sent to jail as part of an elaborate plan to help his wrongly convicted brother escape in US TV hit 'Prison Break'.

Ellie Arroway Radio astronomer devoted to the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence in the Carl Sagan novel 'Contact', played in the movie version by Jodie Foster.

Roy Neary Power engineer played by Richard Dreyfus, who meets aliens in Steven Speilberg's movie 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind'.

Nikolai Mayevskyj Retired engineer attempting to write 'A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian' in Marina Lewycka's novel of the same name.

Brains All-round genius, inventor and creator of the International Rescue fleet of vehicles in 'Thunderbirds'.

Montgomery Scott Chief engineer on the USS Enterprise, he was always there to 'beam them up'.

Lord Kumar Bhattacharyya

Britain's 'Mr Manufacturing'

The title of a biography of Lord Sushantha Kumar Bhattacharyya is, in one sense, misleading. 'Unsung Guru' suggests that Britain's 'Mr Manufacturing' hasn't won many plaudits in his time. The reality is, he has received many, including India's third-highest civilian award, the Padma Bhushan.

A Labour peer, he took the title of Baron Bhattacharyya of Moseley, a suburb of Birmingham, in 2004. He has long been an outspoken advocate for the engineering profession in Britain. "We don't necessarily want more engineers; we want better-quality engineers [and] we need to get rid of the idea that applied research is second-rate," he has argued.

In 1980 he became professor of manufacturing systems at the University of Warwick, and founded the Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG). As director, he has spent nearly three decades developing the department into one of the university's biggest and a global operator.

The latest addition to its work, the Digital Lab, takes WMG beyond manufacturing systems and design to embrace e-healthcare, telematics, secure communications and digitally enabled materials, targeting the services sector as well as industry. The Lab was opened by Prime Minister Gordon Brown in summer 2008.

An adviser to Brown's Labour government, Bhattacharyya held the same role with Margaret Thatcher's Conservative administration in the 1980s. More recently he was involved in the arrival in the West Midlands of India's Tata Group, which last year acquired one of the region's leading car makers, Jaguar Land Rover.

Born in 1940 in Dhaka - then part of India, but now the capital of Bangladesh - Bhattacharyya attended the Indian Institute of Technology in Kharagpur, and subsequently Birmingham University in the UK. He was also a graduate apprentice at Lucas Industries in Birmingham.

With the West Midlands feared to be the region most affected by the economic recession, Bhattacharyya will face a new challenge in helping to lift the spirits of British industry at one of its worst periods for decades.

Tsugio Makimoto

Big thinker in semiconductors

With more than 40 years in the semiconductor industry, few are as well-placed to understand the trends that drive it as Dr Tsugio Makimoto. Much of his electronics career was spent at Hitachi, where he came up with the idea that a seven-year cycle of standardisation and customisation could forecast trends in semiconductors. David Manners of the UK electronics newspaper Electronics Weekly coined the name 'Makimoto's Wave' for the diagram that showed the technological oscillations between chips such as application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs) and their counterparts from an opposing cycle, programmable logic.

According to the latest version of the Wave, Makimoto believes that the chipmaking industry is set for a shift towards custom products and away from standardised programmable logic. The changes he predicts for the next cycle, which should have begun in 2007, stand in stark contrast to current trends. But Makimoto has claimed we will see improvements in system-on-chip (SoC) that will make it possible to do fast, automated designs and in system-in-package (SiP) technologies that will let producers build custom products by easily mixing and matching chips.

Moving to Sony as corporate advisor before retiring in 2005, Makimoto continues to serve on the boards of companies such as Elpida Memory and PDF Solutions Japan.

Ray Ozzie

Visionary software architect

When Bill Gates announced in 2006 that he was to step down from his role as chief software architect at Microsoft, the job required a real heavyweight who has not only contributed to the development of the PC and the Internet, but who also has vision enough to ensure Microsoft's lead in computer software and web technologies.

Enter Ray Ozzie - whose transition to chief software architect started more than two years ago. His biography on Microsoft's corporate website describes him as being "responsible for oversight of the company's technical strategy and product architecture". 

This has come at a time when Microsoft is losing market share in the PC operating system market place. At the consumer high-end, Apple has reasserted its credentials and now has a 10 per cent global market share of operating systems on PCs. At the budget end of the spectrum, a slew of new netbook products are entering the market that are giving consumers a realistic choice - either use Windows XP, or opt for a cheaper Linux version. Very few netbook manufacturers are offering Vista.

Microsoft Office has enjoyed near ubiquity, but now faces a more formidable challenge from software vendors offering software that takes advantage of 'cloud computing' - using the Internet to deliver powerful software utilities to millions of users. Google Apps is the best-known example, providing 'Office'-like business applications.

Ozzie's experience and vision will be useful when driving Microsoft's future technology strategy. He joined the company in April 2005 when Microsoft acquired Groove Networks - a next-generation collaboration software company he formed in 1997. Ozzie was previously also directly responsible for the development of Lotus Notes, Lotus Symphony and VisiCalc - the first spreadsheet designed for PCs.

He first encountered the world of collaborative software as an undergraduate in the early 1970s when he worked on the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign's PLATO. The seminal computer platform pioneered online forums and messageboards, email, chatrooms, instant messaging, remote screen sharing, and multiplayer games, leading to the emergence of what was perhaps the world's first online community - all this almost two decades before the creation of the World Wide Web.

His influence at Microsoft is already felt worldwide. His first task has been to restore confidence in Microsoft Windows for both business customers (who have mostly held off upgrading to Vista) and consumers (some of whom have defected to the Mac or Linux). To date, Microsoft has announced that it is to bring forward the release date of Windows 7, possibly to as early as June 2009.

Additionally, Groove Networks lives on as Microsoft Office Groove. Online collaboration and Web 2.0 capabilities are also being built into Microsoft's future versions of its Office suite of programs. The company is also dabbling in pure 'software as a service' offerings with the development of the 'Office Live' brand as a fully-fledged online suite of business productivity tools.

Continued - part three

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