Wednesday, 30 July 2014
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Sound advice

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With my background in materials science and engineering, I have always believed that having the right material in the right form and at affordable cost has enabled most areas of technology. However, it is equally crucial to have sound advice and engineers are a valuable source of this across
all businesses and in government.

The potential value of engineering expertise extends beyond technical knowledge in a given discipline as engineers are increasingly trained in ‘whole-life’ thinking and have practical experience of managing complex projects, as well as integrating people with physical systems. This makes engineers highly useful in helping to optimise and shape a business, but also demands that engineering insight and advice is sought in a timely way by those governing the relevant businesses.

Many years ago, there was an accident involving metal fatigue. A member of the company concerned reportedly said that no one had warned them that small cracks were dangerous, despite the accident occurring after decades of research into metal-fatigue failure following the Comet air disasters in the 1950s.

Engineering students in my ‘Fracture, fatigue and failure’ lecture class at Newcastle University were astounded, but, having looked at the company’s structure, it was unclear how engineering advice and understanding would have been gained.

The Engineering Policy Committee of the Royal Academy of Engineering was also concerned about a lack of engineering advice in large companies and the government, so we set out to produce a report to explore the need to seek relevant engineering advice.

The report, Professional engineering governance: the critical need for quality engineering advice in the boardroom, is based on the detailed experiences of a cross-section of the academy’s fellowship who have worked in a range of companies and sectors where engineering underpins products and activity.

Government too requires impartial engineering advice as it is engaged with large projects

It highlights an important yet often unrecognised role for professional engineers in helping to make long-term decisions that will set the agenda and direction of a company in the global marketplace.

Business can benefit from timely, expert engineering advice in the boardroom to identify opportunities for improving cost-effectiveness, increasing productivity, identifying and ameliorating risks or exploring new business.

However, there is a tendency for boards to recognise the value of people with financial, business or legal backgrounds more than people with professional engineering backgrounds. In organisations where there is inadequate engineering advice, this could mean that risks lie undetected. In worst-case scenarios, this deficiency could lead to expensive projects or even businesses failing.

There is also concern that many SMEs only seek engineering advice when it is absolutely needed, rather than in a strategic manner. Given the potential significance of SMEs to the future UK economy, this causes concern.

Government too requires impartial engineering advice internally as it is often engaged with large-scale engineering projects. The recent House of Commons Science and Technology Committee report: Engineering in government (a follow-up to the 2009 report, Engineering: turning ideas into reality )says ‘government must ensure that engineering continues to have a high profile in policy, and particularly in policy development’, after the previous report acknowledged that engineering ‘did not feature highly enough’ in policymaking.

I welcome the report’s recommendations that a government chief scientific and engineering adviser should oversee the mechanisms for providing appropriate expertise into policy departments. There can be little government policy that does not have an engineering dimension to delivery. Thus, having high-level engineering input early in the process would help to avoid expensive mistakes and sub-optimal outcomes such as ‘specification (and cost) expansion and drift’.

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Companies need to utilise their experts

There remains the question of whether government can be an intelligent customer when dealing with the advice it receives. A government chief engineer would be an important step forward both in highlighting this need, as well as in accessing the engineering profession’s expertise.

The Select Committee report also recommends that, in departments where engineering advice is routinely required, the government should consider appointing a chief engineering adviser instead of, or in addition to, a chief scientific adviser.

Engineers have so much to offer government, businesses and society. The challenge for boards of directors and policymakers is to recognise that they need access to quality engineering advice, to seek that advice and then to use it effectively.

For engineers, the challenge is to ensure not only that they are commercially literate to understand issues influencing the running of a business so that their advice is given in the context of the company’s activities but that technical issues are communicated in a way that is understood by colleagues.

Prof Trevor Page FREng, chair of the Royal Academy of Engineering’s report working group, emeritus professor of materials engineering, Newcastle University, and non-executive director of The Centre for Process Innovation


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