Article - Issue 10, November 2001

Time to put the e into engineering

Professor Kumar Bhattacharyya CBE FREng

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‘Restrained’ is not a word you would use to describe Kumar Bhattacharyya CBE FREng, Professor of Manufacturing at Warwick University and head of the Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG). Over two decades WMG has worked with companies throughout the world on research, postgraduate and undergraduate training and in direct support of decision makers. With this experience behind him, it is no surprise that Bhattacharyya has strong views on engineering education and the way in which the UK perceives engineering. He is also puzzled by the media’s enthusiasm for biology pundits and wants engineers to get out and sell their subject.

Professor Bhattacharyya talks to Michael Kenward about the fate of engineering and the importance of using information technology effectively.

Kumar Bhattacharyya believes that Britain’s engineering community – although, he says, ‘I think the word technology is much better’ – can rescue its status and its place in the economy by throwing itself enthusiastically into the digital age.

The computer era may have started years ago, but only now do we have real computer power to play with. ‘We are beginning to see the arrival of a giga-PC which delivers a billion operations per second, a billion bits of memory and network with a billion bits per second bandwidth. All this is available for less than a couple of thousand pounds.’ The question is, what will we do with all this power? ‘I believe the way we learn, the way we work, the way we interact with each other and the quality and delivery of key services like health care will undergo profound changes.’

Having all the world’s knowledge accessible to almost everyone, everywhere, is becoming a distinct possibility. This could create the genuinely open university! Closer to home, he argues that these new digital technologies will change the shape of manufacturing.

The e-revolution should begin at the beginning, with young people. They have taken to the internet enthusiastically. So why not exploit that enthusiasm? This is why Professor Bhattacharyya believes that universities have to change how they teach engineering and technology. ‘We have been the least enterprising, in universities, in changing undergraduate education,’ he says.

Digital learning

WMG works with companies to develop innovative courses, postgraduate and undergraduate, that use new techniques, including modular courses and ‘digital’ learning. ‘When I started,’ says Professor Bhattacharyya, ‘the institutions would not give us chartered status because we were breaking new ground. We were not following the prescriptive structure that they wanted.’

This is changing, opening the way to more imaginative approaches to teaching engineering to undergraduates. Building on the university’s experience with courses for undergraduates working in companies, this year’s new engineering intake at Warwick will see some changes, with elements of digital training in courses. ‘They are more excited about doing it that way than in attending large lectures talking about applied mechanics,’ says Professor Bhattacharyya. ‘Not that mechanics isn’t very important,’ he adds quickly. ‘It is, but you can make it very interesting.’

‘Interesting’ is a word that crops up regularly in conversation with Professor Bhattacharyya. It is the key to attracting youngsters and to raising public awareness of the role and value of engineering.

Simply increasing the number of science teachers as a way of persuading more students to go on to study science and engineering is not enough. First you have to interest youngsters. ‘What good is it having more science teachers if people don’t want to do science? What good is it saying you want more engineers, more this, more that when you can’t get more people, when the market doesn’t want them, and you don’t value them. No amount of shouting or pontificating will solve that problem.’

Courses with appeal

This is why it is important to develop engineering courses that appeal to young people. ‘You must first of all make the subject interesting. Make it exciting while they are going through the programme, and make it marketable afterwards by industry needing to have it and valuing it.’

As well as improving the appeal of courses through better presentation, Professor Bhattacharyya also believes in teaching a wider curriculum. ‘From an academic viewpoint, engineering education has been pretty narrow. We expect everybody to be engineering geniuses. Universities are training people to carry out research. They are not training people to carry out a technological profession.’

It may require ‘a cultural change’ among the universities’ engineers, but adopting ‘digital’ teaching opens the door to other changes, says Professor Bhattacharyya. ‘You can widen the curriculum,’ he adds. ‘You can take into account politics, international economics, wide aspects of social sciences and languages.’

‘I am very keen that engineering education is widened very broadly. To survive in this modern world you have to understand technology, but you also have to understand the social implications of that technology. You have to understand economics, politics.’

Rather than leaving engineers who want to develop themselves to get a tick in the MBA box on their CVs, Professor Bhattacharyya maintains that the subject needs to appeal to a different population. ‘We should attract a broad church of people into engineering, or technology. The people who go into engineering have become too narrow. Even in their working life they don’t want to expand that knowledge base.’

e-business in manufacturing

While the e-revolution is important in the education of engineers, and in luring in a new breed of recruit, Professor Bhattacharyya places more emphasis on the role that e-business will play in manufacturing. It is something that people have talked about for years, he concedes. ‘But it is only now, over the past few years, that we can see an alignment of technology, regulatory and business interests coming together world wide.’

Any improvement in our competitiveness can only come from having the right people within companies, and by ensuring that everybody in the company has all the information at any particular time, from the top management down to the individual worker. Until now this was possible in a fashion, but it was not user friendly.’

This is the cue for Professor Bhattacharyya to aim his guns at another of his pet hates. Getting IT to work in companies, he explains, was not easy. ‘It became a consultants’ charter. Consultants were going in and putting in systems after systems.’

Forget about hiring consultants and creating large IT empires, says Professor Bhattacharyya. IT should be part of the infrastructure. ‘It is like a pencil, paper, a desk and a chair.’ The last thing to do with IT is to turn it into ‘a glitzy business proposition. It should be in the hearts and minds of everybody working in an organisation.’ He is particularly keen to see everyone connected to broadband networks.

