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​Nine things we learned at The Engineer conference 2014

From curious technical challenges to the mega-trends shaping industry’s future, delegates to The Engineer Conference 2014 left with plenty to think about. Here are nine things that jumped out at us.

1. Industry 4.0 is going to be huge

Siemens is pioneering Industry 4.0

The internet of things; the industrial internet; industry 4.0, call it what you will, there’s a growing consensus that the wireless connectivity of machines and the components that they make will herald a fundamental shift in the way that we manufacture products.

According to one of the firm’s championing the concept - German industrial giant Siemens, UK firms have traditionally been slow to adopt automation technology, but industry 4.0 is one technology trend that we can’t afford to ignore.

Fortunately, thanks to a collaboration between Siemens and the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC), British manufacturers will soon be able to view its benefits up close at the UK’s first Industry 4.0 demonstrator.

2. Ferrari is Italy’s biggest investor in high speed rail

Italy's Italo high speed train has been inspired by Ferrari

Italy’s Italo high speed train has been inspired by Ferrari

Outlining to delegates some of the technologies that will be key to delivering high-speed rail in the UK, HS2’s technical director Andrew McNaughton, showed how engineers in other countries are turning to automotive expertise to help them crack the high-speed challenge.

One particularly intriguing example was Italy’s  Ferrari-inspired 186mph Italo which has been connecting Milan, Rome and Naples since 2012. Indeed, according to McNaughton the iconic sports car manufacturer is Italy’s biggest investor in high-speed rail.

3. GB’s olympic Tae Kwon Do team tapped into aerospace expertise

Aerospace testing equipment was used to analyse Tae Kwon Do scoring vests

Aerospace testing equipment was used to analyse Tae Kwon Do scoring vests

BAE engineer Kelvin Davies, who heads up his firm’s UK sport technology partnership explained to delegates how an impact testing machine developed for the aerospace industry was used to monitor to analyse the electronic scoring vests that were used for the first time in the 2012 Olympics Taekwondo competition.

He explained that by monitoring the reaction of the vest to a range of different impacts, BAE was able to give the team vital information on optimal strike areas, and best angles of attack. And Jade Jones went on to win one of Team GB’s most memorable gold medals.

 4. Everybody wants a slice of the JLR pie


From the conference theatre, to the exhibition floor and the hotel bar, everyone was talking about Jaguar Land Rover – and how the firm’s success in recent years is creating plenty of work further down the supply chain.

With more product launches planned over the coming years, JLR’s impact on the wider UK automotive sector looks set to continue, but the firm’s purchasing risk manager Michael Mychajluk warned suppliers that they will need to become more flexible as products become more diverse.

Click here to read our 2012 interview with JLR’s chief engineer, Bob Joyce

5. Mass personalisation will become as economical as mass production


Techniques such as additive manufacturing will help manufacturers cater for greater levels of personalisation

From the automotive industry to the pharmaceutical world, consumers are demanding ever-greater levels of personalisation. But whilst bespoke products have traditionally come at a cost, a host of emerging technologies and approaches - will make large production runs of unique products as economical as large production runs of identical products.

The firms that ensure they’re in a position to cater for mass personalisation will be the manufacturing success stories of the future.

6. Most manufacturers only use 5 – 10 percent of a machine tool’s capability


The capabilities of today’s most advanced machine tools are truly impressive, but according to Rolls-Royce global manufacturing director Hamid Mughal most manufacturers are failing to exploit their full potential.

Outlining the opportunities for UK manufacturers to improve, Mughal argued that many firms are only using around 5 – 10 % of their machine tools’ capabilities. He said that by becoming more adventurous, deploying new techniques, and improving their understanding of issues such as resonance, manufacturers will be able to go “full blast”.

7. You’re not allowed to take rubber onto another planet

Mars Yard

Some sand. Some pit

There are strict rules governing what you can and can’t take onto the surface of another planet and rubber – as an organic material – is on the list of banned substances.

This was one of the many problems facing the team of UK engineers behind the design and development of the robotic rover that will be sent to Mars as part of ESA’s ExoMars mission. Rubber was initially considered the ideal material form which to make a wheel capable of traversing the rocky Martian landscape.

