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Advanced Engineering 2021

NEC Birmingham(B40 1NT)

03/11/2021 - 04/11/2021

Join us in our 12th and most important edition to date, as we invite engineers and management from all (more)

What does the future hold for British engineering and manufacturing?

Stuart Harvey, MD of StartStart UK: A few short years ago, the economy was collapsing around us. Led by over-extended banking, one industry after another seemed to be rushing headlong into crisis. Things got bad, very bad; but we now, at last, seem to be into a long slow recovery. We can't be sure of what the future holds, but we can be certain that it will be different from what came before. In the dark days, politicians of all hues blamed everything on greedy bankers, sub-prime loans and short termism. There was a need to rebalance the economy with greater emphasis on those industries that could provide stability, create jobs and generate overseas earnings. They identified engineering and manufacturing as potential saviours of life as we know it. So, as the economy is beginning to rebuild and reshape itself, are we any the wiser or are we going to make the same mistakes again and continue the boom-and-bust cycle?

The politicians still say they are supporting the technology industries. They are in the process of scaling back government and expect the private sector, including the technology industries, to create new jobs for those they make redundant. But the finance is in the hands of the banks and while they say they want to support commerce and business, they have clearly altered their lending criteria to rebuild their own reserves. Ask any small or medium business owner if they can get loans to support growth, job creation and export initiatives. Ask senior managers in big businesses if adequate finance is available for them to realise their plans. Whoever you ask, it is clear that the money supply is still being squeezed.

The economists see that we need a good mix of industries to be the engine room of the economy and counterbalance the risks of the new stuff whose futures are practically impossible to predict. This sounds good, and particularly good for engineering. But you can't rebuild a massive engineering sector over a couple of years. Britain used to be the workshop of the world, but that does not necessarily mean we will be again. It will take decades to rebuild that base to a fraction of the size it was in its glory days. It is important to note at this point that the Chinese are clearly building a manufacturing base and have a 50-100 year plan to do so. They are converting subsistence farmers into factory workers - whose children will go to university in vast numbers and emerge as an army of world-class engineers. 

The 1980s idea that the West could 'offshore the grunt work and keep the well-paid clever stuff at home' is now completely outdated. Brasil, Russia and India are just some of the countries following China. But as these nations' wealth grows, their populations will want their wage levels and standards of living to match those in the West. So the international playing field that once favoured Britain (along with Europe and America) and then tipped to help the East will eventually level out completely. This leads to the inevitable conclusion that globalisation has a finite life expectancy. Once the emerging economies achieve wage parity with the West they will have lost their major advantage and many industries will 'deglobalise' or 'relocalise'. Thus, we see that the economic tide will turn in favour of UK engineering. 

In the immediate term, the government (and all its successors for the next 20 years) must do all they can to encourage engineering and manufacturing industries if we are to capitalise on this trend. This may mean start-up funding, research and development grants, export guarantees and above all creating an environment where banks not only will, but are desperate to lend to technology organisations. 

All UK governments have been masters at saying they support engineering, but now they must deliver on this in a way that has been sadly lacking throughout my career. Let's look at the current situation. We seem to have lost some crucial leads in the emerging green technologies, just as the R&D is beginning to pay commercial dividends. We are to buy-in much of our next generation of military technology (a good chunk of the US's $9trillion defence budget filters through to engineering design, development and manufacture - then export). It's been decided to import the technology for the new fleet of nuclear power stations. Our high speed trains (that could replace short and medium haul flying) are all from overseas. Hardly evidence of strategic government support. 

But equally, engineering, manufacturing and technology have many opportunities, some large, many small, just waiting to be realised. If the government can create the right financial environment they should  be realisable and help form a more stable economic base than we have enjoyed for 100 years. I would certainly encourage today's youngsters to consider a career in engineering - and that is something I have not said since I was an apprentice.
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