Whenever pundits talk about the timing of any economic upturn, it's never long before someone uses the phrase "green shoots of recovery". But the metaphor is only of limited use, since it implies the sort of spontaneous growth that eventually comes about at some time or other. In reality, of course, the players on the industrial stage don't just sit on their hands and wait for the new shoots to poke through the economic landscape. They have to be much more proactive than that.
Nowhere is this message more keenly understood than in the professional engineering community, where life revolves around designing and building things that solve practical problems in the real world.
"Most of the major issues that face the country and the world, such as climate change, water availability and energy security, need engineers to fix them," says Philip Greenish, chief executive officer of the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAEng), which works closely with the numerous professional institutions that represent different branches of engineering.
But this wider engineering community, with a collective membership of more than 400,000 professionally qualified people, has, until recently, felt somewhat undervalued by the politicians and policy-makers steering the British economy. "We've had silly phrases, like the 'post-industrial economy' which are not entirely helpful," explains Greenish, in a reference to the belief that Britain's future lay predominantly in service industries and the financial sector.
A recent report from the Commons Select Committee on Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills, entitled Engineering: Turning Ideas into Reality, endorsed the view that engineers were somewhat undervalued.
"We have found engineering to be one of the UK's great strengths and were pleased to discover that UK engineering and engineers are highly regarded internationally, more than they are at home," ran a key passage in the summary of findings.
At the same time, though, the MPs identified areas where the UK was poorly placed to use its engineering pedigree to face the economic challenges coming down the line. For example, the report cites a "significant" skills shortage in the nuclear power field, which threatens to thwart plans to build new nuclear power stations by 2020. It also called for more government help to support fledgling engineering industries such as plastic electronics, where the UK has a world-class research base.
The MPs also wanted to see more engineers sitting behind desks in Whitehall, arguing for the appointment of a government chief scientific and engineering adviser, replacing the present incumbent who advises only on science matters.
This political support has emboldened the RAEng to seize the moment and launch what it calls a soft campaign – built around the slogan "engineering for the future" – in which it presents engineers as indispensable contributors to any sustainable economic upturn, whether by enabling energy needs to be met from a diverse range of sources, or turning new ideas into marketable products.
"We will be putting up experts for policy making discussions and not waiting for people to come to us," explains Beverley Parkin, the RAEng's Policy and Public Affairs Director. "And we will also be using the e-word more in public because we need more young people from a wider range of backgrounds to come into engineering."
But some recent developments have encouraged engineers. The most prominent of these was last week's announcement of a new generation of coal-fired power stations, incorporating the technology to capture and store the carbon dioxide produced when coal burns. Further behind the scenes, the engineering community has been asked to set up an expert group, to advise the Government on engineering expertise for future renewable energy projects such as the Severn Barrage.
Overall then, Greenish is encouraged by the changing political mood. "The Government has recognised that it has got to put more resources into technology and engineering and that it must support the industrial economy more overtly than in the past," he says.
On the ground, many engineers reflect this guarded optimism, but there are often important qualifications. For example, the progress towards extending the broadband infrastructure across the whole of the UK looks impressive, with 98 per cent of the population covered. But Jim Norton, Vice President of the British Computer Society and Visiting Professor of Electronic Engineering at Sheffield University, thinks those figures paint a generous picture, since, for many people in remote areas, the broadband signal is so weak as to be near to useless. And he's worried about the implications of leaving 2 per cent of the population, largely in rural areas, uncovered. "This is worrying because you are forcing people to move to the cities, which is very damaging in my view on a whole lot of fronts," he says.
He points out that Ireland has recently managed to achieve 100 per cent coverage – a project he worked on himself – and says the UK does have the engineers and technicians available to complete the same job, which would be a sensible task to address in a recession.
"If you're unlucky enough to be in a recession, there are some things you can usefully do, and one of them is building capacity which will be of benefit to everybody on the other side of the recession," says Norton.