But rubber wheels could leave traces of organic matter that future missions might misinterpret as a sign of life so the team had to develop an artificial material with many of the same properties.

8. There’s plenty of life left in the jet engine

Cut away of Pratt & Whitney's Pure Power engine

Cut away of Pratt & Whitney’s Pure Power engine

Today’s jet engines are most efficient devices ever invented for turning chemical energy into propulsive power but, according to the technology chief of one of the sector’s biggest manufacturers, there’s much more to come.

As civil aviation continues to grow, and environmental regulations become ever more stringent, the pressure is on for manufacturers to build more efficient engines.

But according to Alan Epstein, Pratt  & Whitney’s VP of technology and environment, a new generation of ultra high bypass geared turbofans, and the advent of biofuels with energy density equivalent to kerosene, will help propel the industry to once-unthinkable levels of energy efficiency.

9. We are now mining landfill sites.

As some resources become scarce landfill mining is gaining in popularity

As some resources become scarce landfill mining is gaining in popularity

The idea of mining landfill sites for precious metals and fuels for power generation has gathered momentum in recent years.

But whilst the rise of the landfill mine is, in most respects a welcome trend the fact that we’re even having to consider doing it is also a stark illustration of mankind’s historically inefficient and shortsighted use of resources.

One potential way of breaking the cycle is through the so-called “circular economy” a model for an industrial economy in which materials and components are developed to be kept in use for as long as possible and to be recovered and regenerated at the end of their lives.  

Many believe that embracing these kind of approaches will be critical if industry is to be resilient enough to cope with the unpredictable impact of climate change on global supply chains.

Readers' comments (4)

  • Item 9 : The circular economy

    Sad to see The Engineer falling for the anti-engineering, anti-manufacturing, anti automation– pro ‘labour intensive’ ‘circular economy – see leading light for the Circular economy Walter Stahel in his presentation to DAVOS.

    As James Woudhuysen pointed out yesterday on Spiked in his article celebrating manufacturing Stahel let slip

    ‘a circular economy with its local low-carbon and low-resource solutions, which are inherently more labour-intensive than manufacturing as economies of scale are limited’

    – the Circular Economy goes against the less labour intensive & high productivity that engineering and manufacturing have brought us over the past two centuries.

    Finally as to the comment ‘mankind’s historically inefficient and shortsighted use of resources’ – inefficient, short sighted? I actually see no problem in using an excess of resources – when they are abundant – That’s Civilisation ie ‘room to breathe intellectually’– and also allows for new technologies to develop unblinkered by calls to obsessively be efficient and not waste anything.

    Some times I do wonder if The Engineer really still believes in Engineering or the gains it has bought us.

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  • I welcome the 'circular economy'- with its faults, no doubt it will develop.
    We are humans with responsibilities to our children long before we are engineers wanting to build things. Humans have the potential to be around for millions of years, but only if we survive the next few!

    We should husband our resources.

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  • Very much agree with Anon 1.33pm. I would say that husbandry of our resource is part of being an engineer, in the long term it contributes to efficiency.

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  • Let's first make circular economy the main model globally and then evaluate if it is worse or better than the current make - discard, make fast - discard faster, disregard any negative externalities and make others pay for them model.

    I also welcome the "circular economy" and do not see it at all as anti-engineering or anti-manufacturing. Why would re-manufacturing, a main feature of the circular economy, be anti-manufacturing, for instance? Or additive manufacturing? Or the whole material and process engineering required to the use of waste streams from some nodes of the circular economy network as inputs into other nodes.

    Just look at the oldest application of circular economy or industrial symbiosis, still in operation and expanding. I find it beautiful, a great work of engineering, imagination and pioneering of the future clean economy:

    Resources, whether abundant or not, they are first, finite, and second, do not belong only to the people alive today, but to all the future generations. So we must use them rationally and carefully for those we will never know, but who have the same right to live a civilized life on the only livable planet in the reachable universe as we do.

    We need to increase resource productivity, not labor productivity, the first is constrained, the second not.

    Even if engineering and manufacturing have increased labor productivity, financial capital took care of it by appropriating most of the gains and by chasing cheap labor. One more reason to create local, circular, sustainable economies.

    Many thanks to The Engineer for organizing the conference and for the useful summary helping us focus our minds and work on all or some of these mega-trends.

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