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Make it in Great Britain event lacks the spark of inspiration

It’s about time British manufacturing got the recognition it deserved. The government’s Make it in Great Britain campaign shows politicians have finally woken up; not just to the need to grow our manufacturing sector, but also to the fact that we already have a world-class industry.

The challenge and the aim of the campaign, which opened its flagship exhibition at the Science Museum in London this week, is to raise awareness of the innovative and successful British companies that make things. It’s been timed to coincide with the Olympics to add maximum international exposure as well as targeting young people in the UK with the hope of enticing them into a career in manufacturing.

It’s a very worthwhile exercise, given how often one still hears the phrase ‘We don’t make anything anymore’ thrown around and how often manufacturing firms highlight a skills shortage. It also fits in neatly with some of the other positive policy initiatives taken by BIS to promote the long-term health of the sector.


BAE Systems’ flapless FLAVIIR UAV is among the exhibits at the Science Museum exhibition

But if I’m honest I found myself a little disappointed with the exhibition itself. As someone who has the privilege of visiting manufacturers around the country, I know how interesting and exciting their facilities and products can be. And the Science Museum has years of experience in bringing tricky or slightly dry topics to life. So I was expecting something more than static models of aircraft wheels and sailing boats alongside displays about Coke and Mars factories.

Too many of the exhibits were devoid of interactive aspects or moving parts and some didn’t have enough information on display, occasionally reminiscent of a trade show stand. Suspending a McLaren F1 car upside down above an MP4-12C road car was an interesting idea but meant you couldn’t really get a good look at either. And I’m not sure many visitors will be that enthralled by seeing a recreation of the interior of a tube carriage when they’ve just spent a sweaty 30 minutes or more trapped inside one on their way to the museum.


McLaren’s exhibit features its current F1 car suspended upside-down over an MP4-12C sports car

Devising ways to enthuse kids and sceptical adults about manufacturing with limited space and resources must be a very difficult job. It was obvious the exhibition organisers had worked closely with the companies on display to get across exactly what they did, but I would have liked it to have been clearer as to why each object was important and how it worked. I would have liked to have seen some more of these machines in action. And I think there could have been more information about the challenges of engineering and building the products.

With these concerns in mind, I spoke to Ben Russell, curator of mechanical engineering at the Science Museum, who worked with the government, the participating companies and event agency Sledge to put together the exhibition. He made the fair point that everything was done on a much shorter time scale than was typical for the museum - a year from start to finish - and interactive exhibits in particular need a much longer development period to make sure they are sufficiently robust.

‘Interactivity with people is very, very difficult to do. People never respond to something exactly as you expect them to,’ he said. ‘And you’d be amazed at what kids can do to something. We’ve had companies build interactives, impressively engineered things, and within half a day something’s fallen off. We wanted to do a good show that would last.’

He also pointed out that putting a piece of technology in a museum inherently meant taking it out of context and not seeing it fulfilling the purpose for which it was designed. Instead, the museum attempts to tell the story behind an exhibit and the people involved in order to engage with visitors.


The ENV fuel-cell motorbike, designed by SeymourPowell and Intelligent Energy, is among the Science Museum exhibits

Perhaps I’m being unduly critical. I often exit museums wishing there had been more information available, but maybe it’s not realistic to expect curators to plaster exhibits with text when visitors come to see and not just to read about the artefacts on display. I also know there has to be a balance between interactivity, information and the physical constraints of a museum. And I’d encourage everyone to visit Make it in Great Britain if they get the chance.

Still, I can’t help but feel that young people in particular need to get close-up and hands-on if we expect them to feel the lure of engineering. Let’s hope that this exhibition will at least whet their appetites to discover more.

The Engineer visits the Make it in Great Britain exhibition


Readers' comments (12)

  • I am impressed, I work for an engineering company John R Boone ltd and we manufacture still in the UK only mixing/blending machines that are bespoke and rebust, our clients are worlwide but we are being out priced by cheap replicas, It nice to see innovation in the UK and young people being stimulated to enjoy our engineering back ground, I hope it is a success

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  • The ENV fuel-cell motorbike, designed by SeymourPowell looks rather familiar - wasn't it exhibited in the Dome?

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  • Not in the Dome, no. But we have featured it in The Engineer before, in this feature in 2005:

  • Industry has to come together, pool resouces and inspire young people by organising school roadshows right around the country. This is where the future is. Many kids don't know what engineering is all about, don't know that they might have a talent in this direction and will never visit the science museum in London.

