The shrinking world of engineering

There’s no doubt that large companies such as Rolls-Royce and BAE Systems represent everything that’s great about the UK engineering sector. It’s companies such as these that demonstrate that when it comes to engineering expertise, the UK still has some of the best engineering talent in the world.

But over the years, as many similar large companies have shut their doors, a lot of doom-mongers have taken it upon themselves to predict the demise of the UK as a powerhouse of engineering talent.

Sadly, many commentators forget the equally important role played by many of our small- to medium-sized engineering (SMEs) companies, all of which make an equally important contribution to the economy of the country.

Because these companies operate out of some of our smaller technology parks rather than taking up space in large buildings, they’re not as noticeable as their larger counterparts. Despite that fact, they operate profitably and provide employment for numerous people, while also providing a signal to the world that there is still life left in the UK engineering sector.

As technology has progressed, however, and the engineering market has become increasingly specialised, a new breed of company is emerging that will be equally as important to the UK economy as the large engineering behemoths and the SMEs were to the UK economy in the past.

The structure of these new companies bears as much resemblance to those of the SMEs, as the structure of the SMEs did to their larger counterparts. They are comprised of less than 10 people who have developed an expertise in a particularly specialised field of engineering – oftentimes, a proficiency that has been created at one of our more prestigious academic establishments. And instead of actually developing products that they manufacture and then market, these organisations simply rely on exploiting the intellectual property that they have developed.

To do so, many form relationships with other similar micro-sized companies with whom they work through one or more of the UK’s technology centres. Here, they refine and trial the proprietary technology that they have developed for use in a wider context.

Eventually, once the technology has been brought to a stage where it has been demonstrated to be viable, it is then licensed to larger companies who have the financial ability to ramp up the technology for worldwide use on a large scale. Once that has been achieved, the micro-sized companies all take their cut of the financial remunerations that are due to them.

It’s an interesting new model for engineering in the UK. But one does wonder where it all might end. Some believe that the future of engineering in the UK could see us relaying on companies that are even smaller than these emerging breed of microcosmic outfits. If that is indeed the case, it could be that over the next 50 years we might see the emergence of a plethora of one-man companies that also collaborate with one another to develop next-generation technologies and products.

Dave Wilson
Editor, Engineeringtalk

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