Reflections on a quarter-century


The Royal Academy of Engineering celebrates its Silver Jubilee this year. Sir David Davies, who stepped down as President of The Academy in July 2001, takes a look at its past, present and future and reflects on the huge changes that engineering has made and is making to society.

Just over five years ago my predecessor, Sir William Barlow, gave an address marking both the twentieth anniversary of The Academy and the near end of his five-year presidency. It included some incisive and entertaining reflections on the changes seen in the UK during The Academy’s 20-year history, plus some important messages of concern about the engineering industry at that time.

In particular he mentioned the growing influence of information technology and the weakening position of manufacturing engineering. Both these trends have continued and, although governments now pay more lip service to the importance of manufacturing, it continues to represent a decreasing percentage of our economy – below that of many European competitors. However, it is important not to fall into the trap of assuming that engineering is solely or even principally concerned with manufacturing. Today, a substantial and growing proportion of the service economy is heavily based upon engineering.

A further key point in Sir William’s address related to the inability of the UK to invest adequately in manufacturing industry. Again this trend has continued and the UK has been grateful for substantial international inward investment for many of our manufacturing companies, from motor cars to electronics to white goods. However, as times become difficult – for example, when sterling becomes too strong – we can be left vulnerable to the sudden withdrawal of such investment. Nevertheless, the underlying quality of our engineering is demonstrated by our export of technical know-how, for example in engineering consultancy activities. This also has the knock-on advantage of often resulting in follow up in the form of international exports of our products.

The achievements of The Academy over the past five years include a 50% increase in income from all sources (bringing the current annual total to £15 million) but the vast majority of these funds are earmarked for specific use. We have established 150 visiting professorships in over 60 universities in the subject of design and more recently in 'design for sustainable development', plus a significant number of Research Chairs and Senior Research Fellowships. Our programme of meetings now includes new innovations such as the Fellows' Briefings and the President's New Year Reception and Lecture. These have proven very popular and the Fellows' Briefings in particular have produced good attendances coupled with excellent discussions.

Trends and changes

I want to look briefly at the evolving role and activities of this Academy, based mainly on past trends. I need to start with some history and current trends in engineering and technology. The Industrial Revolution started here in western Europe; the availability of new forms of power (initially steam power, followed by the internal combustion engine and subsequently by electrical power) transformed our ability to undertake many tasks, ranging from construction to transport to manufacture. Human physical effort was replaced by mechanical means of power.

The Industrial Revolution had a massive impact on this country, transforming it from an agricultural to an industrial economy. This took nearly a century but the scale of transformation was profound. With it came extensive changes in work, quality of life, wealth and – in particular – life expectancy. The application of engineering to the provision of clean water and sewage systems represents perhaps the most dramatic impact on life expectancy in the history of civilisation.

Today we are entering an information revolution which will clearly have no less a profound effect on lifestyle. Before it is really even mature in its impact it will probably be accompanied by a further revolution in biotechnology which is likely to have huge consequences for health and quality of life. It is also evident that the rate of change associated with these revolutions will be substantially faster than that of the Industrial Revolution.

I do not intend to try to predict the many future changes that IT will bring to society. Some of the changes are, however, now in progress so that the next stages of development are partly already determined from current trends. We can also look to the drivers of change. These can be seen as ‘markets’ (including changes to markets caused by globalisation and government policies such as liberalisation) and of course the greatest driver of change: ‘technology’.

At the time The Academy was formed in 1976 a substantial proportion of engineering industries were associated with public utilities in one form or another, all in public ownership. The processes of liberalisation and privatisation introduced by subsequent governments have changed this situation beyond recognition. The telecommunications business is dramatically different, particularly as a result of the introduction of competition and the growth of mobile radio and data transmission, while the entire operational structure of the railways bears little resemblance to either pre-nationalisation or to the British Railways model.

In parallel with this, the nature of employment and the structure of companies are being changed by a combination of the globalisation of industry, outsourcing and the increased demand for a year-on-year improved efficiency. All this would be enough change itself without the added complication of new technology. In the same way that steam and the internal combustion engine represented an extension of human physical capability, information technology offers an enhancement to the intellectual and mental capability of humans. For example, the production of computer models of complex processes now enables us to predict performance or aid design.

The associated development of the Internet represents a new dimension in terms of easy public access to vast quantities of data. In some ways it has an interesting social parallel with the invention of the printing press, which opened up communications and aided democracy and education. The Internet has transformed the communication of information to ‘global society’ – it seems beyond the power of governments to control, or even to tax. However, the logistics of using it for significant business profit are currently also somewhat elusive.

Information technology is also changing both industry and the engineering profession, and the biggest changes are yet to come. For example, we can ask who is now responsible for the design of a product, a system or a building. Is it the designer (who probably used several software packages in the design process), or the designer of the software packages, or those who check the design? Indeed, is it feasible to check such designs? Or even check the software packages – particularly if they carry a million lines or more of code?

Design and the need for design compromise, particularly in areas of great system complexity, is a major challenge. We are therefore totally dependent on a computer-aided design environment. All designs and associated documentation are likely to become computer-based which means that changes can be made very rapidly, not only in the design office but also throughout the support chain of subcontractors involved in the manufacturing process. Companies such as Rolls-Royce plc have made extensive use of this IT capability in improving their industrial efficiency.

