Andy Wright, Director of Strategic Technology at BAE Systems, reflects on the challenges and opportunities presented by a constantly shifting technology landscape
The engineering industry is ever-changing, with emerging and disruptive technologies constantly raising exciting new possibilities, whilst often simultaneously overtaking yesterday’s technologies. This is what for me is what makes our sector absolutely fascinating – but in the same measure extraordinarily challenging!
So just how do Britain’s engineering companies stay ahead of the game in a constantly evolving global landscape? I would argue that in order to compete successfully on the world stage, it’s not just about continuing to invent new world-beating technologies, but also about large and small organisations building on each others’ strengths to adopt a far more collaborative and agile approach in how they manage and apply technologies for a common purpose.
Great Britain has always been a nation of inventors, from Thomas Savery’s steam engine, John Logie Baird’s television to James Dyson revolutionising domestic tech. With home-grown experts at Google DeepMind solving global problems – it is safe to say that Britions are still inventing. We can also be proud of our academic credentials – we yearn for more young people to take an interest in STEM but our universities are still amongst the finest in the world, and almost a third of the global Top 10 universities in the world are here in the UK. And the UK is ranked second only to the US in the output from its universities.
Overseas investment in many of our technology companies has led them to reach greater heights
But, traditionally the view is that as a nation we don’t support the development of our technology as much as we need to – the recent £24.3bn acquisition of Cambridge-based ARM Holdings by Japan’s SoftBank – is perhaps evidence of this. Overseas investment in many of our technology companies has led them to reach greater heights. Far from complaining about this I believe it to be a reality of our global economy, necessary for market economics – each investment and partnership should be considered on its own merits.
Clearly, maintaining a technical edge through continuous innovation and investment is really important in the world of defence. This has become more important than ever before when the nature and source of the threat is ever-changing and unclear – from physical to virtual and state-players to ad-hoc groups or individuals. Friendly nations, from all four corners of the world, need to stay one step ahead of their adversaries – and during the past 15 years we have seen our adversaries use technology in a way that makes the jobs of our security forces ever more difficult.
We’ve also seen a revolution in the traditional providers of technology. As a result of the unprecedented use of technology in our everyday lives, consumer demand and declining defence budgets, information technology and automotive sectors may now lead the way in areas like intelligent automation that previously might have sat with the defence sector. This has forced us to reconsider our R&D strategy and the need to collaborate in order to compete and be cost-effective. We have to combine the often scarce skillsets and expertise in different organisations and academia to ensure we can offer cutting edge products and services to military customers and governments.
At BAE Systems our thinking has resulted in us embracing an innovative and complimentary approach, working with academia, Government and a multitude of Small & Medium Enterprises (SMEs) in our supply chain to effectively harness emerging and disruptive technologies. Through this collaborative approach, as well as strategic investments, we are able to more effectively exploit emerging and disruptive technologies. We have numerous examples of this working in practise from the ‘Broadsword Spine’ e:textile which acts as a data backbone for body worn equipment we have developed in conjunction with Coventry-based Intelligent Textiles Limited to the £20.6m investment we made in British firm Reaction Engines to accelerate their development of a new hypersonic aerospace engine SABRE™.
We continue to work closely with Government – joining other organisations in lending our expertise to the Catapult High Value Manufacturing programme, as well as supporting the Ministry of Defence as they take innovative measures in working with SMEs to pull through defence technologies into rapid application. We are also proud to give some engineering expertise ‘in-kind’ to UK Sport and Land Rover Ben Ainslie Racing where technology has aided the pursuit of marginal gains across a host of sports.
BAE Systems is also acting as a mentor to help develop talent. In the cyber security space we are supporting Cyber London (CyLon), Europe’s first start-up cyber security incubator that offers cyber technology start-ups professional training and mentorship, drawing upon the expertise of seasoned entrepreneurs, academic cybersecurity researchers, government officials and senior executives of customer organisations. We have also begun to work more strategically with a number of universities with mutually beneficial research programmes. Recently we signed strategic partnerships with the universities of Cranfield, Southampton, Manchester and Birmingham.
Our approach is providing direct benefits to our customers and significantly reducing the amount of time it takes to apply new technologies to existing programmes. Learnings from the automotive industry, for example, saw the introduction of overhead monorail systems in the Integrated Assembly Line for the new F-35 Lightning II aircraft at our Samlesbury site – allowing more units to be produced more efficiently than ever before as part of the £1bn programme.
To bring this ethos to life at BAE Systems, a cultural shift and new strategic directives were required – we had to look again at how we could integrate technology and work with others outside our organisation. But the changes have already paid dividends and we would hope that our experience will be valuable for other companies.
For our country to remain a global leader in technology and innovation, large businesses, SMEs and Government bodies we must collaborate and work together to deliver real value to Great Britain. In fact – we really have no other choice.