2014 JAMES WATT INTERNATIONAL GOLD MEDAL: RICHARD PARRY-JONES

Professor Richard Parry-Jones CBE BSc FREng FIMechE FRSS has been awarded the James Watt International Gold Medal for his very significant contributions to vehicle development in the areas of driving dynamics and refinement, and for his technical vision and guidance to steer the UK automotive industry towards a prosperous and successful world-class future.

Richard’s interest in vehicles started in boyhood; aged 10 he was sketching cars and drafting their technical specifications. As a teenager he took on the restoration of his father’s old, abandoned BSA Bantam 175; which was soon running smoothly again. A fascination for understanding how something works and then applying practical skills to improve it have proved enduring. Richard was keen to work in the car industry and wrote to Ford to ask for advice on his A level and University selection, and was later selected to become a Ford sponsored undergraduate. He graduated with a First in 1969 after following a “thin sandwich” degree course in Mechanical Engineering at Salford University.

After three 6 month placements in Ford during his degree, he was “work ready” and knew exactly where he wanted to work after his studies – the R and D centre, which had just opened at Dunton. He worked at Ford for 38 years, in roles ranging from vehicle research, design and test to managing manufacturing plants and leading business units. He also headed up the European R&D Centre at Dunton and its sister site in Germany.

He transformed the appeal of Ford cars, making them wonderfully connected, responsive and smooth, through meticulous attention to detail in the development of vehicle attributes. His team developed a set of industry-leading metrics, and of particular importance was the way the dynamic performance was measured using objective data. He devised the ‘50m test’ to help evaluators focus on how to sensitise themselves to understanding the subtle nuances of many dimensions of human/vehicle interaction. He is less well known his equally transformational work on the introduction of sophisticated statistical engineering techniques to improve reliability and robustness of designs, and was recognised for this work by the Royal Statistical Society who made him an Honorary Fellow in 2004. In the latter stages of his career at Ford, he was Ford’s Chief Technical Officer and oversaw the team of 33,000 in Ford’s worldwide product development, design, research and vehicle technology activities.

Since his retirement from Ford in 2008, Richard has leveraged his experience into a wider variety of roles which include technology consulting, industrial non-executive directorships and public service. He has broadened his sector involvement to embrace transport, energy and infrastructure, and enjoys the experience. He is actively involved in the development of industrial policy through the Automotive Council, which he chairs jointly with the BIS Secretary of State, the Rt Hon. Vince Cable. “It was important to get government and industry to work in a continuous strategic partnership, rather than the pattern of that had been happening in previous decades – sporadic communication followed by belated, ineffectual interventions triggered by a crisis,” he explains. “I wanted the UK automotive industry to be recognised as a key global player, particularly in providing the new technologies needed to reduce the environmental, safety and congestion impacts of intense car usage, and for negative Westminster talk about the future of cars, and indeed the future of R&D and advanced manufacturing in the UK, to change.”

He is pleased to see a much more pro-manufacturing and pro-engineering stance solidly emerging, both from government and society in general. “The financial crash reminded people of the dangers of being over-dependent on one sector or region – we need a more balanced economy.” He is also passionate about getting young people into engineering, he points out that the graduates 5 years into their careers are earning on average more in engineering than they are in financial services – and have an obviously fulfilling and stimulating mission!

The UK has some of the best universities in the World, and many of the brightest students, but in common with the rest of Europe and the US there is still a skills shortage. Advanced Manufacturing is growing, so there is increasing demand for skilled engineers, and the number of overseas students who study in the UK and stay on to work in manufacturing is going down. “While I acknowledge that much has already been done in recent years, we do not have a radical enough approach yet. The Government must make the development of an increasing supply of globally competitive, superb, technical skills an absolutely dominant priority within the education and targeted immigration agendas,” he says. “Companies across the industrial sectors must work together with government to produce a coherent, comprehensive approach to address this serious problem. Professional engineering institutions can help – but they must stop cluttering the crowded brand space and unify efforts and messaging to get our signal to break through the very noisy communications space. Without transformational action, Britain will not be in a position to sustain our living standards, service our legacy debts and contribute our potential to improving the World.”

Richard is now Chairman of Network Rail and has a unique perspective on the transportation industry. “Both industries are being challenged to differing degrees by three big issues; congestion, safety and sustainability,” he explains. Rail is experiencing growth and investment on a scale not seen since Victorian times, which makes it an exciting and challenging business to be in. The automotive industry is slashing carbon emissions and improving safety through accelerated technological innovation - autonomous vehicle control will increasingly remove driver error. Both industries are balancing their responses to these challenges with the need to produce increasingly attractive and affordable products for their customers. The application of engineering and technology are key to future success. “I am motivated by using technology to solve problems for customers and society. The challenge is to do this in ways that are sustainable and affordable, and therefore represent compelling value. Once you get this right, business can enjoy long term sustainable growth, and investors provided with the consistent levels of return that encourage them to reinvest.”

Richard found out that he had won the James Watt Gold Medal by letter from the President of the Institution, and says: “I am not usually speechless, but this time I was.” He was pleased and flattered, if slightly wary of sharing the honour of this prize with other such eminent engineers. “When I compared what I have done with some of the previous winners, I didn’t really feel that I was in the same league, but my peers had nominated and voted for me, and out of respect for them I humbly accepted.”

Find out more about the James Watt International Gold Medal Award