Forward Thinkers: From measuring machines to sustainable construction

Joseph Flaig

The manufacturing and construction sectors have changed massively during the IMechE's 175 years (Credit: Andy Potts/ Good Illustration Agency)
The manufacturing and construction sectors have changed massively during the IMechE's 175 years (Credit: Andy Potts/ Good Illustration Agency)

For 175 years, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers has been in the engine room of transformational change. From rail to road, aerospace to nuclear power, it has fostered and amplified the ground-breaking work of countless engineers. To celebrate this major anniversary, this week we are looking back at five forward thinkers who helped shape the world we live in – and five who are creating the world of tomorrow.

Sir Joseph Whitworth, fourth president of the IMechE and manufacturing pioneer 

Sir Joseph WhitworthSuccessful engineering is built on accuracy and precision, and few can claim to have made such important advances in the field as Sir Joseph Whitworth. 

After several years working for the best machine makers in London, including Henry Maudslay, Whitworth set up his own business in Manchester in 1832. His first independent patent, lodged in 1834, was for a machine for turning and screw-cutting studs and hexagonal bolts, instead of inaccurate and expensive hand-threading. 

Accuracy and measurement were central to his work, enabling the production of standard measures and gauges. According to the IMechE archive, working to one-sixteenth of an inch was enough for a fitter to be considered a good worker in 1830. Whitworth’s measuring machines could measure down to two-millionths of an inch. 

One of his most forward-thinking moves was the gift of £100,000 in 1868 to endow the Whitworth Scholarships. These continue to support budding engineers, with awards of up to £9,000 per year for undergraduates or £15,000 per year for postgraduates. 

Robert Hairstans, founding director of NMITE’s Centre for Advanced Timber Technology (CATT)

Robert HairstansIt is difficult to overstate the impact of construction on climate change and the environment. The sector consumes half of all extracted materials, accounts for 36% of global energy use, and is responsible for 39% of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions. 

Robert Hairstans aims to help change that. As founding director of the CATT at the New Model Institute for Technology and Engineering (NMITE) in Hereford, and head of the Centre for Offsite Construction and Innovative Structures at Edinburgh Napier University, he is passionate about promoting sustainable materials and building methods. 

Planned to open later this year, the CATT will highlight the opportunities offered by timber construction. As trees grow they absorb CO2, making timber a natural ‘carbon sink’. Cross-laminated timber, for example, stores 670kg/m3 of carbon. 

Timber is “on the front foot straight away,” says Hairstans. “You situate that in the built environment, you lock that carbon in for 50 years plus, so it acts as a carbon store.”

Great carbon credentials are not the only benefit. Timber materials also have a high strength-to-weight ratio, says Hairstans, so they can easily be moved and processed. This helps enable factory-based construction, with modular ‘turnkey’ systems built off-site. 

Low thermal conductivity means good insulation, but there are inevitable concerns about fire safety. All products perform differently, says Hairstans, and some can even ‘self-extinguish’. “It really comes down to set the professional practice, the appropriate specification, detail, and execution,” he says. 

These will all be drummed in at the CATT. Students will use simulation and testing to validate the performance of different materials, giving them an understanding of timber as a structural material, the array of product options and how to respond sustainably to a design brief. 

“Timber is on an upward trajectory,” says Hairstans. “Environments that feel more natural improve health and wellbeing, and there’s even studies that demonstrate that it can increase educational performance. It reduces heart rates and stress levels... so there’s a carbon piece, but there’s a much wider value proposition.”

Make sure to check throughout the week for more stories on Forward Thinkers, from nuclear energy pioneers to zero-emission aviation experts.  

To find out more about the IMechE's 175 celebrations, visit the official home page.

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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.


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