Engineers, be bold - Britain needs grander designs

Monday, October 8, 2012

A dearth of real engineering ambition is holding back the sector. Big, ambitious projects are needed to put us back on track.

Co-authored with Paul Reeves.

Last week the Royal Academy of Engineering published a report Jobs and growth: the importance of engineering skills to the UK economy that claimed "engineers underpin the economy" but concluded with the gloomy news that they are in short supply and that the UK does not produce enough of them to make a difference. To help make a difference, James Dyson, arguably the UK’s most high profile entrepreneur and engineer, recently opened the new Dyson Building at the Royal College of Art’s Battersea campus.

At the opening, Dyson used the opportunity to bemoan the government’s favouring of investment in digital technologies over hardware manufacturing. He has a point: the government has made much of the potential in East London’s ‘Silicon roundabout’ – even encouraging companies such as Google to set-up offices there. Software, he said, is a much easier option for governments to invest in: it doesn’t need so much large-scale capital investment and, unlike engineering, can provide a quicker return on investment.

However, if hardware engineering and design are to become an attractive prospect for growth, the problem runs much deeper than that of working out how to attract the right kind of investment and in how to attract the right kinds of people to the engineering professions. Engineering, if it is ever going to be taken seriously (again), needs to be at the forefront of big, ambitious projects. Only then can it expect to be noticed, influence government policy, and encourage new investment. To understand this gulf more easily, look at the projects on show at numerous design school graduate shows around the country – including at Dyson’s own RCA campus in Battersea. It is in these shows that graduates compete with one another, demonstrating their curiosity, radicalism, and of course, their employability. After his interview with Dyson, Rory Cellan-Jones, the BBC’s technology correspondent, picked out two student projects that he felt illustrated Dyson’s point about the impact engineering can make in society.

Perhaps ironically the projects Cellan-Jones picked out unwittingly helped undo some of Dyson’s argument. One project was a waterless toilet and another was a sliding screen to aid patient’s privacy in hospital wards. These ideas are innovative at a certain level, offering sometimes clever, even fun solutions to many everyday problems. But let’s face it they are hardly likely to transform the world. Instead, they highlight the problem with contemporary engineering and manufacturing: the tendency to reinforce widespread orthodoxies such as sustainability and short-termism rather than rigorously challenging and questioning much bigger assumptions.

It is not that there are no exciting engineering developments taking place both in and outside of colleges. But the reality is that much work goes on under the radar, either because it is too difficult to understand, too costly, or is hindered by government that exhibits a sense of ambivalence toward ground-breaking technology that sits outside of its own agenda.

Take for example, a project called Skylon. It is a concept for a single stage reusable spacecraft and is based upon a truly revolutionary propulsion system called SABRE. Developed by a team lead by Alan Bond, a mechanical engineer now in his late 60s. Central to its function is a heat exchanger based pre-cooler to collect oxygen whilst still in the earth’s atmosphere. At lower altitudes the engine operates as a normal air-breathing jet engine. This, combined with the collection of a significant proportion of the fuel payload (in the form of oxygen) on the journey up, means only a single stage vehicle is required. The end effect of this is that it will significantly reduce the cost of getting a kilogram of matter into space, by a factor of around 10.

The implication of Bond’s technology is enormous. It could kick-start as yet undreamed of industries, while helping existing sectors develop, including satellites and telecommunications. On the other hand, it could all come to nothing. Why? Because despite the government’s repeated words of recognition of the UK’s world-class aerospace sector, the overall tendency remains in favouring existing competencies and worse still, ‘respecting' resources. Take what the government-backed Technology Strategy Board said, together with the Royal Society for the Arts, in their recent initiative: The Great Recovery – redesigning the future. For them, the key concern is to focus on "circular systems" of resource usage and to protect us from risks "to our supply chains". Having such a risk-averse standpoint does little to encourage early-stage technologies like Skylon and SABRE, especially when their benefits are only just being understood.

Perhaps this is the real reason why only meagre levels of ambition are apparent among design school students and in engineering departments. Design is being stifled by orthodoxies such as sustainability and resource reuse. Constraints can produce innovation, but compared to the potential of benefits brought about by ambitious technologies such as SABRE, in the long term these pale into insignificance. But that will only happen if we have the ambition, resilience and self-belief to transcend the naysayers so we can argue against the dogma of limits.

This article is promoting Making It in the 21 Century strand at the Battle of Ideas on Saturday 20 October.

First published in The Independent.