Smart Machines & Factories
Engineering profession demands "bold, long-term vision"
Published:  24 April, 2017

The Royal Academy of Engineering has called on the British government to “rewrite the rules and avoid short-termism and siloed policy making” with its next proposals for industrial strategy in a report titled “Engineering an economy that works for all”.

According to the RAEng, it is “a collaboration of all 38 professional engineering organisations representing over 450,000 engineers” that has “benefited from an unprecedented level of engagement by the engineering community”.

It is clear that this report has received a significant investment of time and resources, as over its 94 pages it deals with issues that will feel especially prescient to many.

Not only does it remark upon Britain’s engineering heritage, but also the need to be “outward-looking” while doing the utmost to “retain and attract non-UK nationals who are essential to success in engineering, research, and innovation” - a crucial issue in the context of Britain's departure from the EU.

While it contains no specific reference to 4IR, Dr Alan Walker, the RAEng’s Head of Policy, stressed that the principles of ‘smart’ are at the core of its work.

“Digitisation of UK industry will be a critical element of improving productivity and boosting our global competitiveness. Our consultation right across the UK demonstrated that the engineering community is highly aware of this; our response to the Green Paper emphasises the importance of digital infrastructure and digital skills, as well as key enabling technologies, as vital to our future economy.

Walker noted how what is essentially a universal concept has been marketed with different names in different countries, and that in the future this may be something the UK needs to consider.

“Obviously, Germany are using Industrie 4.0 as a brand, which is a valid approach but not one that was raised much during our consultation process”, he added. “It is important that the UK's industrial strategy is given a strong, global brand to help market British industry at home and abroad".

One of the many 4IR-relevant points in the report is a call for government to “demonstrate a greater willingness to accept the risk of failure…in its innovation support”. This could be seen as a lesson learned from engineering counterparts abroad who have had major successes from potentially risky ventures that in turn led to ground-breaking developments in smart manufacturing.

Additionally, the document states that “a much greater, targeted focus is needed on promoting STEM subjects and engineering careers to under-represented groups”, a fundamental part of building a 4IR economy and one that Britain especially needs to address. Misconceptions surrounding modern factory work may be dissuading many from entering the engineering profession.

In a press release on the Academy’s website, its President Professor Dame Ann Dowling said: “A good industrial strategy will not make government intervention more likely, but it will make it more predictable - and that builds confidence and encourages business investment. The strategy must be long-term and sustained, with cross-party and whole government support, and should be an important part of all party manifestos as they approach the forthcoming general election.

“The industrial strategy is a critical platform to maintain and grow the UK’s prosperity as we prepare to leave the EU, but needs to extend beyond its current proposed scope into primary and secondary schools and continuing professional development to be truly successful. It provides an unparalleled opportunity to engage the public with the UK’s industrial and engineering strengths”.