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The History of Engineering Part 1: Companies That Changed Modern Engineering

Ford

Henry Ford has been one of the most influential engineers and innovators in modern times. Ford was a natural technician from a young age where he grew up on a farm and played around with mechanical devices. He then took his knowledge to another level in becoming a mechanical engineer and working for Edison Illuminating Company in Detroit.


As a natural innovator Ford created a one cylinder petrol engine. He later developed additional automobiles with various power sources and driving systems, however, again this was in his own time.


After taking up an interest in automotive engineering, Henry Ford decided to set up his own company. He was able to obtain large financial backings for his companies but his first two failed; the Detroit Automobile Company and the Henry Ford Company. This was primarily down to the large competition in the early days of the automotive industry in America. Ford then went on to set up the Ford Motor Company which was a success right from its early days with the Model A. Ford then put forward the idea of building a cheap and reliable automobile. He went on to achieve that and sold more than 15 million Ford Model T’s in 19 years which accounted for half of the cars in the world at the time. Ford achieved this through the implementation of what the automotive, and many other industries now take for granted, the modern production line. The success of the new manufacturing technique was contingent upon the delivery of parts, sub-assemblies, and assemblies with precise timing to a constantly moving main assembly line. The new technique allowed individual workers to stay in one place and perform the same task repeatedly on multiple vehicles that passed by them.

The line proved to be extremely efficient and helped the company far surpass the production levels of their competitors ultimately helping Henry Ford achieve his goal of making vehicles more affordable. Previously, it took 14 hours to assemble a Model T car. The new production line reduced this to 1.5 hours. With higher manufacturing efficiency, Ford lowered the cost of each car and reduce the selling price from $1,000 to $360. In 1914, Ford then began paying his employees $5/day, nearly twice as much as the wages offered by other automotive manufacturers which further incentivised the employees to work at a greater rate. Along with this he also cut working hours down to 8 hours and allowed for 24/7 manufacturing utilising 3 shift patterns.


NASA (North American Space Agency)

NASA is a government space agency that undertakes research and development in the aerospace and space exploration industries. Established in the late 1950’s as part of the frontier for the ‘Space Race’ to expedite the advancements in rocket technology to a point at which we could land humans on the surface of the moon. NASA also oversaw the developments of some of the greatest human inventions including the International Space Station and the Hubble Telescope. For many years they were at the frontier of rocket technology but in recent years have focused their efforts on understanding the Earth and a large context of the universe. They are now putting a lot of resource into future space exploration missions and manned Mars missions as well as the implementation of the James Webb telescope.


Over the history of NASA, they have primarily been a research based company, however, offsets from this have provided incredible physical and technological products. They are accredited with making the largest and most powerful rocket in history, a rocket which took humans to the surface of the moon. This rocket is of course the Saturn V.

Following the Apollo missions, NASA put a lot of resources into building the International Space Station, an international collaborative research and experimental facility which sits about 400km from the surface of the Earth in a Low Earth Orbit. This allows scientists and NASA astronauts to undertake experiments and analysis within a vacuum environment, many of which would not be possible from the surface of the Earth. This also has the capabilities to provide valuable information to help me life multi-planetary and for future manned space missions.

Although NASA is not currently capable of taking people from the Earth into space, they are working on the Orion Spacecraft and the Space Launch System however with many private companies now capable of taking products into orbit and hopefully this year we will see manned missions from private space enterprise, NASA is now working with these companies to help deliver space exploration goals. This is not necessarily a backwards step by NASA but a change in position relative to what their capabilities were from the 150’s to the 1970’s. They are now in a position where they can use their extremely capable and experienced engineers to feed into private space enterprise without having to increase their budgets whilst undertaking research focussed projects. For all that they have done to help with the space and aerospace industries, they are now in a powerful position to collaborate with private companies on highly advanced engineering solutions. Another example of this is their project of producing a low-boom demonstrator aircraft which may help with the production of a future manned supersonic commercial aircraft. This particular venture is in conjunction with Lockheed Martin but there is no reason why this information cannot be open-sourced to allow for private companies to develop supersonic commercial aircraft.

NASA’s history is incredible and what they have done for engineering will never be questioned. They are in a different position to what they were at one point but there is no doubt that they captured the imagination of many by being the first company (albeit government) to land a man on the surface of the moon. I hope that we will soon see people landing on the surface of Mars, which will again further progress the space and aerospace industries and progressing human civilization as a whole.


European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN)

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is an experimental facility developed by CERN that allows physicists to understand the different theories of particle physics. Through this part of the blog, we are going to purely focus on the engineering side of the LHC rather than discussing the types of experiments they are conducting. It is often considered the world largest machine, although personally I disagree with this fact and consider the North American Power Grid to be the largest machine but it is certainly the world’s most complex scientific experimental facility. Between 1998 and 2008, CERN hired over 10000 scientists and engineers from over 100 different countries to help build the LHC. This feat in itself and the project management that would have gone into it demonstrates how large of a scale this facility is.


