Tanya Weaver tries to get to grips with the initiatives that are attempting to put design and engineering at the heart of the UK’s economy and drive growth
I recently bought myself a bicycle. Admittedly I know very little about bicycles but my only criteria is that it had to be British.
Ruling out a Pashley Princess (I didn’t fancy a basket) and a Brompton (I don’t really need a folding bike) I decided, through a little help from crowdsourcing on twitter, on a Charge.
I am now a very proud owner of a Lazy Susan (their name, not mine) and also proudly flying the flag for British design and engineering.
However, Charge, like many British companies, don’t actually manufacture products in their entirety in the UK anymore. We all know too well the story of manufacturing moving off our shores to cheaper economies.
Although it makes sense from a cost point of view, it is a shame as I do love factory visits. From Avent and Renishaw to Brompton and Ferrari, it’s great to see how a drawing on a sketchpad or a model on a computer begins to take shape on the factory floor.
I remember a number of years back visiting Black & Decker in Spennymoor, in the north of England, and it was really rather spooky walking through an empty factory to get to the innovation centre at the
other end where the design and engineering teams were located. While the site has now been sold to redevelopers, in its heyday this factory must have been a hive of activity.
Today, the company is still creating as many, if not more, products it’s just that this is happening in a factory in the Far East somewhere. While this is sad, if Black & Decker had continued to manufacture on that site it probably would have gone out of business years ago.
We lament at how our manufacturing industry, once a thriving industrial powerhouse, now only generates 12 per cent of Britain’s GDP.
A couple of months back the BBC attempted to paint a positive picture of our manufacturing sector through ‘Made in Britain’. Over three programmes Evan Davis, an economist and TV presenter, attempted to get across that although we’re not manufacturing on the scale we once did, the brainpower, creativity and technological excellence have increasingly become, in his words, “the lifeblood of the British economy”.
So, with brain not brawn being the current recipe for success, we need Government to put design and engineering at the heart of its plans for economic growth. The good news is that it seems to be on the agenda.
At ‘Design for Growth’, a recent summit in London which was attended by business leaders, designers and government, the Universities and Science Minister, David Willetts, said: “Design forms an integral part of the Government’s plans for innovation and growth and it will be a prominent feature in our upcoming Research and Innovation strategy.”
Soon after came the news of ‘Made by Britain’, an initiative conceived by the Associate Parliamentary Manufacturing Group and launched by UK business secretary Vince Cable to celebrate ingenuity in UK design and manufacture.
The plan is for each of the UK’s 650 Members of Parliament to choose a product designed and manufactured in their constituency to help open their eyes to what is being created right under their
noses. These will initially be showcased on a website with possibly an exhibition of the chosen work taking place next year to coincide with the Olympics and the Queen’s diamond jubilee.
In countries like Germany, Canada and India, being an engineer earns respect. We need to get that back in the UK
Products that have been picked so far vary from custard creams, fish fingers, toilet rolls to the Rolls Royce trent engine and surgical blades.
It’s great that we are highlighting just what is being designed and engineered in this country, albeit not physically manufactured. But what if we no longer have the engineers to do the job? This could be a real problem.
Just the other week I heard on local breakfast television that Midlands company TRW Automotive is thinking of reviving the apprenticeship scheme because it can’t find skilled automotive engineers. The issue seems that young people aren’t choosing engineering as a career.
The reason could be that the perception of engineering is confused. I mean plumbers, gas repair mechanics and even fridge maintenance mechanics (or whatever the correct job title is for them) are all being referred to as engineers.
As James Dyson, arguably our most well known engineer, said in a recent article he wrote for The Observer newspaper: “Britain has a very misplaced view of engineers. They’re either seen as eccentric boffins who speak in algebraic formula, or fixers, sorting faulty cookers, broken-down cars. All important but, at base, engineering is about problem-solving and inventing, making lives better through developing new technology.” In countries like Germany, Canada and India, being an engineer earns instant respect. We need to get that back in the UK.
Perhaps one way of upping engineering’s profile is to educate young people as to what engineering really entails. In fact, there are a number of initiatives trying to do just that.
Dyson set up the James Dyson Foundation, which not only has an award scheme but also supplies teachers with teaching resources, whilst JCB has opened its JCB Academy, an engineering academy for young people aged 14 to 19.
But even engineers themselves can do something. I felt rather inspired recently when I saw on twitter that Steve Bedder, a manufacturing technical engineer at Autodesk, had contacted the headteacher of his son’s primary school and gave a talk to 65 children aged five to seven on design and technology.
On his blog he recalls how enthusiastic and interactive the children were and how he hopes that he may have planted a seed that could result in possibly some of them following engineering as a career path.
So, with news from the Office for National Statistics that UK manufacturing data has fallen again in recent months, there is no time like the present to start championing British design, engineering and manufacturing.
Initiatives attempting to put British design and engineering back on the map