Picking Britain’s brains

There has been plenty of food for thought this week for those trying to predict what the UK’s engineering and technology sector will look like in 10 years’ time.

Consider the news surrounding two companies, MG Rover and Dyson, both known around the world as ‘British’ businesses.

As The Engineer went to press, MG Rover was at the centre of what are described as make-or-break talks with Shanghai Automotive that would see the Chinese car company take a stake — probably a controlling one — in the British group.

But what’s in it for the Chinese? The cruel reality is that Shanghai Automotive’s interest does not lie in the UK company’s Midlands production facilities. The Chinese have production capacity to burn, too much of it in fact.

No, the reason for their interest in MG Rover is its ‘intellectual capital’ — its people and its brand. The company’s designers, development engineers and the skilled end of its production workforce represent a huge asset to a ferociously ambitious Chinese car industry that is still feeling its way as a global player.

Likewise, MG Rover’s established car brands, especially if reinvigorated by a large dose of Shanghai cash, would be seen in China as quite a catch. BMW’s success with the Mini, which it turned into a global success story, will not have escaped the attention of the Chinese.

It may be that MG Rover’s future lies as a maker of cars designed in Britain, with an unmistakably British heritage and with the highest added-value components and systems produced here. They may be assembled in China by a company that is majority Chinese owned.

Would they still be British cars? In the most important respects, yes. Only a few weeks ago we celebrated the unveiling of the A380, happy that a significant proportion of the aircraft — the best bits, we would argue — came from here.

Which brings us to Dyson. This week the consumer products firm pulled off the not inconsiderable feat of taking, from a standing start, the largest share of the US vacuum cleaner market.

It has done so by a combination of innovative engineering, good design and clever brand marketing. Founder James Dyson sailed into a storm when he moved production of his products to Asia but, as he ceaselessly reminds us, his products are designed and developed here by hundreds of highly skilled engineers. Is the Dyson a British vacuum cleaner? You bet.