Emerging technologies could be key to Britain’s future as an engineering nation. Stuart Nathan reports
Amid the talk of rebalancing Britain’s economy away from banking and towards manufacturing, engineers are trying to carve out and consolidate their positions in an increasingly competitive world. The government is planning to help emerging technology sectors by setting up technology and innovation centres to coordinate development and protect emerging IP.
These emerging sectors, we’re told, are the key to the UK’s future as an engineering nation. While traditional engineering, such as car manufacturing, metalworking and the process sectors, are important areas for the economy, the real future lies in developing high-value products, often incorporating or made using high-technology methods and materials.
So do these sectors feel that they are, indeed, the vanguard of British engineering? Are they outstripping the rest of the world, just keeping pace, or in danger of lagging behind? And do the government’s plans match what engineers feel their sectors need?
The Engineer takes a close interest in these fast-growing sectors, so we asked some of the engineers at the sharp end, both in academia and in industry, to describe how they see their situation in the context of the world market and within the UK. The results make interesting – and not always comfortable – reading.
The space sector is one that’s often held up as hugely important for the UK. Combining the most advanced technologies of aerospace with both newly developed and tried-and-tested electronics, it straddles the hard-nosed commercial realities of the telecommunications sector, the increasingly urgent calls for information on the Earth’s climate and the ways and reasons for its changes, and the curiosity-driven aspirations for exploration and expanding the boundaries of science. As we’ve reported, the public is often unaware of the UK’s place in the industry – the lack of launcher technology and the UK’s historical lack of involvement in manned space exploration has kept it away from the limelight.
However, according to Prof Martin Sweeting, head of space science at Surrey University and chairman of small satellite pioneer Surrey Satellites, the sector is growing faster than most other parts of the UK’s economy. ’Studies in the UK now show that the space sector is one of the highest value-adding economic sectors,’ he said.
Sweeting believes the UK’s strength in this sector stems from a focus on innovation. ’The UK has pioneered the development of service-based businesses such as InMarSat and Paradigm, rather than relying on institutional purchases of satellite hardware,’ he explained, adding that his own firm is applying that approach to Earth observation using small imaging satellites.
Government input to help the sector should be structural rather than financial, Sweeting believes. ’We do not want government hand-outs just to keep the sector alive, as that tends to detract from ensuring that what we deliver is of real value,’ he said. ’Rather, government should provide a supportive tax environment for research and development, and financial underwriting for export, as with countries such as France and Germany.’
One problem faced by the space sector is a shortage of people with the necessary skills to drive development forward at the pace required. ’We continually have difficulty finding high-quality scientists and engineers,’ Sweeting warned. ’The disciplines, which have underpinned the UK’s economy for centuries, are not being valued and, in an attempt to make them more accessible, are also being diluted in terms of the depth of the skills required.’ Space is an international business, he added, and competitors such as China and India are taking a very different tack, producing increasing numbers of highly qualified graduates.
In the automotive sector, the UK’s lack of a home-owned volume producer is often taken as a sign that the industry is dead in the water. Yet engineering expertise, fuelled by the presence of the bulk of the world’s autosport industry in the UK and the approach of certain university departments, is making the country an important centre for low-carbon vehicle development. Electric powertrains and reduced-weight construction are under investigation, with engineering consultancy Arup involved in many of the projects.
According to Arup associate director Tim Armitage, the growth in the sector – with which the UK is keeping pace – is largely being driven by government; although the car companies are sold on the concept, if not the mix of technologies that will be needed to push development.
In his sector’s case, Armitage believes that no further government support is necessary; it’s already taking positive action, he says, and commitments to future development have been given. Development of batteries and hydrogen storage will transform the sector, as improvements in energy capacity and reduction in cost will see electric vehicles come closer in performance and price to internal combustion engine vehicles.
But it’s the public’s attitude that could form the biggest stumbling blocks to the sector’s development. ’The general public is used to personal transport, which has no perceived limit on range because of the ease and speed of refuelling, and people feel that a vehicle with a limit of 80-100 miles may not suit their needs. Yet, 93 per cent of vehicle journeys are less than 25 miles,’ he said. Availability of affordable vehicles is a major problem at the moment, but technological improvements are likely to be accompanied by innovation in the way that we pay for personal transport, such as a switch to a mobile-phone-style tariff arrangement.
The way we pay for personal transport could switch to a mobile-style tariff arrangement
However, Armitage stressed, low-carbon vehicles cannot be seen as a country-specific sector. ’The leading vehicle manufacturers are global,’ he said, ’so they’re looking for a global approach, as are major energy providers.
