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Data-driven design 10.10.14

The day our SAE, Laurie Winkless, found out that McLaren do more than just cars…

On Wednesday, I battled the London weather. Drenched, windswept and carrying a fatally-injured umbrella, I struggled through the crowds along Euston Road to reach the Royal College of General Practitioners. I was there for an event for the London branch of the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET).

As a physicist, I’ve been lucky enough to visit many beautiful venues for lectures, events and conferences, but RCGP has to be one of the nicest I’ve been to. Situated beside Euston station, it’s a beautiful building – a perfect blend of old a new, with a unique combination of Victorian tiles with modern steel and glass. And they served us bacon sandwiches with our coffee – much needed after my element-battling!

Speaking was Geoff McGrath from McLaren Applied Technologies (MAT). I am a big motorsport fan, and while working at NPL, I was lucky enough to visit the McLaren site in Woking. It remains one of my favourite days “in the office”. Back then, we talked to them about energy harvesting technologies (my research area) and other materials challenges the F1 team face in car development. But at the event on Wednesday, I learned that McLaren’s work goes way beyond the car, and that data drives everything they do.

MAT describe themselves as “…experts in high-performance design and technology”, and Geoff’s talk showed that to be a rather accurate description! Geoff started off by defining what innovation means to him. He said that it’s about more than just good ideas; it’s about “…creating new value, in a sustainable, profitable way”. And for MAT, innovation is fast-paced – during race season, the majority of the car’s 11,000 components are redesigned every two weeks – they are continuously optimizing the system. McLaren’s performance in this year’s F1 season has not been its finest, but Geoff sounded very confident that they will get back to their best soon.

But what amazed me was to find out just how many diverse sectors McLaren’s research has touched upon – they work closely with a large number of world-class athletes, from TeamGB’s Lizzy Yarnold and Mark Cavendish, to international rugby teams and long-distance runners. In all cases, MAT’s approach seems to be that “one size never fits all” – so they work to fully personalize components, equipment, shoes, etc., in order to fit every single aspect of it to the individual user. MAT have also redesigned server farms all over the US, they work with airports to optimize passenger flow, and with large oil companies to optimize the operation of a drilling platform.

For them, in order to produce breakthroughs in performance and “change the game”, MAT’s approach is to measure, model, test, respond and repeat. Their grand vision is to develop smart systems that can do all of this autonomously, in order to enable people from all sectors to do their job better. I found it a fascinating insight into a rather secretive organisation, and it made me view the process of innovation in an entirely new light. Geoff finished off his talk with the MAT motto – “We never ask ‘Can it be done?’: instead we ask ‘How can it be done?’”, and that is a message I carried home with me through the rain.

– Laurie Winkless