Flying the flag for the Best of British engineering

As employers attempt to convince our youngsters to train as engineers, Jim Armitage finds a profession trying to shift preconceptions – with a little help from a monster McLaren

Two things you discover within minutes of climbing into a McLaren MP412C: your neck muscles and a childlike propensity to howl involuntarily. Accelerating across London’s Vauxhall Bridge at a rate of 0-60 in 3.1 seconds feels like you’ve caught your shoelaces on an aircraft carrier catapult. The sound from that monster of an engine behind your shoulder blades is a pant-wetting contradiction of hysterical scream and deep-bass growl.

It’s difficult not to feel a bit James Bond as the MI6 building zooms up in front of us, especially in a car wrapped in the union jack. I don’t just mean metaphorically – although this hypercar is purely designed and built in the UK – but literally. As a one-off, McLaren has decorated its engineering marvel with the British colours in the hope of getting our young people fired up by the excitement of engineering.

Sitting in that car, engineering was all around, in places I’d never even considered: that roar wasn’t just a byproduct of a whopping great engine, it’s a carefully manufactured “note”, integral to the car’s design. The jarring bumpiness of London’s potholes can be adjusted, depending on how much suspension you want (minimum for high-speed track work, maximum for town centres). The carbon trim on the dashboard is engineered for microfiber lightness to shave a second or so off your lap speed.

I’m no petrolhead, but being in a machine like this opens the eyes – and ears – to the appreciation of just how great we humans are at creating cool stuff. And, more importantly, how thrilling it must be to invent such things.

It’s this excitement – those involuntary howls – that McLaren boss Ron Dennis wants to imbue in our youngsters as they choose their secondary school options. That’s why he offered one of his £210,000 gems to publicise the cause in a series of events being stewarded by the Royal Academy of Engineering. You may see it powering the campaign around the country in the coming weeks.

The Royal Academy’s chief executive, Philip Greenish, says: “People think of engineering and they think of Red Robbo, British Leyland; the filthy working environments and mass unemployment of their parents’ generation. But none of that is true any more. Take the car industry: people rave about Italian cars, but Nissan make more cars in Sunderland than the whole of Italy. This is productive, modern engineering.”

The turbocharged McLaren whirlwind he sent me on took in London’s TechHub business centre where wannabe Mark Zuckerbergs – engineers, all of them – huddle over their laptops under bare concrete ceilings, designing programs that might change the world. I visit a 3D printing business that’s rewiring traditional design. Again, run by engineers.

Mr Greenish frets that our education system does our children, and our economy, a disservice: “Britain will need 87,000 new skilled engineers with HNCs or degrees every year for the next eight years. But despite this great demand, only 46,000 a year are expected to obtain those qualifications.”

He scorns our practice of forcing youngsters to decide, at 16, if they’re going to take sciences or arts – a too-tender age to close off hundreds of great careers. Children are again being let down by the school system in IT lessons, he says.  “The BBC microcomputer created a generation of people who knew how to program.”

Nowadays, children are only taught how to use other people’s programs: Word, Office, Excel.

Mr Greenish is an optimist, though. He says the Government is doing plenty right in backing certain key industries, and applauds the Engineering Diploma to be approved by Ofqual and the Government this month. But you can’t help thinking he has a mountain to climb convincing teenagers to tick “maths” and “physics” on their A-level options boxes.

After a quick photoshoot for  Mr Greenish, it’s back in the beast for me to head off to its birthplace, the McLaren Technology Centre in Surrey. Sadly, rain has brought London’s traffic to a standstill.

Although the V8 monster feels like it could fly over the logjam, it crawls – a caged animal. The traffic mauls our schedule so the McLaren factory has to wait for another day.

As Mr Greenish put it: “Even engineers can’t solve the English weather.” Or traffic jams.

Designs on a golden era

Sylvain Preumont trained as an engineer before working for Arthur Andersen. His new business, iMakr, sells and services 3D printers, designs new objects and prints products to order.

When I was at Arthur Andersen in the 1990s, my job was convincing businessmen that email was going to become an important way of communicating. Many would not believe me, they were just laughing. But I was right! When I saw 3D printing, I felt the same way. I decided it was so exciting I needed to do it as a business. I started on 30 April and now have a headquarters, a shop and am about to open another store in Selfridges. The last two or three decades have been the era of the computer developers, the app designers and so on. But, with 3D printing, the next one, two or three decades will be the golden era of designers.”

Picture-perfect password idea

Brian Taylor, a former engineer in the Royal Signals, installed “Scud-hunter” technology in the first Gulf War. Now he has started an internet security business:

I’d been working as a freelance troubleshooter doing cameras, surveillance equipment, nightsights, I had the idea for PixelPin on a week’s work with the Metropolitan Police surveillance teams They have three levels of security to access their systems. That means three lots of passwords, changed monthly. I thought why not use pictures instead of characters? With PixelPin, you use a favourite photo and touch four points: your dog’s left ear, right ear, collar and tail, perhaps. That becomes your security pass. Hard to hack, easy to remember.”