Ten minutes with Colin Smith, Rolls Royce

Britain’s most valuable engineering firm, Rolls-Royce, threw its full backing behind the Bloodhound world land speed record attempt yesterday – a major coup for the project that demonstrates its credibility in the eyes of the engineering world.

The Engineer caught up for a brief chat with the company’s director of engineering and technology Colin Smith to discuss Bloodhound, British manufacturing and how we can encourage more young people to commit to the profession.

What involvement has Rolls-Royce had so far with the Bloodhound Project?

Primarily it’s been the Bloodhound team that’s been doing it, but we’ve been assisting them with some technical help, fairly low-level over the last couple of years. Mainly we’ve been drawn in or enthused to help them in the work with our STEM [science, technology, engineering and maths] ambassadors, which are employees that go out into schools. And we’ve been supporting them quite hard on the educational side over the past year or so.

Why are we doing it? They’ve really got fantastic traction with the schools, as far as I can determine, 5,000 schools. I’ve been enthused by how successful they are but I’ve also been pleased by their professionalism. Richard [Noble, Bloodhound project director] and his team are a very professional organisation. The engineering seems to be really good quality. They’ve got a structure behind them. This is not some bumbling bunch of amateurs.

Richard Noble commented that the project is a good way to get young people to connect with engineering because it’s not remote to their lives.

How do we inspire the next generation of kids and their teachers into engineering? There are 830,000 engineers and scientists that we need [by 2020, according to the Royal Academy of Engineering] and yet in the companies that do engineering in this country we think it’s a great career, whether it’s the Crossrail project or Rolls-Royce. But who knows about Crossrail outside of the engineering profession? Something like this really gets – hopefully – the wider community involved.

Rolls-Royce is very well regarded for solid developments in established technology. What can you tell us about the firm’s projects that are more exploratory?

We spent £920m last year on research and development, and a quarter of that is on research and technology, which is the far-reaching stuff. We’ve got 28 university technology centres and we filed 475 patents last year. I think we were the highest patent filer in the UK [according to the European Patent Office], more than the pharmaceuticals, so we do an awful lot on long-term research.

But by the time you take that research, because of the nature of the areas that we operate in, which is aerospace, marine, nuclear, we have to make sure that research bloody well works when it comes to delivering to the customer. Some of our research programmes, say for new aerospace material, have been running for 20 years. It takes 20 years to develop it.

One area of new innovation you moved into was marine renewables.

It’s not particularly new. We looked at renewables: we had a business called Tidal Generation Limited but we sold that off earlier this year. We developed the technology from our marine business, we think it worked pretty well and it was done in a collaboration with the Energy Technology Institute.

Why did you take the decision to sell it?

It wasn’t core to our business. So we sold it to Alstom who are into energy and power generation in a big way. And we decided to concentrate on our core business. We’re very pleased with what we did with that, it was just on the fringes of what we do.

That’s one criticism about the way grant-funded collaborations work in this country, that the big companies who pair up with small companies aren’t really interested in taking the technology on beyond the project because it’s not core to their business.

But that project’s gone somewhere. If we took that as an example, we put our engineering processes to it and some technology to it, and we created a business that was capable of moving on and a product. Frankly, I doubt if it had been left as a small business they could have done that.

So the role of a company like Rolls-Royce is to come in and help develop technologies, even if in the long-run you don’t adopt that technology as part of your own business?

Yes. If you’re going to sell to a global market, you’ve got to have a global footprint. Frankly, a lot of small companies are very, very good at doing a particular piece of development in a certain technology. But you have to integrate all sorts of things together on any big piece of kit. And I don’t think they understand the scale of doing it. For instance, the sort of ship that we ended up using to deploy the TGL system cost us £100,000 a week and you have to keep it on standby waiting for the weather. That sort of investment, small companies can’t do. Eighty percent of what we sell is made in our supply chain, so we work really closely with our supply chain and they’re the lifeblood of our industry. But not many small technology companies actually can sell their goods across the globe.

Rolls-Royce has an increasing presence in countries outside of the UK. Considering the current focus on growing the UK manufacturing sector, do you see much more scope for Rolls-Royce to expand within Britain?

Eighty percent of our products are sold overseas so you have to bear in mind we’re a UK-based company but our marketplace is global. We’ve got a big base in Germany and a big base in Indianapolis in the States, as well as Norway. About half our employees are employed overseas and the vast majority of our customers are overseas. So one has to get the balance right. We’re really fortunate in the UK in that we’ve got a long history here. And also we’ve now got these advanced research centres in manufacturing, the Catapult centres, which are an absolutely fabulous source, in an innovative, collaborative sense, for getting modern technology into what we do. And I hope more companies sign up to that. Also with government some support we’re working with our smaller suppliers because we’re quite comfortable buying kit from the UK if it meets the cost, quality and delivery metrics we need.

Have you been pleased with the development of the current government’s industrial policy and do you think that bodes well for UK manufacturing?

It’s absolutely essential that you have an industrial policy and it’s got to be coherent from education all the way up through to the companies that make a profit. And it’s certainly something that’s been lacking, in my mind, from the UK for many, many years. When you look at successful countries, one could look at Germany and one or two others, then they have a very clear and coherent industrial policy and everything lines up, including the schools.

Is there anything more you’d like to see done in this sense?

No, I think we need to follow this stuff through. I’d like to see more engagement in the education department on it. I’m not saying they’re not engaged, I just want to see it being driven through. Studying science and mathematics matters and in my view I’d like universities encouraged to spend more time on science and technology. And of course the big dearth we have in the UK is encouraging girls into engineering, and that’s a sort of social issue.

At this point Colin had to leave for the Bloodhound presentation, which focused heavily on the need to encourage more children and young people to study engineering.

But The Engineer managed to grab him afterwards to ask him what he thought could be done about the other problem facing UK engineering recruitment, that of ensuring engineering students choose to stay in the industry once they graduate.

He argued that Rolls-Royce had had a consistent policy of recruiting apprentices and graduates for over 20 years but that not all companies in the UK had made this a priority, and that this was sometimes reflected in the salaries offered to young engineers – a point that will no doubt chime with some readers of this publication.