The machine itself lies at a depth of 175 metres below the ground between the border of France and Switzerland and is a tunnel of 27km or 17 miles. It took a few years before it was capable of undertaking practical experiments but for physicists this facility remains the most powerful method of looking into new theories and laws to better understand the universe.

The power of the LHC is about 8 times that of the next most powerful collider and works utilising a 27km ring of superconducting magnets with a number of accelerating structures to boost the energy of the particles along the way.


Inside the accelerator, 2 beams of particles travel at speed close to the speed of light at extremely high energy and then collide into one another. The 2 beams are kept in separate pipes working in a vacuum chamber in opposite directions. Using superconducting electromagnets, the particles are guides around the accelerator ring with a strong magnetic field that is generated. To achieve this, coils capable of operating in a superconducting state which is only achieved without large losses of energy or limited by resistance through chilling the magnets to near absolute zero using liquid helium. Some magnets are 15m in length to control the form of the beam and others are 5 - 7m in length to focus the beams. Prior to collision, the particles are squeezed tightly together in an attempt to make them collide. An analogy of this would be catapulting 2 needles 10km apart into the air and attempting to have them meet at the midway point.


Another impressive engineering feat of CERN is its capabilities of analysing data. This in itself is another world record and utilses the largest computing grid which can then distribute the information to facilities all around the world for analysis from physicists.


Microsoft

There are many companies that can be credited for making the first reliable and user friendly personal computer but there are very few companies that have been as influential in both the software and hardware world as Microsoft.


Microsoft was founded by 2 computer programmers, Paul Allen and Bill Gates in the early 1970’s. Their early years consisted of creating an interface between microprocessors and an interpretation screen. To do this the pair created BASIC, a programming language that allowed electronic components to create a visual interpretation on the screen. They utilised an Altair microcomputer and a BASIC interpreter. Following their proof of concept the pair moved into the operating system market and gained deals with Apple and IBM to work on the initial personal computers.


Following this they continued down the software engineering path creating more advanced operating systems which included Windows and a word processing system called Office. We now take these products for granted and are used in everyday life at work, home and in study environments.


The next major development for Microsoft came in conjunction with the advancements of the world wide web. Microsoft created an online interface in the form of a common web browser, Internet Explorer, as well as the online service that was MSN. At the time MSN was intended to be a competitor to the world wide web but then morphed into an online application base which continues to be utilised in today’s Microsoft products. Around this time they were developing the ever powerful Windows 95 which was the first operating system that was capable of performing all the necessary functions that are utilised in modern technology as well as the recognisable start button that it still seen in today's Windows Operating Systems. During this time Microsoft also started investing in hardware and gaming in the form of a micro-computer which was intended to be a personal assistant device and Xbox.


Microsoft continued their developing in operating systems and throughout the 2000’s and started dabbling with cloud based computing. As the smartphone industry began to boom, Microsoft struggled to create a competitive interface in the form of a smartphone operating system. However, the ever innovating company was then able to create a competitive interface which also lead to a new line of products, the Surface tablets and laptops. Microsoft continually developed their product line with new operating systems, office products, online email, new investments into MSN and a continually developed Xbox. Although all these products are in crowded markets, Microsoft always seemed to find methods of innovating and producing high quality, user friendly products. T hey have also made recent investments in artificial intelligence and seem to be leading this industry in terms of the next generation of software solutions to provide human-like capabilities such as understanding natural language, speech, vision, and making inferences from knowledge and will extend software beyond its most basic applications.

No matter what you think of Microsoft, they have innovated and continued progression in the software and computing industries whilst others have faltered. As a private company they continually developed and created consumer focused products in a variety of different industries from operating systems to mobile phones and even gaming, they have been competitive and even dominated them all.


Tesla Motors

Tesla Motors was built on the foundations of another company called AC propulsion. It is the first start-up automotive company to be able to mass produce vehicles and its ever innovating CEO, Elon Musk, has managed to assist his team in mass-producing an affordable electric vehicle. Their goal was simple, create a demonstration vehicle at a high cost, produce a mid-priced family sedan and then mass produce an affordable electric vehicle for everybody.


Their initial years were based around creating a demonstrator model to prove to the world that electric vehicles could compete with conventional gasoline and diesel internal combustion engine vehicles. They initially proved this technology in a Smart Car which got the interest of Daimler Mercedes Benz who were happy to buy a share of the company. Following this, they then build a high end luxury sports car on the backbone of the Lotus Elise. This then helped fund future developments of which we now see Tesla for.

