Queen’s engineer goes back to the future
Queen’s University’s engineering chief Mark Price talks to Emma deighan about the car of the future and how his faculty aims to make society better
University chief talks bombardier, cybersecurity, and how his students took an old de lo re an and made it fit for purpose in the modern world
For Mark Price, provice-chancellor of the Engineering and Physical Sciences faculty at Queen’s University, the world of engineering and computing is a magical one.
And when he talks about his current projects at the forefront of research in engineering, it’s understandable that he feels like work is play.
The former stress engineer at Short Brothers, now Bombardier, says his interest in the field while growing up stemmed from aeronautical events, including Apollo 11’s world-first moon landing.
“I was interested in space travel and during my formative years there was the shuttle programme and lots of exciting things happening in terms of technology,” Mark says.
Education and accounting were the familiar career paths for the Price siblings, born and raised in Newry.
Mark’s late father was the former finance director for Dunnes Stores.
One of his sisters is now in banking in Edinburgh. He has two other sisters, a tax accountant and headmistress, while one brother is a computing consultant and another is a management consultant at PWC.
But Mark — third born in the family of six — graduated in Aeronautical Engineering at QUB, veering away from the finance route chosen by the rest of the family. In the mid-80s, he says aeronautics was “an exciting time, with a lot of promise and growth”.
After further studies, which also included technology courses, he took up roles at Shorts and FEGS Ltd (now Transcendata Europe). There was a stint in a financial derivatives firm as a software engineer, before a return to QUB to undertake a role in aeronautical engineering, lecturing in aircraft structures.
And today, at the helm of the faculty in that same university that nurtured his vocation, he is leading the way in reinventing and improving technology.
Much of his work is centred on the analysis and design of airframes and design automation for airframes — leading to many awards.
His time in Bombardier was formative. Talking about the company’s recent partnership with Airbus, which has taken a majority stake in Bombardier’s former C-series aircraft, now known as the A220, Mark adds: “I started my career there, they are a fantastic company and I’ve many friends there.
“The one thing that Bombardier has provided is that they work in a high-end, high-value global aerospace and their work is really important for the UK.
“Their role is very interesting in that it’s at the heart of the engineering industry and we can build this ecosystem around it.”
Mark considers the engineering sector here as a community and he sees his faculty as “having a big mission to work with businesses and society for everybody’s betterment”.
He says the ambitions at the institution are grand.
“For us it’s all about partnering with society surrounding us to help make Belfast and Northern Ireland brilliant,” he adds.
One project that Mark and his team of professionals and students have worked on recently is reformulating the Belfast-made Delorean car — made famous in the Back to the Future trilogy of films — to function solely on electric power.
The project was made possible by QUB’S recently opened £7.5m manufacturing technology facility and was an Elon Musk-esque triumph.
Mark can look back on a time during his childhood in the early 1980s when the Delorean factory in Dunmurry was going strong.
“When I was a kid that [Delorean] factory was a very alive thing, very exciting and a part of engineering and technology,” he says.
“Recognising the need to move away from petrol and diesel cars, we thought it would be fun to take the Delorean and do something with it. And so we laughed at the idea and then said, ‘ that’s brilliant’. We took that iconic car and got the students and technical staff to design the battery system.
“We sought long and hard to get one in good condition and we made it road-worthy. We now have a working electric Delorean with a top speed of 88mph and I think that is a wonderful example of getting the students involved in and thinking about technology.”
Mark says his Delorean effort demonstrates how the future of technology can also be about updating existing entities.
And as a result, he is working alongside firms to reinvent their
current classics. “We are working on how we can have different types of batteries to improve their efficiency and the energy they can store to drive the engine,” he says.
“Can we be clever enough to make the framework and structure of a car the battery so that same metal frame that keeps you safe can also store your energy? It’s then you can imagine the car of the future being different.”
Mark had accurate foresight on the future compatibility of engineering and computing and during his A-levels, he embarked on a course in IT at Portadown Tech, where the methods were relatively basic but the principles the same, he says. He also has an MSC in Engineering Computing.
“I started to see the link between connecting and coding these machines so I kept that up.
“In those days there was no internet, there weren’t really mobile phones. Computing was just really coming along. Back then there was a range of programming languages to communicate with computers, to give them a series of instructions, and that approach of solving a problem and breaking it into a number of steps is a skill that remains fundamental even today. “We were using languages that would seem quaint now, but at the time were very advanced.” Mark has an instinctive ability to decode more than the language of technology. He speaks Spanish, French, and Mandarin. The latter two he can also read. And he can also play the clarinet and saxophone. “I’m trying to develop the languages,” he adds. “I think being able to read Chinese and Mandarin is the engineer in me. “There’s a common trait; looking for patterns and breaking things down to solve them.” Creating solutions is at the heart of what Mark does. He’s a pioneer in research for the cybersecurity sector too, running the cybersecurity innovation centre, helping local IT firms realise concepts.
It’s an academical resource provided to the sector that has also been instrumental in making Northern Ireland a hub for international investment.
The Northern Ireland Industrial Strategy, published in January last year, estimates that the cybersecurity sector here has grown by 30% in the past 12 months and with 1,100 jobs Belfast now has the highest concentration in Europe.
“We have an expression ‘from ships to chips’,” adds Mark. “As far back as the ’70s, during the emergence of computing, we had experts here developing new languages and that has grown to the current ecosystem now recognised as a place of excellence.
“When there is excellence in research, that drives new ideas, and that attracts new companies because they can test those ideas.
“Companies know that excel- lence is flowing through the DNA of the students coming out of university here and once a few come, more come and they start to invest in the research element, which means we can bring the next generation of ideas.”
With a multitude of pioneering cyber, technology and engineering processes ongoing, Mark finds it a challenge to pinpoint his most significant work.
He references the Intelligent Autonomous Manufacturing Systems (I-AMS) research programme – also made possible by the £7.5m tech facility and the Belfast City Deal.
It focuses on “building new ways of manufacturing and assembly using robots and intelligent systems as well as virtual reality”, Mark explains.
Bringing engineers and even psychologists together, the programme aims to “help us understand how humans and machines can work better together”.
Another of Mark’s proudest projects is one involving sustainable energy. “That’s exciting for a number of reasons,” he says.
“We can change society and the world with efficient energy systems, and Northern Ireland has a very rich natural resource of rain, wind and water. Our tidal system is also rich and parts of this programme look at wave and tidal energy systems, cost-effective solutions that free us from fossil fuels. It’s a solution for humankind.”
Mark’s work is always about the greater cause, he says. It’s part of what has made his job more like pursuing a hobby.
“If you do something you enjoy, you never have to work a day in your life. What we do, we have passion for,” he says.
Another current project is to keep his sector flourishing during a time of Brexit uncertainty.
“It’s difficult to say what that impact of Brexit will be. All we can do is try to help people as best as possible. The more we can make companies efficient and agile, the better they will cope with that,” he says.
“It’s clear that it could have impact but the companies here are very resilient. If you look at that ‘ships to chips’, it’s not a facetious comment. We were once a thriving industrial heartland and went through wars, the Troubles. I have a positive belief that if we partner academic institutions with the city, we can do something very special.”
We have an expression ‘from ships to chips’... the current ecosystem is now a place of excellence
Mark Price brings a wealth of practical experience to his role at Queen’s
Professor Mark Price (also far left), pro-vicechancellor for Engineering at QUB, shows off its new manufacturing tech facility on campus