It is in the field of energy where engineers can perhaps play the biggest part in creating an economy that meets requirements now and in the future. But RAEng Fellow Dr Sue Ion wants to see political decisions taken that will increase demand for engineering input. "We are falling behind in key technologies such as nuclear power and investment in renewables is lagging behind the pace expected or required," she argues.
A former technology director at BNFL (British Nuclear Fuels), she's a fierce advocate of nuclear power as part of the mix, and relishes the "fantastic opportunities for engineers" in building new nuclear power stations – assuming the Government confirms its intention to order a new generation of plants later this summer.
But Ion also says that UK heavy engineering firms will need financial assistance to scale up capacity to cope with these vast projects.
"About 60 per cent of what's required could be done, made and deployed in the UK. But the Government needs to help existing engineering firms make the investment needed for them to be able to build the components of new nuclear power stations," she says.
But will there be enough young engineers coming through to satisfy demands across all branches of the economy?
Here, Greenish is critical of education policy in recent decades: "The serious shortage in the short and medium term is going to be at the technician level. The number of people coming through with technical level qualifications has plummeted for a generation."
Despite this he is seeing some more hopeful signs: a recent increase in A-level pupils taking maths and sciences and some success enjoyed by engineering institutions promoting engineering as a degree-level subject.
What seems clear, though, is that any young person following this route will not be short of employment in the coming decades.
"It's a stunning time to think about engineering as a career," says Ion. "It will definitely be a job for life."
'I try to avoid being an out-and-out evangelist'
David Banks runs Holymoor Consultancy, which works, among other areas, in the field of thermogeology – extracting heat and cooling from the ground.
"I'm trained as a hydrogeologist and for most of my career, I've designed wells to get clean water from the ground. But in the last 10 years, I've moved to geothermal geology.
These days, around 80 per cent of my time I am designing the geological aspects of ground-source heating schemes. First, I carry out a geological review to assess the potential of the ground. You don't need special geological hotspots, because the ambient UK ground temperature, of 10-14C, is fully capable of permitting space heating and cooling using an elegant device called a heat pump, which lifts the temperature of the heat being extracted, and consumes only a quarter of the energy that it provides as useful heat.
Next I need to get a handle on the heating and cooling requirements of the building and then I decide on the required number, depth, diameter and spacing of the bore holes or trenches.
The type of engineers I work with most of the time are building and heating services engineers, who tell me what they want the system to do, in terms of heating or cooling. In complex cases I might also work with hydraulic engineers, and there will also be drilling engineers involved.
I try to avoid being an out-and-out evangelist for the technology, because, although ground source heating makes a lot of sense for offices, hospitals and colleges, which have large heating and cooling requirements, it's difficult at the moment to get the economics to fall out in favour of ground source heat pumps for many residential properties, where they have to compete with mains gas."
'Our product transforms people's lives'
Hugh Gill is director of technology and operations at the Livingston-based company, Touch Bionics, whose chief product is a bionic hand called iLimb. Since graduating as a mechanical engineer 28 years ago, Gill has worked in heavy machine engineering, in shipyards, on the Channel Tunnel excavation, and on light electro-mechanical projects such as micro printers and camera systems.
"I joined Touch Bionics two years ago because I wanted to get into something that involved helping people. I have a design team working on all new products, and am also responsible for the manufacturing of the iLimb here in Livingston, and dealing with the supply chain.
The iLimb transforms people's lives, because for the first time in prosthetics, there's a product where you can articulate each finger individually and move the thumb into different grasping positions. How it works is that there are two electrodes that make surface contact with the skin – usually 75mm below the elbow.
When the patient thinks about moving their hand by moving muscles in the arm, the software in the hand picks up signals from the electrodes and, via a circuit board, sends signals to motors that control the fingers.
Sometimes we fit patients here in Livingston with iLimbs and there's a lot of emotion when you see someone move their fingers for the first time.
I'm also now working on something called partial hands – where patients have lost anything from one to five fingers – and also on gestures, enabling patients to make rude signs or funny signs with the fingers of the sort we all take for granted.
Since I graduated, the basics of engineering theory have remained static but the advances in technology have moved engineering forward. Engineers have a lot more in their armoury now and they can be more creative."Reuse content