Is the UK losing its design know-how?

Latest figures show that the number of UK design engineers has dropped for the first time in six years. Should we be alarmed or are UK firms just working smarter? Dean Palmer reports

Latest figures show that the number of UK design engineers has dropped for the first time in six years. Should we be alarmed or are UK firms just working smarter? Dean Palmer reports The tide is well and truly changing and Britain’s stock of technical creativity could be in danger of eroding. The latest figures from Findlay Publications’ annual ‘Trends in Manufacturing’ rolling census shows that the total number of qualified design engineers has fallen by 6%, from 118,429 in 2002 to 111,591 in 2003, the first drop since 1997. During the last six years, the number of design engineers in the UK has remained pretty stable, but the pains of increased competition from lower cost countries, a strong pound, an increase in centralisation and outsourcing of research, development and design, have all begun to take their toll and have contributed to the drop in numbers. The census covers 35,000 UK manufacturing and related service sites and so is arguably the most comprehensive data available today. The data also shows that the largest shift appears to be in the number of design engineers now working at companies where no manufacturing takes place. 25% of engineering designers and 34% of electronics designers are now working for design consultancies, design houses or are working abroad, remote from manufacturing teams. The figures don’t tell the whole story though. Many manufacturing sites’ design offices are now working much smarter than they were six years ago. One reason for this is they have implemented software applications such as CAD, 3D modelling, CAM, product data management (PDM) and engineering analysis software (FEA, CFD, etc.). So many firms have not needed the same number of design engineers as productivity improvements are made through the software. These engineers are not always made redundant, some are moved into other engineering support roles within the same company. So what do our captains of industry think? Dr Tom Alexander, project manager at drives and control manufacturer Control Techniques commented: “The figures do not contradict my general experience of UK industry. There is a strong trend by successful businesses to outsource components, capital spend and manufacturing to lower cost countries. This could explain the growth in engineers working outside manufacturing sites. Firms are more willing to source parts on a global basis and conversely need to compete on a global basis. “Some firms are downsizing in an attempt to compete. But with wage differentials being what they are, this can only lead to failure. Others are investing to compete and the third group are outsourcing. The question for the latter two groups is can investment make the difference and can design teams function at peak performance levels when remote from manufacturing sites?” He went on to suggest that lower cost countries are in a strong position because of their large pool of engineering graduates. “The question that waits to be answered is ‘Will the trend continue given an upturn in world demand? Will the trend of globalisation outweigh increased demand? The only sure thing is that world class is now a prerequisite for survival and success.” Steve Ruddell, senior VP motors and machines at ABB, was not surprised by the results of the census: “The continued trend of outsourcing from low cost countries is stripping the demand out of the UK market for a design engineers’ skills. Coupled with the poor image of engineering as a profession in the UK, unlike Germany, low salaries and continued lack of apprenticeships available in the industry, we are only fuelling this demise. There is already a shortage of good engineers in the UK in all disciplines and this trend will continue. Forward thinking organisations will look to recruit the best talent and to retain it in order to maintain a competitive advantage in the market.” Jeff Mead, managing director of UK-based motion control company EMS, had an interesting point to make. “If the cost of design and living in the UK rises much more, with the ever increasing mobility of people, we could well see the design engineers head East, especially the young and smart ones, who are flexible and to whom the whole thing is an adventure and great experience… I’m sure the politicians will simply tell UK manufacturing to increase productivity and work to compete, but when someone in the Far East earns a week what a UK engineer earns an hour, then these words are meaningless and the prospects for UK manufacturing will remain bleak.” Saeed Zahedi, head of technology at design consultancy firm PDD said he found the results “very disturbing.” He commented: “With increased outsourcing, there is no longer a direct link between design and manufacturing. The R&D activities are reduced to support and management with reduced awareness of the market, customer and manufactured product. That is a trend I’m noticing with many clients. “In the US, there seems to be a decline in the number of design engineers too. Due to the gloomy outlook, many engineers in the UK and elsewhere are thinking of leaving the sector for other types of activities. I know of several senior engineers who can add real value now spending their time renovating properties!” Alan Wilcher, chairman of the Institute of Patentees and Inventors and UK technical director of a SE Asia energy services group, took a more positive view of the census: “Certainly more skilled engineers are becoming available, but not the robust, good ‘British engineers’ we used to get, that became a cornerstone of our traditional excellence. The UK is still the most prolific of the inventive nations and that includes designers and engineers. But we have noticed that certain Far Eastern countries are beginning to train their engineers with ever-better skills and are therefore far better motivated than we are. Some countries enjoy a national fervour which we in the UK do not encourage as we ought. This is not a national condemnation of our educational methods, but perhaps some learning centres are better managed than others and less educationally ‘politically’ oriented. In other words, some student products are complacent. “We are in an international world. Global markets mean there has to be international manufacturing and that means we have to become even more inventive; even better at design; better at selling that expertise; and working different partnership arrangements with customers in order to remain competitive. Above all, we must invest in creative excellence and opportunities for producing and managing original, exciting, futuristic technology and products. He explained that Rolls Royce is a great example here. He quoted Peter Pugh’s trilogy, ‘The Magic of a name – the Rolls Royce Story’: “John Rose CEO of Rolls Royce stated recently that ‘Rolls Royce is no longer a stuffy, blue-chip, UK-centric engineering company… but a truly global power systems force with an international presence and international leadership.” Before jumping to any kind of conclusions, it would be interesting to find out how the figures compare with other European countries, Japan and the US. Whilst Eureka found these figures very difficult to track down, it's probably safe to say that falling numbers of design engineers is not peculiar to UK manufacturing. Pointers * After six years of relative stability, the total number of qualified UK design engineers has dropped by 6% this year * The census shows that mid-size (50-500 employees) sites are shrinking faster than their smaller and larger equivalents * 25% of engineering designers and 34% of electronics designers are now working at locations where no manufacturing takes place