Cellular telephones are good examples of a new IT-driven sector. Here, although dependent on new technology, the initial growth of business was driven more heavily by liberalisation and legislation. The cellular phone has created new markets – it is unlikely that in the early days, many people appreciated that much of the new growth markets would be 9–12- year-old children. Cellular phones have changed the way people use and pay for telecommunications and this has enabled them to be extended to markets which would not be feasible for fixed-line telephones.

Despite all this change, we still need traditional engineering. We need bridges, we need buildings, we need transport. New technology (such as IT) has modified and dramatically changed the design process and sometimes also the construction process, although change here is often also driven by new materials. So one key issue for engineering is how we make use of new technology to improve the effectiveness of more traditional engineering and to take it forward to tackle the massive challenge of sustainability.

The engineering profession

We see corresponding changes in the role of engineers and in the profession. Academies have generally stood somewhat apart from issues associated with the profession because this is well catered for by engineering institutions and (in the UK) by the registration processes of the Engineering Council. This year there has been a major review of the Engineering Council (at the request of Lord Sainsbury) by a group chaired by Dr Bob Hawley. The Hawley Group was also assisted by others including a joint Academy–Engineering Council working group chaired by Sir Robert Malpas.

This joint study demonstrated that the majority of workers in engineering and technology (qualified to approximately graduate level) practising in the UK today are neither registered with the Engineering Council nor members of any of the engineering institutions. There is, therefore, a huge challenge to our profession and to the newly formed Engineering and Technology Board to provide services to such non-registered engineers to encourage them to take advantage of facilities such as continuing professional development.

As more engineering design is undertaken using software packages, the professional engineer is likely to take a more overarching system design role. The detailed design role will be undertaken by people who make use of the existing software packages but are themselves dependent upon software engineers who produce such computer-based design aids. We have already seen, within our profession, that the role of the draughtsman within the design office has virtually vanished. So as IT expands its capabilities (for example, by the use of intelligent machines) it is likely to have a much bigger impact at a more senior professional level in the future. Indeed, as IT systems develop the ability to learn and copy experts, we expect them to take a bigger part in making technical judgements in design.

To demonstrate the possible consequences of this scenario we can look at what, in the 1960s, was regarded as a very safe professional job – that of a bank clerk, with prospects for the highly respected role of bank manager (a post heavily dependent upon professional judgement). As the number of clearing banks reduce dramatically, mainly as a result of increased use of IT in banking, we see how that particular profession is changing its nature substantially with large numbers of bank clerks and managers being made redundant. This trend could well be followed in many other areas such as accountancy and law. But engineers clearly will not be excluded; indeed few professions may remain immune to some aspects of such technology – with the possible exception of the oldest.

The way forward

So how has this changed and how will it change academies such as The Royal Academy of Engineering? Our main role is to promote the discipline of engineering and recognise excellence. Since we are associated with such a very exciting and dynamic subject which is currently evolving rapidly, we must be seen to lead the debate about the evolution of the discipline and, in particular, about how it can best be exploited for the benefit of society. As engineers we have a responsibility to the community to achieve maximum effectiveness of exploitation of technology. We need to understand cost, cost effectiveness and – especially – risk. Few real steps forward can be achieved without addressing the issue of risk. Risk cannot be eliminated, although it can be better understood and therefore it can be managed.

This also means that as an academy we are concerned with understanding and promoting the social and economic benefits of engineering for improving lifestyle, quality of life and wealth creation. For example, we are very interested in topics such as safety, the growth of small high-technology companies, job creation, enterprise culture and the creation of more challenging roles for engineering workers and users of engineering products. This means understanding more about economic and social factors and how to embrace financial incentives as an integral part of our programmes – and also to encourage our university courses to embrace them. As engineers, we are right in the forefront of this new technical era which is challenging, exciting, and sometimes rather daunting.

So how should our Academy help to encourage all this to happen? I would answer in two ways. First, we should ensure that the breadth of coverage of our programmes and activities adequately covers new technologies and their applications. Secondly, we should broaden the scope of interest of our Academy to encourage more attention to related issues such as economics and the consequences of engineering and technology in society.

I also believe that we should encourage higher education courses to follow this line since courses in economics, business studies, law and social science now attract many of the high-quality students that we would wish to see in engineering. One way to counter this decline may be to demonstrate the massive impact of engineering on business and society. It is a mistake to assume that young graduates are unduly concerned with status – they are more likely to be driven by their potential influence in society, a satisfying job and, of course, financial reward.

Such changes would not move The Academy to a political arena. Many major investment decisions are closely coupled to engineering issues, particularly in areas of transport, energy, the environment and safety. We continually find ourselves giving direct or indirect advice to government or government-related bodies on issues such as research (for example, by our regular meetings with some of the research councils). We must not be afraid to give our advice in other areas and in sufficiently broad terms to be more helpful for the many difficult technical, social and political decisions that government makes. What we can often do is to lay down the basic technical facts and the pros and cons of different courses of actions, if possible also including sensitivity analysis. It is the job of the politicians to weigh up such factors and to decide the way ahead in the light of their own policies.

I am not advocating moving The Academy in a completely new direction. But I believe that now is the time for a further impetus in broadening our interests and coverage across all our programmes.

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Sir David Davies CBE FREng FRS

Immediate Past President, The Royal Academy of Engineering

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