The year in brief

January: YES to acquisitions and disposals

The Year of Engineering Success was launched amid claims that only half the required numbers of engineers were joining the profession.

Airbus Industrie pledged to turn itself into a single corporate entity by 1999, a response to the planned merger of US rivals Boeing and McDonnell Douglas.

Shortlisted contractors began planning how to dispose of Shell’s floating oil storage buoy, Brent Spar.

February: Changing the balance of power

Finnish telecoms firm Nokia announced a £20m investment in an R&D facility at Farnborough, Hampshire, creating 600 jobs. Meanwhile Yarrow shipbuilders laid off 320 staff. And the last British-owned tyre manufacturer, Avon, was sold to a US firm.

Shadow energy minister John Battle said a future Labour Government would not block construction of more gas-fired power stations.

A House of Commons debate on engineering was attended by only three MPs all Tories. Labour members were in a meeting with Tony Blair.

March: Making money

GEC-Marconi won a £2bn order for up to five Astute-class submarines, safeguarding 7,000 UK jobs.

Rover blamed Britain’s uncompetitive pay rates for its difficulties in recruiting engineers for its new £30m R&D centre at Gaydon, Warwickshire. The best people had moved to the US or Germany, it said.

Meanwhile, a group of industrialists called for lottery money to be used to invest in business start-ups and expansions.

April: Acts of British genius

Gordon Brown, in the thick of the election campaign, must have been reading The Engineer in March. ‘With Labour, our scientists will want to come home,’ he said, promising an answer to the brain drain.

He also promised ‘a bank for British genius’, funded by lottery cash.

British Aerospace sought its own geniuses offering starting salaries 50% higher than the going rate in a bid to attract ‘super-graduates’.

May: New Labour, Tory limits

New Labour swept in, and quickly signed up to the Social Chapter, worrying business about a possible raft of new employment laws. In many other respects, it was business as usual as Labour prepared to work within the old Tory spending limits.

The aerospace industry was quick to put this to the test, calling for £100m of public money to fund R&D.

June: Business spreads its wings

At the Paris air show, Airbus unveiled its planned stretched versions of the A340.

Belfast-based Shorts said it would create 1,000 jobs, making up for the 900 lost when Fokker (for which it built wings) went bust.

Microsoft announced plans to invest £50m in an R&D lab in Cambridge.

A Volkswagen purchasing boss slammed the UK sheet metal industry with a 60-point list of shortcomings.

July: Worries about sterling

Gordon Brown doubled the rate of capital allowances for investment in machinery and plant for smaller firms. But business worries mounted as the pound soared to DM2.95, and share prices in engineering drifted lower.

ICI sold half of its bulk chemicals business to DuPont for £1.8bn.

In another world, Nasa’s Sojourner Mars explorer touched down on the planet’s surface.

August: Clock ticks slowly on projects

The National Audit Office revealed that only five of the MoD’s 25 largest equipment projects were delivered on time. Delays averaged 40 months during 1995 96.

GEC-Alsthom won a £64m order for 27 diesel passenger trains, the largest order since railway privatisation.

Warnings were stepped up over the need to act fast to make industry year 2000-compliant. Consultants could only meet 10% of the demand, according to Government-sponsored Taskforce 2000.

September: Raising standards

Plans for a radical shake-out of Britain’s engineering degree system were announced with the publication of the Engineering Council’s Standards and Routes to Registration document. Underperforming courses will close.

At the Frankfurt motor show, Land Rover launched its Freelander off-roader. It plans to build 75,000 a year.

Magnox Electric said it would try to operate Britain’s oldest nuclear reactors for up to 50 years 10 years longer than planned.

October: Business Links rolls out

Mercedes Benz’s A-Class rolled over when a Swedish magazine simulated fast swerving to avoid elk. But the newly-engineered version should be stable enough to withstand anything short of earthquakes. Following initial cancellations, orders for the car continued to flow in.

Vickers announced that Rolls-Royce Motor Cars was up for sale. BMW is the bookies’ favourite to buy.

Small firms minister Barbara Roche promised better local business advice services. Poorly performing Business Links will be closed.

November: Foreign firms bridge UK jobs gap

British firms shed up to 7,000 R&D jobs in 1996, according to official figures. Luckily overseas firms were filling the gap in 1997. US software giant Computer Associates announced a £100m investment in a European HQ near Slough, Berkshire.

A trio of electrical engineers from Yorkshire-based Whipp and Bourne won the £50,000 MacRobert Award for their gas-filled vacuum recloser.

December: Coal producers go to Battle

Britain’s biggest coal producer RJB mining asked Government to rethink its power generation policy to save jobs. Industry minister John Battle announced a freeze on new applications to build gas-fired power stations in contrast to its stance in February and persuaded the generators to order enough coal to keep threatened pits open until June, pending a review.

Experts were still talking on Brent Spar disposal.