The finer art of engineering
Whether it’s the sublime symmetry of the Millau Viaduct or the exquisite simplicity of the iPad, the artistry in the conception of a design is as evident as the technical brilliance that engineered it.
And yet engineering firms and the media often send out the message that art and the arts belong in one camp and science and technology in another. The continuing demand for new graduate engineers with STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subject specialisms reinforces this impression.
But a new generation of engineers is challenging this notion. “There should be the potential to do less maths in an engineering degree,” says Eva MacNamara, a structural engineer at Expedition Engineering, the company that built the Olympic Velodrome. “That way students would have the opportunity to develop other skills that are more useful for communicating with the world and working more collaboratively. Many schoolchildren aspire to be architects or artists, but if they have an artistic mind, what they envisage is more easily achieved early on in a career as an engineer.”
Since 2011 MacNamara has worked for design-led consultancy Expedition Engineering. Earlier this year she won the Young Structural Engineer of the Year Award, presented by the Institution of Structural Engineers, for her work on kinetic sculptures for Blackpool’s promenade.
MacNamara believes that an artistic feel for engineering is key. “When I design something and it’s the right engineering solution, it looks beautiful,” she says. “I don’t think of art and science as mutually exclusive, but as We’re trying to do something collaborative and trailblazing.
Expedition Engineering is a member of Useful Simple, an employee benefit trust that brings engineers, designers, educators and sustainability consultants together to reinvigorate industrial design and manufacturing. “We’re trying to do something collaborative and trailblazing,” explains MacNamara.
Peter Childs, professor of industrial design at Imperial College London, says the sector has to look back to move forward. “Engineering at its best is an environment where science and the arts meet and where the ideals of Albertopolis [the cultural and educational area in South Kensington, London, championed by Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband] can be maintained,” he says.
Many of Imperial’s engineering graduates, Prof Childs points out, now work at leading global engineering firms such as Samsung, Dyson, Ford and Apple, and these companies value a creative, holistic approach. “Engineers shouldn’t just ask: does it work?” he says. “A good engineer has a mind that’s open to discovery and a range of solutions.
“While the notion that something has more than one function doesn’t always go down well with industry, firms like Apple prove time and again that if you start with ideas rather than a list of specifications, you can produce something people really want.”
Close to Imperial College, and also in Albertopolis, is the Royal College of Art, attended by dozens of well-known fine artists and numbering among its graduates Olympic cauldron designer Thomas Heatherwick and vacuum cleaner reinventor James Dyson. “I discovered engineering at the Royal College of Art, where I was able to experiment and make mistakes,” says Dyson. “
Design and engineering are intertwined. Form should be led by function. This is how we approach design at Dyson. We don’t have designers and engineers, we have design engineers.” Dyson also believes that recruitment should start in school.
“A rigorous education in maths and science is important but it is through subjects like design and technology that theory will be put into practice,” he says. The Royal College of Art’s Vehicle Design centre powers many studios in the automotive sector and its Innovation Design Engineering department, in collaboration with Imperial College, runs a two-year double masters that has strong links with industry — recent collaborations include Ford, Coca-Cola, Airbus and Rio Tinto — while allowing students to develop their own projects.
The Polyfloss Factory, a micro-manufacturing machine that transforms waste polypropylene into a versatile, usable material, is one such project. Developed by innovation design engineering graduates Nicholas Paget, Emile De Visscher, Christophe Machet and Audrey Gaulard, who have since started their own company, the invention uses the principles of a candyfloss machine to create a foam-like material, Polyfloss. It’s a playful way of dealing with the serious problem of reducing landfill but also of making the material and the recycling process familiar to all.
“There’s a division between art and engineering, but we don’t see them as opposites,” says Paget. “Two of us have a background in engineering and two in art and design. The crossover of art, engineering, science and business is where exciting things happen.
“The Polyfloss Factory could not have existed without it. We explored the way materials respond physically and how people respond to the material physically and emotionally. Polyfloss was born from the idea of the abundance of waste in society, but it also makes the connection between material, process and final product in a creative way.”
Polyfloss won this year’s Hothouse Innovation competition, run by the Royal Academy of Engineering, and Paget believes Polyfloss has a future in art and engineering contexts. “It has opened up a valuable network,” he says. “We’ve had approaches from industry and we’ve also been commissioned for art pieces.”