What’s needed is a concerted cross-border and cross-industry approach to ensure the infrastructure and other solutions developed are compatible.’
The medical-devices sector, however, is one where the UK has been seen as carving out its own leading position. Prof Christopher James, head of digital healthcare and biomedical engineering at the University of Warwick, believes the UK’s strength lies in the promotion of ’space for interaction across the life and health sciences’, and in people with strong backgrounds in technology and healthcare within the science base.
However, James said that, far from leading the market, the UK is in fact lagging in this sector. ’The UK has been slow on the uptake,’ he said ’Biomedical engineering has been hot for a while overseas. New courses are coming on stream but more need to be created – and in new and innovative formats.’ Warwick hopes to lead the way with an MSc in digital healthcare, which is currently in preparation, he added.
When asked about the biggest threat to growth in the sector, James was quite adamant: ’funding of research, or lack thereof.’ However, the technological outlook is good. James believes that improvements in battery performance and power harvesting will lead to smaller, faster implants with greater capabilities within the next decade, while artifical organs will join advanced prosthetics in the surgeon’s toolbox of replacement parts. Meanwhile, improvements in information technology and more efficient management of personal healthcare have the potential to improve the way hospitals treat their patients.
However, that funding gap is looming. James says the government should prioritise funding in cross-disciplinary research and rely less on charities to support technological and medical breakthroughs.
There’s some work to be done on public education, too. ’People should understand just how reliant on technology healthcare has become,’ he said. ’We have gone from strength to strength with innovation after innovation: be it new imaging modalities, life support, diagnostic testing, rehabilitation or even data management for patient records. The numerate scientist or engineer is playing and has played an immense part in bringing healthcare where it is today – and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.’
“Government should provide a supportive tax environment for research and development”
PROF MARTIN SWEETING, SURREY SATELLITES
One area where the contribution of engineering is undeniable is energy and the UK is seen as playing a leading role in the creation of renewable energy technologies. David Clarke, chief executive of the Energy Technologies Institute (ETI), said development of the sector is being fuelled by the belief that no single technology will be able to meet the UK’s energy needs in a world where fossil fuel availability is diminishing and emission prevention is even more vital.
’It has been said that we need to deploy thousands of wind turbines, have 20 million hybrid and electric cars on the road, build 20 nuclear stations and refit 26 million homes to meet the UK’s targets,’ Clarke said. ’This may be true, but it is more likely that a mix of low-carbon technologies will be required to meet energy demands and security while offering affordability and sustainability.’
The ETI’s members are looking at technologies such as macroand micro-distributed energy, waste-to-energy projects, offshore wind and improved network capacity, and is working closely with the government on how to meet 2020 and 2050 emissions targets, Clarke said. This is one sector, at least, where there is no need for extra incentives to succeed.
opinion poll the questions
Key factors affecting emerging sectors
What is fuelling growth in your sector?
- Is the sector growing faster in the UK than its worldwide growth rate?
- What are the particular strengths that the UK has in this sector?
- Can you pinpoint specific technologies that are likely to hit the market or have a strong effect on the sector in the near future?
- Are you looking to the government to take any action to protect your sector?
- What’s the most important thing the general public don’t know about your sector?
- What’s the major threat to growth?
- Is the UK’s education sector providing the skills you need to grow?
To have a chance of getting to market, emerging technologies must be backed up by investmentWhile government interventions are an important part of directing development, the market still plays the major role – if products don’t do what they’re needed to do, they won’t sell. One important factor for emerging sectors, therefore, is whether there is an appetite for inward investment in the companies developing new technologies, or in spinning out research from universities.
For the healthcare sector, the picture is mixed. ’Sometimes access to finance to invest in areas that are in competition with the “big players” is hard to come by,’ said Prof James. ’On the whole, though, strategic areas of healthcare are defined and funding is aligned as best as possible.’
In the space sector, there is no shortage of investment. ’When we sold the company [Surrey Satellites] in 2008, there was tremendous interest in purchasing us to provide exactly our type of business opportunity – and this is still the case,’ Prof Sweeting said. ’The difficulty over the past two years has simply been one of cash being available for investing in new and more speculative satellite-based services. It is not that people cannot see return on investment, it is that the payback timescales are rather longer in space than other sectors.’
For low-carbon vehicles, the appetite to invest has sometimes run ahead of the ability, Tim Armitage said. ’Pressure on local government funding has constrained some schemes, but there is a growing body of evidence that private funding is starting to be made available,’ he commented. ’This is a nascent sector and it is likely that new business models will be developed that will unlock further sources of funding.’