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The finalists have been announced for engineering’s answer to the Oscars: the Royal Academy of Engineering MacRobert Award. Here, the Chair of Judges and leading nuclear engineer, Dame Sue Ion DBE FREng, describes the three finalists for 2015 and the importance of engineering innovation in society.

The finalists have been announced for engineering’s answer to the Oscars: the Royal Academy of Engineering MacRobert Award. Here, the Chair of Judges and leading nuclear engineer, Dame Sue Ion DBE FREng, describes the three finalists for 2015 and the importance of engineering innovation in society.

Three British companies are in the running for the UK’s most prestigious and longest-running engineering prize, the MacRobert Award:

  • Artemis Intelligent Power, based in Edinburgh, has developed a digital hydraulic power system that could improve efficiency and unlock the potential of offshore wind turbines as a cost-effective, sustainable future energy source.
  • Cambridge-based Endomag has pioneered a new diagnostic tool that could end the postcode lottery for breast cancer staging.
  • The third finalist Victrex, based in Blackpool, has developed the world’s highest-performing ultra-thin plastics, used in the speakers found in over a billion mobile devices.

The MacRobert Award recognises technologies that show how outstanding engineering achievement provides value to the economy and society. Many previous winning technologies are now ubiquitous in modern medicine, transport and technology. The very first award in 1969 went to the Rolls-Royce Pegasus engine, used in the iconic Harrier jets, and in 1972 the judges recognised the extraordinary potential of the first CT scanner – seven years before its inventor Sir Godfrey Hounsfield received the Nobel Prize.

Victrex has developed the highest-performing ultra-thin plastics in the world, enabling tiny, high-quality sound for smartphone speakers and earbuds.
Victrex has developed the highest-performing ultra-thin plastics in the world, enabling tiny, high-quality sound for smartphone speakers and earbuds.

Despite operating in very different sectors, all of this year’s MacRobert Award finalists demonstrate the application of engineering innovation to tackle social and technological challenges.

The finalists are great examples of home-grown innovations that have achieved commercial success in the UK and abroad. It is hardly surprising that recent statistics show that the UK is first in the world for engineering productivity, and that engineering-related products make up almost half of our total exports.

Endomag’s breast cancer staging diagnostic system accurately locates individual sentinel nodes so surgeons can identify where a cancerous tumour has spread.
Endomag’s breast cancer staging diagnostic system accurately locates individual sentinel nodes so surgeons can identify where a cancerous tumour has spread.

Yet the continued success of the UK’s engineering industry could be under threat in the future if we cannot overcome the huge challenge of securing future talent. Engineering still suffers from old, stereotyped perceptions, which can be off-putting to many young people when considering their career choice. This means that we’re facing a shortfall of people with the skills to use technology to overcome some of the world’s biggest challenges.

We must also attract more women into engineering – only 7% of UK professional engineers are female. I have been lucky enough to have a really rewarding and enjoyable career in engineering and I am delighted that government is taking this issue seriously. The Your Life campaign, launched at the Science Museum a year ago, aims to increase the number of students – especially women –  studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics by 50% within three years.

As this year’s MacRobert Award finalists demonstrate, engineering is a humanitarian as well as a technical endeavour, with the potential to transform every aspect of life. Anyone who is passionate about changing the world for the better should look seriously at a career in engineering.

If you’d like to know more about what you can do with engineering, visit the Engineer Your Future exhibition at the Science Museum.