Tak­ing de­sign off the draw­ing board

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - LIFE - By WANG MINGJIE in Lon­don wang­mingjie@ mail.chi­nadai­lyuk.com

Roger Owen finds the en­gi­neer­ing stu­dents he met on his most re­cent vis­its to China were a lot more talk­a­tive than those he first en­coun­tered in the mid1980s.

What used to be one-sided lec­tures are now more like work­shops at which stu­dents are ea­ger to learn the lat­est de­vel­op­ments in Owen’s spe­cial­ized field of com­put­er­ized-en­gi­neer­ing de­sign.

“The stu­dents now are far more will­ing to speak their minds and ask ques­tions, whereas 20 years ago, there might have been one or two ques­tions at most,” the 74-year-old says.

It’s not just that their English is bet­ter, he says, but also that to­day’s stu­dents are more forth­right and in­quir­ing.

Owen is a re­search pro­fes­sor at the Zienkiewicz Cen­tre for Com­pu­ta­tional En­gi­neer­ing at Swansea Uni­ver­sity and is one of the pi­o­neers of an en­gi­neer­ing rev­o­lu­tion that has lit­er­ally trans­ferred de­sign from pen-and-pa­per on the draw­ing board to the com­puter screen.

Trained as a civil en­gi­neer, his spe­cial­ist field is the fi­nite-el­e­ment method, a tech­nique that has made a huge im­pact on the en­gi­neer­ing com­mu­nity by al­low­ing a more ac­cu­rate, imag­i­na­tive and eco­nom­i­cal ap­proach to de­sign.

It al­lows com­plex shapes to be re­duced math­e­mat­i­cally into smaller and sim­pler ones — so-called fi­nite el­e­ments.

“This method re­ally changes en­gi­neer­ing com­pletely,” says Owen.

“It rev­o­lu­tion­ized how peo­ple de­sign struc­tures and man­u­fac­ture com­po­nents.”

It has also proved an in­valu­able tool in fun­da­men­tal sci­en­tific re­search.

“The com­puter-based method al­lows you to find stres­sors in any struc­ture or any man­u­fac­tur­ing pro­cesses,” says Owen.

“So, if you’re mak­ing some com­po­nent for the car in­dus­try, you can model its be­hav­ior be­fore you even build it ... You know ex­actly what the stresses are, which en­ables you to de­sign more so­phis­ti­cated and ad­ven­tur­ous struc­tures.”

Swansea Uni­ver­sity has been a world leader in the devel­op­ment and ap­pli­ca­tion of such com­pu­ta­tional meth­ods for five decades. China’s sci­en­tific com­mu­nity rec­og­nized that long ago, and Swansea has hosted a stream of Chi­nese stu­dents and vis­it­ing re­searchers since the mid-1970s.

Owen has per­son­ally su­per­vised more than 15 PhD stu­dents and 20 post­doc­toral stu­dents from China.

Three of his text­books have been trans­lated into Chi­nese, pro­vid­ing a ba­sis for stu­dents and re­searchers to de­velop their own codes to be used as aca­demic tools and in prac­ti­cal ap­pli­ca­tions.

Owen says Chi­nese sci­en­tists and engi­neers show great in­ter­est in his books. He gets reg­u­lar emails, thank­ing him for his work or ask­ing for help in ap­ply­ing it.

His ca­reer as an en­gi­neer be­gan in 1963, when he com­pleted his first de­gree in civil en­gi­neer­ing at the Uni­ver­sity of Wales, fol­lowed by a mas­ter’s de­gree the fol­low­ing year.

He com­pleted his PhD at North­west­ern Uni­ver­sity in the United States in the field of the­o­ret­i­cal and ap­plied me­chan­ics in 1967.

His fo­cus on the fi­nite-el­e­ment method led to his in­volve­ment in com­mer­cial ex­ploita­tion of the method­ol­ogy. In 1985, he formed Rock­field Soft­ware Ltd to trans­fer his aca­demic re­search on com­pu­ta­tional mod­el­ing to the in­dus­trial sec­tor.

By the time Owen re­tired as its chair­man in 2010, the com­pany, which ini­tially had two engi­neers, em­ployed 35 staff mem­bers in the United King­dom and 10 in Aus­tralia.

Owen’s first visit to China was in 1982. Over three decades, he has de­vel­oped strong links with many of the lead­ing Chi­nese uni­ver­si­ties and re­search in­sti­tu­tions, es­pe­cially Ts­inghua Uni­ver­sity and the Chi­nese Academy of Sciences.

Owen’s stand­ing in the Chi­nese sci­en­tific com­mu­nity led to his elec­tion as For­eign Mem­ber of the Chi­nese Academy of Sciences in 2011.

This year, he was pre­sented with a pres­ti­gious Chi­nese Friend­ship Award, the high­est honor given by the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment to for­eign­ers for their con­tri­bu­tions to the coun­try.

He says he is very hon­ored by the award.

“It’s some­thing quite unique be­cause in the UK, you would never have an equiv­a­lent award,” he says.

An­other thing he val­ues is Chi­nese din­ing — and not just the food.

“When­ever I made de­ci­sions on car­ry­ing out any joint re­search, in­evitably it hap­pened over din­ner,” says Owen.

“I think that’s a very good so­cial con­ven­tion.”


Bri­tish en­gi­neer Roger Owen, a win­ner of the Chi­nese Friend­ship Award this year.

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