Following the success of the Tesla Roadster, Tesla Motors then invested and retooled at a considerable expense a factory in California to mass produce electric vehicles. However, this is only part of the equation as Tesla are also experts in producing Lithium Ion Batteries. They have invested heavily in a battery manufacturing facility known as the Gigafactory which is considered the largest single building in the world. Following retooling of the California factory, Tesla were able to produce a luxury sedan known as the Model S which is highly capable in terms of performance and range. Although it comes at quite a high price, for many this can be paid back through not having to pay for petrol or diesel. Alongside mass production of this vehicle, Tesla also created a fleet of electric charging stations throughout the US and beyond. These stations are free to use for Model S owners. On the backbone of the Gigafactory Tesla also expanded their range of battery technology and now sell home batteries, large scale commercial batteries that can be incorporated into the grid network, a vital part of moving to a renewable sourced energy distribution grid. They are also able to provide electric batteries for other automakers to assist with the electrification with the automotive industry. The electrification of vehicles has completely changed vehicle architecture and the industry as whole. Car makers are struggling to keep up with Tesla’s technology but Tesla have a hard feat of their own to achieve a mass produced affordable electric vehicle.

Now with the resources and infrastructure in place, Tesla have begun to ramp up their production of the Model 3, their affordable electric vehicle. However, this comes with a great challenge. To meet customer demands requires Tesla’s processes to be without fault meaning their supply chain or production line cannot have any faults or downtime. This is becoming very difficult for Tesla to manage and meet the customer orders and quality demands. Their business model is based around the fact that customers place orders with a deposit and hope to receive their vehicle in a timely manner. No matter what happens in the future, Tesla have certainly achieved their goals of changing the automotive industry for the better with the progression of electric vehicles.

Alongside their fleet of vehicles they are also heavily investing in autonomy within the automotive industry. It is their vision that drivers in the future will not want the stresses of driving and require the vehicle to do all the ‘work’ utilising intelligent sensors and radar technologies. At this point in time they are the most successful company in producing autonomous vehicles and have certainly pushed the boundaries of engineering and technology.

Elon Musk has also released prototype vehicles that are planned to go into production in the coming years. This include an all new Tesla Roadster and a fully electric Semi Truck. Tesla have taken the trucking industry back to first principles to be able to achieve incredible performance with the Tesla Semi through their battery technology and incredible aerodynamics. Hopefully, this is part of the larger picture for Tesla and will assist with their supply chain issues and help with the production of a mass market affordable electric vehicle. Their autonomous technology also feeds into the trucking world very well and hopefully when the Tesla Semi reaches other customers, it will be a predominantly autonomous vehicle.

SpaceX

SpaceX is truly Elon Musk’s company, unlike other companies in which he was not necessarily the founder but where he made the correct decisions which lead him to the visionary that he is today. He founded it on the basis that space exploration wasn’t improving and his thoughts was that space technology was actually declining to a point where we may not have had the capabilities to make any significant technological improvements or explorations in the space industry.


SpaceX initially created the Falcon 1 rocket which had 3 failures before its first successful flight. The company was on the verge of bankruptcy but managed to put together the resources for a 4th launch which was successful. Following a 5th launch, NASA awarded a contract to SpaceX to refuel the International Space Station across 15 missions. This investment allowed SpaceX to develop their Falcon 9 rocket. The Falcon 9 rocket was an affordable rocket right from the get go but Elon Musk’s relentless pursuit of perfection meant that it eventually became around 65% reusable, saving huge launch costs. This is far greater than any reusability that has previously been demonstrated by other rocket companies including the Space Shuttle.


They have been developing their Falcon Heavy rocket for many years now and on their first launch, they successfully placed a Tesla Roadster (Elon Musk’s personal one) into orbit. This changes the reusability from around the 65% mark to almost 90% meaning that the Falcon Heavy is far more efficient for large scale launches with heavy payloads. It also provides an option for manned missions to the Moon and potentially demonstrator flights to Mars. In my opinion, the Falcon Heavy launch was the greatest engineering achievement for at least the past decade and almost had me in tears. The Falcon Heavy launch can be seen below:

They have clearly shown how capable they are from an engineering and perseverance standpoint. They put it all on the line and reaped rewards becoming the first privately owned enterprise to put a rocket into orbit. They have done what many companies are afraid of and brought most of their engineering and manufacturing in-house. This has allowed them to take control of processes and understand the technology that they are capable of.


Speaking of this technology, they are now working on their next rocket, The Big Falcon Rocket (BFR). The BFR is the intended rocket for manned missions to Mars and is currently in development and testing. They have teased us with glimpses of its capabilities and visibility of certain components such as their fuel tanks, which is the largest CFRP structure ever made. The future of space flight is exciting and this hasn’t been the case since the Apollo missions for most engineers or the general public. It will be very exciting to see their BFR developments over the coming years and to hopefully see human civilisation become multi planetary. No matter what the end result is, SpaceX has demonstrated that privately owned companies can compete with government funded companies in any industry. There is now another space race and it will be to see who can get a human on Mars, will it be a privately owned company or will SpaceX do what many have and will continue to think is impossible.


Luke T Seal Engineering