Broadband delivery

Broadband data access can change the nature of businesses by delivering information to everyone. ‘Automatically, all this information gives people the knowledge and power of analysis and decision making which will force them to be much more competitive and productive.’ They don’t have to spend nine tenths of their time searching for information.

Broadband is important, but Professor Bhattacharyya is wary of yet another technology fix. ‘You can’t just put broadband into a company as it is working today.’ Organisations need to look deeper in implementing broadband. ‘It cuts across all conventional methods of job evaluation and conventional structures in companies. Structures in companies where broadband is implemented and used successfully will be totally different from what they are today.’

If our technology industries take up broadband in a big way, says Professor Bhattacharyya, ‘in every transaction, in every exchange of information, in every aspect from collaborative design to collaborative marketing, I think we will be on a win–win situation.’

Do not, though, expect e-business to give the UK a headstart over other countries. ‘Imagine, right in the middle of China, with your satellite, you can get all of the information at any time. They have leapfrogged what everybody else had to go through. And the cost of that leapfrogging is infinitesimal compared with what it used to be.’

In other words, you can have the same technology anywhere. ‘There is no point saying we will pass on all the low-added-value work to the developing nations and we will become a knowledge-based economy. Every economy wants to be a knowledgebased economy.’

Plenty of people talk about e-business; at the WMG Professor Bhattacharyya has the opportunity to put his own theories into practice. The group is the UK’s University Innovation Centre for business to business (B2B) solutions. Funded by the Department of Trade and Industry jointly with companies including Sun Microsystems, PTC and Marconi, the Innovation Centre will, he explains, ‘provide demonstrators on multiple sites on how to embrace B2B totally from designing the knowledge base needed to run the company, the way it is organised and structured, to the way it carries out its commerce activity’.

Public battle

While the first goal must be to bring education and manufacturing into the e-era, Professor Bhattacharyya believes that still leaves an unfinished battle, the battle for the public. Here he points to the success of the life sciences in drumming up not just public support but enthusiasm for what they do.

Over the past 20 years, says Professor Bhattacharyya, many scientists have become articulate, especially in the biological area. ‘A large proportion of them are enterprising and able to play at politics and to convince governments of various shades. They have acquired a large proportion of national allure.’

Thanks to increased media friendliness, the life sciences have attracted attention and funding. There are, he concedes, a lot of good things happening, ‘but a large proportion of it is based on a promise of a better quality of life. I don’t doubt that it is very important. But that used to be the arena of engineers. What happened?’

Why, Professor Bhattacharyya asks, is technology presented in a negative way by the media? You don’t have to look far for evidence for this prognosis. ‘What does the community think of engineering? British Rail? The car industry? Let’s face it, it hasn’t got a good image. Yet at the same time we use mobile phones, satellites, aeroplanes, complex medical technologies – all engineered products.’

If they want to reverse this perception, engineers have got to get out there and convince the public. ‘Engineers must be media savvy,’ says Professor Bhattacharyya. Then they can help to make their subject attractive. ‘A lot of people go into biological sciences not because they love biology. They don’t even know what they are getting into, it is just that it is fashionable.’

It is time for engineers to take a leaf out of the book of the life sciences and to do something about the image of technology and to bring it back into fashion. Here Professor Bhattacharyya returns to training. Education has to provide these skills. ‘You have to understand media. You have to be able to write. And to understand other languages and cultures.’

The excitement factor

Once again the subject turns to the excitement factor and the need to present technology in an appealing way. ‘It will still grab people provided we make it a part of their day-to-day working lives. My ambition is to have everyone understand technology, whether they are in technology or not. And in the digital age we should be able to do that by putting everything on the net.’ Look out for the WMG to put its own material on to the world wide web in the near future.

At times Professor Bhattacharyya may sound like a doom monger, but that is out of frustration that not everyone shares his enthusiasm and impatience to get things done. Fortunately, he sees promising signs. In particular, he refers to the work of Lord Sainsbury, the Minister for Science, and the Engineering Council in bringing things together. ‘The institutions have made a lot of effort, but it is such a big problem that it requires collective attention. I am pleased that David Sainsbury has taken it on his shoulders.’

Somehow, though, you get the impression that Professor Bhattacharyya would like to see a few more people on the front line with him, people that share a passion about the power of technology to enrich the quality of people’s lives. And he admits that they should be a bit younger than him and than many of the individuals he encounters in meeting rooms. ‘What we need are people enthused about products’, he says. Maybe he needs to find ways of injecting some excitement into these events as well as the other areas that concern him.

Web site

The Warwick Manufacturing Group site: http://www.wmg.warwick.ac.uk

Professor S.K. (Kumar) Bhattacharyya CBE FREng has spent a quarter of a century making waves in engineering education in the UK. He is an advocate of the importance of e-business and ‘wired’ learning in the future of the UK’s manufacturing industries. Professor Bhattacharyya is head of the Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG) and a member of the UK Council for Science and Technology.

Michael Kenward OBE writes about science, technology and their business connections for a number of publications including the Financial Times, Real Business and Professional Engineering. He also works as a consultant on editorial issues and edited New Scientist throughout the 1980s. Email: michael.kenward@absw.org.uk

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