The business of judging

In an interesting departure from the usual magazine routine, I recently served as a judge for a competition run by Fiat to design a ‘fun mode of transport’. As well as being a chance to mix with glamorous TV personalities and eat unusual canapés at the winner’s presentation, it gave a fascinating insight into the realities of industrial design and innovation.

The entries covered a broad range of technologies and showed a blend of inventiveness in terms of concepts and the technologies that can be brought to bear on them. Bicycle parts played a major role in both a road-going rowing machine with steer-by-wire control and a redesigned mechanism that keeps the rower’s head still while his hands and feet go backwards and forwards; and in a folding three-wheeled electric moped with an ingenious tilt-steering system devised by its unassuming young inventor while he was still in his teens. An upwards-arching skateboard uses rack-and-pinion gearing familiar from toy cars to propel it forward when the rider bounces up and down. High-tech materials form the concept for a high-heeled shoe that converts quickly to a flat sole. And the final winner used cunning stress analysis to produce a pared-down design for folding BMX-style handlebars that bolt onto a standard snowboard to create a new winter sport.

All the finalists were young engineers from industrial design or engineering courses whose names would be familiar to readers, and it was quite clear that these courses were doing their job exceptionally well. Anybody who thinks that young British engineers are lacking in ideas or ingenuity, or are divorced from the real world, would have been forced to eat their words (along with the rabbit ragout on polenta or the stewed octopus. I did say they were unusual canapés). The finalists were also eloquent and entertaining presenters who brought a human touch to explaining their inventions. No cold head-in-the-clouds ivory tower dwellers, these.

But equally, they pointed up problems and a sad truth about engineering in the UK. When it’s becoming increasingly obvious that engineers have to have a good grasp of business and how financial realities affect their inventions, many of the entrants didn’t seem to have a grasp on pricing or market share. Maybe industrial design and engineering courses ought to have a chat with their colleagues in the economics and business studies departments, and beef up their entrepreneurship modules.

Equally, those who had been developing their inventions for some time all said the same thing: there was no way they could ever hope to manufacture in the UK. While we know that this sort of mass production is the preserve of South and East Asia these days, it’s a real shame that young innovators can’t see their projects through from start to finish without going overseas. And it reinforces a trend which we’ve seen for the past few years: the UK has to position itself as the innovative design house for specialist engineering, in a way which combines the service sector with manufacturing know-how.

But overall, it was a cheering experience to be among such dedicated, talented and enthusiastic designers and engineers who were clearly thinking about how technology can enhance people’s lives. And while you probably won’t see me on a BMX-snowboard, I wouldn’t mind a go on that skateboard. Pass the crash-helmet.

Stuart Nathan

Special Projects Editor