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Gym lab hero: Interview with inventor and industry pioneer Iain Duncan

Iain Duncan's career in innovation and product design has spanned continents and industries, and he worked on computers from the early IBM to the latest Raspberry PIs. That represents a lot of expertise that he is eager to share, as he explained to Tim Fryer

Iain Duncan has been around a bit. His career has taken him on a geographical and technical journey that has seen him amass a huge amount of knowledge and his enthusiasm for using that knowledge to 'make things' remains undiminished, despite entering his third attempt at retirement.

"My first job out of school was as an operator on an IBM 360 mainframe computer, so I have seen punch cards in operation right through to the Raspberry PIs and Arduinos that are now available," said Duncan "It's been absolutely fascinating."

A few highlights along this path have included his role in the development of the Nimbus computer for Research machines, the Tornado's Foxhunter radar while at Marconi Avionics, moving factories from America to Mexico cutting the wage bill from $100m to $3m, and becoming Selex's 'Mr Fixit' in later years following his resolution of problems in the Eurofighter Typhoon Captor radar system.

A few highlights along this path have included his role in the development of the first microcomputers, airborne radar and electronic countermeasures, robotics and factory automation, instrumentation and control, finally becoming Selex's 'Mr Fixit' in later years following his resolution of problems in the Eurofighter electronics systems. Moreover, Duncan exudes a sense of pride that he was headhunted at every step of his career. "I think I am an ideas person, but also I can make things happen. That's why people use me," he said.

'Making things happen' is clearly a driving mantra for Duncan, and that is reflected in his current venture, Mousetrap Innovation. Mousetrap is essentially a laboratory in Basildon that people can go to to make their designs become a reality. Duncan explained: "Selex wanted me to stay on, but I had a heart attack and a triple bypass. I felt really good but I decided it was time for me to enjoy myself and have some fun, but I can't leave technology behind and I found out about this concept called Fab Labs."

Fab Lab is an idea that is lead by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The concept is to provide an environment, including skills and equipment, where inventors, hobbyists and small businesses can take their ideas from a concept to a creation. There are currently two in the UK, in Manchester and Ellesmere Port, and Duncan aims to make Mousetrap a third in the near future. There are rules to becoming a Fab Lab, one of the main ones being that they should be in the community and not in universities. Duncan commented: "There are dozens of Fab Labs in Holland, Germany Spain and yet only two in the UK. The difference is the UK follow the rules exactly, whereas others bend the rules to suit their own devices. In Holland they even have a Fab Lab on a bike!"

Duncan has been disappointed that his enthusiasm for Fab Labs has not yet caught the attention of the local government people in Essex: "I don't know why. I guess we're not that interested in manufacturing in the south."

His enthusiasm remains undiminished and for all that the project is less than a year old it is breaking even. The way it works is that people will pay a monthly subscription, like a gym club, which gives a certain amount of time on the machines. Extra time can be paid for at an hourly rate.

This model has had a certain amount of success with hobbyists, particularly the older generation who find themselves with time and money to pursue ideas that had previously been suppressed by the demands of having a job. However most of the 'hours consumed' are from SMEs that don't have their own R&D facilities. "I am contract R&D in that respect. I go all the way from concept to capability and I'm happy to do that," said Duncan "I could do just one thing or I could do all of it."

The lab contains a wide range of equipment that enables cutting, drilling, printing, assembling, soldering, testing and much more, but the equipment is not the core resource that people use Mousetrap for. "It's mainly me, really," concedes Duncan. "I could have been a consultant, but I didn't feel that that would tell the whole story about what I do. That's really why I built a lab so now I can say 'not only can I tell you how to do it - I can show you how to do it.' I've always been down in the ditches kind of guy, even in senior management I've always been one for rolling sleeves up and doing it. At the same time I'm quite happy for somebody else to do it as long as it happens. That's what drives me - seeing something happen."

There is no shortage in innovation in the UK according to Duncan, but that is not always a substitute for experience. "I think the main problem people face is the same one they have always faced - people don't know what they don't know. I have often seen products that fail because people go down a certain route, but they don't know the full ramifications of it, and that is right across the board in terms of the commercial aspects, the legal aspects and the environmental aspects for example. So they don't understand all of those things and they get to a point where they can't take it any further because they have gone down the wrong path. That is where my experience counts."

Along with experience, Duncan points to another aspect of the engineering sector that is highlighted by the latest STEM initiative. He commented: "Science, technology, engineering and maths, but where is the art in that? I think there has to be an art in design as well. There has to be style and there has to be elegance. Every design I have ever come up with I've looked at and said 'It is not just fit for function, it is fit for function and it looks good.' And I think that's what STEM doesn't encourage."

In terms of providing a resource, Mousetrap's value is currently local, but that does not mean that it always has to be. "I want this to be a sustainable activity when I'm not around, so that somebody else can at least manage the process for me. As it stands I think I am the consultancy, but I think it's a model that can be reproduced elsewhere, but I need to find the right kind of people to do that. I believe it's got real value. I absolutely believe in it as a concept. Apart from the Fab Labs I don't think anybody else is doing anything like it."

Iain Duncan
Having graduated from the Royal Military College of Science at Shrivenham, Duncan went on to work for the MoD before joining Marconi Avionics, where he was responsible for leading a design team on the Foxhunter radar for the Tornado. He then moved to be project manager at Research Machines responsible for the Nimbus computer – the rival to the BBC Micro in the early 80s – followed by a role heading up the engineering at Eurotherm. Stints in America leading design teams in the defence and automotive sectors and as a consultant, were followed by a return to the UK to work as a teacher. He then worked for Selex – then BAE Systems – firstly as a general systems troubleshooter and finally as chief engineer for innovation. Now, in his third attempt at 'retirement', Duncan has set up Mousetrap.

Tim Fryer

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