EditorThe first day of The Engineer conference gave glimpses of the future of manufacturing, the importance of long-term investment and how we will continue to explore our neighbouring planets

Day one of The Engineer conference began with a glimpse inside the factory of the future, a vote of confidence in British manufacturing, but a warning that UK industry must get better at embracing automation if it’s to build on its current momentum.

Industry 4.0 is a well-known buzz-phrase in many parts of the world – particularly in Germany where the concept was born and forms a key part of the government’s industrial strategy. But according to Siemens’ Simon Keogh, who delivered the day’s first keynote speech, it will soon be at the heart of a worldwide “manufacturing renaissance”.

Keogh laid out a vision for an intelligent factory where everything is connected, an industrial “internet of things” where products explain to machines how they should be made and each component has its own IP address.

It may sound rather far-fetched to some – particularly fad-wary companies that are wedded to perfectly reliable, decades-old production processes. But according to Keogh the concept is far from a fad and many of the foundation technologies are already in place. He gave a compelling example of a demonstration bottling plant in Germany where RFID chips embedded in the bottles explain to the machinery exactly how they should be filled, labelled, and sealed.

It’s an approach that could help usher in ever-greater levels of automation, helping firms to cut costs, whilst also enabling them to satisfy the increasing desire for bespoke, personalised products as is increasingly seen, for instance, in the automotive industry.

Whilst the UK has so far lagged behind in this fascinating area, Siemens is currently working with the Manufacturing Technology Centre on the development of the UK’s first industry 4.0 demonstrator so expect to hear much more about this emerging area later this summer.

Keogh was followed by Vince Cunningham from the China-Britain Business Council who dispensed some valuable advice on how to tap into the opportunities in the world’s second largest economy, and then BAE Systems’ Kelvin Davies, who explained how BAE engineers have been helping UK Sport improve the performance of its athletes.

Davies began by outlining the vital role that wind tunnel testing played in improving the aerodynamics of the helmets worn by both the 2012 Wheelchair paralympians and the Bobsleigh team that narrowly missed a medal slot at the recent Sochi winter Olympics.

One particularly interesting example of how BAE’s traditional expertise has come in handy is in how an impact testing machine designed to test aero-structures was used to analyse the electronic scoring vests that were used for the first time in the 2012 Olympics Taekwondo competition. Davies 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.

It was back to manufacturing with the next speaker, Jaguar Land Rover’s purchasing risk manager Michael Mychajluk, who outlined some of the reasons for his company’s huge success and the lessons that these contain for the wider UK automotive sector. Firms must, he said, be prepared to invest in the long term and he cited JLR’s record levels of investment in the teeth of the recession as one of the primary reasons for its current success.

As one would expect, JLR’s success is rubbing off on companies further down the supply chain, many of whom were attending the Subcon exhibition currently running alongside The Engineer Conference.  JLR - which currently does 99 per cent of its manufacturing in the UK – clearly sees this as a critical and valuable resource, but Mychajluk did sound one note of caution. With ever more complex product lines on the horizon, the supply chain, he said, will have to become more flexible and open-minded – if the sector is to continue to thrive.

Mychajluk was followed by Airbus Defence & Space engineer Abbie Hutty, who talked to the biggest audience of the day about the unique challenges of developing a robotic rover that will scour the surface of Mars for signs of life.

The rover, which will be sent to Mars in 2018 as part of the joint European-Russian Aurora mission, has, she explained, been designed to deal with some exceptionally challenging conditions. It must be able to operate in temperatures as low as -120 degrees C, withstand high levels of radiation, and be capable of operating in the enormous dust storms that regularly cover the entire planet.

As well as outlining the rover’s locomotion and navigation systems, and shedding light on its scientific payload, Hutty also touched on some of its more esoteric aspects. One particularly neat feature is the 1.8 metre high mast assembly that carries the vehicle’s panoramic camera.  Hutty explained that placing the camera at the same height as an average human being makes it easier for geologists on earth to interpret the images that are sent back by the rover.  A further intriguing detail is the wheels, which have been made from metal rather than rubber, which– as an organic material – is forbidden under planetary protection measures.

Hutty’s presentation was followed by the day’s final session, and second Keynote, which was delivered by Pratt & Whitney’s VP of technology and environment Dr Alan Epstein.

One of the world’s’ foremost experts on jet engines, Epstein, who is also an Emeritus professor of aeronautics at MIT, took a fascinating look back through the history of aircraft development in order to identify some of the trends that will shape its future.

He outlined the huge improvements in efficiency and reliability that have taken place since the dawn of commercial flight, and looked ahead to the engine designs and fuels that he believes will continue to drive these improvements.

Much has been made recently of alternative forms of propulsion for aircraft – particularly following the recent demonstration of the Airbus E-Fan electric aircraft. But for Epstein – barring some unheralded and unexpected breakthrough in battery technology – the jet engine is here to stay, and the biggest efficiency gains will be made, he believes, by advances in the next generation of geared turbofans, and high energy-density biofuels.