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  • Interactivity isn't necessarily a good thing - I remember the 'old' Birmingham Science Museum, in Newhall Street, and from the age of 10 I was in awe of the sheer scale of some of the exhibits (wow a train in a museum!) - yes we loved what little bit of interactivity there was (normally a wheel to turn round or a button to push that didn't always work!) but the great thing was just looking at exhibits and hearing from parents/teachers what it was all about. And here lies the rub - interactivity isn't going to get youngsters interested in engineering but teachers and interested parents might. Here's a novel idea - how about making the descriptions and facts more interesting so that parents and teachers can make it interesting. For confirmation of how a Science Museum can be ruined take a look at the kindergarten styled 'New' Birmingham Science Museum at Millennium Point (although they still have the City of Birmingham train inside). From your editorial it sounds as though London got it about right.

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  • This government have split over nuclear energy. They refused an £80 million loan to Sheffield Forgemasters for nuclear related investment. What do we hear now? Talks are underway with the Chinese to finance and build our new nuclear power stations. Wind turbines are supplied and built by overseas workers, we supply their bacon sandwiches. What will we supply to the nuclear workers?

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  • My last contract job which I have just left was with one of the companies exhibiting at this exhibition. So I can vouch for the fact there was a great deal of excitement and pride within the company to have been chosen to exhibit, which is a good thing.
    In my opinion this exhibition a positive step in relaying what modern engineering involves to the general public and the young, and hopefully it will not just be a one off for the Olympics, but will continue on a yearly basis, gradually improving.
    But I really think the government needs to stop British Gas from making adverts portraying engineers as gas fitters if they are serious about attracting young talented people into engineering, before worrying about exhibitions.

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  • There are interactive exhibits at the MiiGB exhibition. Just not as many as the author might want. Perchance he didn't see all the exhibits?

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  • If the government really want to get this country back on its feet, Get rid of the draconian labour laws that give the employee so many rights over the employer.

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  • I have told 10 years worth of my Engineering students to use a Capital letter every time they use the word...: a simple route to differentiating 'our' profession from mechanic/technician [no disrespect to such] Forget the public is altering the 'meja's absurd attitudes that is essential, as sadly they are so powerful that they presently do 'direct' the public perception of everything! Having just watched the TV coverage of the Olympic Opening Ceremony...(I had the privilege of watching one of the rehearsals live as well) I was struck by the themes of the advances of technology that drove everything else. [So at least one of the meja/luvvies has got the message.]

    As my wife said at the end: "and not a lawyer , PR puffer or accountant in sight!" Hurrah.

    I believe readers (if there are any?!) of my comments will be aware already of my thesis. One I have propounded for 40+ years. Unless and until we, as Engineers actively set out to eclipse the sham-groups (I cannot in all conscience call them professions) they will continue to get away with what amount to intellectual and mental crimes against us all.

    They steal the lion's shares of everything, yet create not one penny piece of wealth. They have done so for 500 years: when they took over that role from the clerics.

    Perhaps 2012 is a watershed in the public perception of our contribution.
    I hope my grandchildren will benefit there-from.

    Best to all Engineers
    Mike B

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  • As an exhibit viewer, I don't think interactivity is the main issue. I think that the first thing that you need to feel a sense that there is a lot of exciting stuff still to be done and the second thing is to make you feel that you could be part of it.

    An exhibit needs to show you the past, present and some possible futures.

    The ENV bike is one of those great disappointments to people like me who thought it was cool and interesting but never got a chance to buy it. Similarly FLAVIIR is very very cool project indeed but has a similar sense of being a total dead end. Neither of these may actually be dead ends - their applications may be elsewhere or possibly they are secret but it's no good if they feel like full stops.

    Seeing what might be done is good but making people feel that they could be part of it is another important issue. I think that people have difficulty imagining how they might fit into any of these exciting areas and as such they can look at the exhibits and say "wow" and feel no connection whatsoever. I think people need to know more about how things get made and have it demystified so they can imagine doing it.

    The best kind of interaction would be something which shows a person "yes, actually you *can* design and make something real and useful," but these are hard to arrange.

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  • business moving off shore to make a short term profit has created a long term loss. The skills are now being developed off shore and the intrepreneural developement lost. Short term money gain long loss.

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  • It is always good to hear about engineering and manufacturing in Britain, but until proper differentiation between engineers and mechanics/fitters is in place what incentives are there to become an engineer, when being a technician or mechanic/fitter has the same status and similar earning potential?

    Engineering is applied maths. It requires years of dedication and learning, similar to that required by architects and doctors, yet the average wage for an engineer is ludicrously low.

    I do not see any credible external body driving the differentiation so I believe it is essential for the engineering professions to work together to create professional engineer status so that this can be rectified. This is exactly what doctors and architects have done in the past.

    In my opinion, adopting a similar system to Germany, where you can only define yourself as a professional engineer when you are suitably qualified, has to be the way to go, but only the engineering professions can make this happen.

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