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

Belfast Telegraph - Business Telegraph - - Front Page - @Em­madeig

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

FRED­DIE PARKIN­SON

Pro­fes­sor Mark Price (also far left), pro-vicechan­cel­lor for Engi­neer­ing at QUB, shows off its new man­u­fac­tur­ing tech fa­cil­ity on cam­pus

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