Against an unsettling backdrop of spiralling fuel costs, plummeting house prices and increasingly bleak predictions of economic woe, here is some good news: the UK manufacturing industry is growing.
And while this growth — 0.1 per cent in April, says the Office for National Statistics and the manufacturing industry — is hardly a boom, it’s preferable to the wailing and gnashing of teeth emanating from the darker corners of the UK’s economy.
The prime reason for this relative success is simple, and it’s laid bare on most pages of every issue of this magazine: unlike the money-men shuffling around notional amounts of money, and the financial services companies pushing products that no-one wants or needs, engineers make things — tangible things that people both want and need.
Perhaps the key word here is ‘need’. While few of us will shed tears at the thought of a few grotesquely remunerated bankers falling on harder times, the world cannot do without engineering. Without engineers the lights go off. The trains stop running. The hospitals shut down. The supermarket shelves lie empty. And ultimately, humans are deprived of the basic necessities required for survival.
While this may sound melodramatic, as our interview with civil engineer and aid worker Dr Robert Hodgson shows, it is frequently engineers who dominate the relief operations in disaster-struck areas of the world.
From ensuring drinking water is kept uncontaminated, to restoring communications and reopening the infrastructure required to get food to starving people, Hodgson’s compelling picture of the role of engineers in a crisis is a reminder of the relationship between engineering endeavour and human survival.
Elsewhere in this issue, from a Swiss engineer’s efforts to bring low-cost solar power to the masses, to the growing promise of swarming robots for search and rescue and life-saving surgery, there are further examples of the part to be played by engineers in addressing some of the big questions facing society.
Indeed, while politicians are concerned primarily with being re-elected and scientists present the facts but are often wary of taking responsibility, there is a good argument that engineers, who are typically adept at straddling disciplines, are better placed than anyone to get the job done.
While it would be foolish and wrong to suggest that the sector is immune to the troughs of the global economic climate, it is certainly gratifying that a career that offers the chance to make the world a better place is for once looking more attractive than a job in the world of high finance.
Jon Excell, features editor
Against increasingly bleak predictions of economic woe, the UK manufacturing industry is growing