Technology built on industry

8 min read

<b>In the build up to the launch of the Manufacturing & Engineering North East event in July 2015, we asked John Pullin to look at how the past has influenced the present to make this such a vibrant region for the technology sector.</b>

The Scotswood Road, heading westwards along the north bank of the Tyne from Newcastle city centre and immortalised in the Geordie anthem Blaydon Races, used to contain in its 600-plus addresses more than 40 public houses. The pubs were testament to legendary Tyneside thirst, and the names of some – the Forge Hammer, the Blast Furnace, the Hydraulic Crane – testified to the industries that generated that thirst.

The past economy of the North East of England was built on heavy industries – coal, iron, ships, big electrical machinery and engines, armaments. Today's industries in the region reflect different economic times in which many older core industries have moved to lower cost parts of the world or simply melted away.Yet links to the heavy engineering that made the region world-famous are still strong, and behind international names that now populate the regional economy are often lines of continuity stretching back to engineering pioneers and a common inheritance of engineering skills and of 'getting things done'.

In fact, there is a neat congruence to some recent industrial developments in the North East. The region that spawned the original railways in the early 19th century is now to host the UK's brand-new 21st century train plant which Hitachi is building at Newton Aycliffe. The area that provided maritime power to generations of merchant and naval ships is now at the forefront of a different kind of marine power: the drive towards offshore renewables such as wind, tide and wave power as a significant component of the UK energy mix.

Within new industries, there are parallels with the past. Districts that had some of the most productive and intensive coal mining are now home to Nissan's Sunderland plant, which has consistently been the most efficient carmaking plant in Europe for a decade and more.

Nissan executives have always been open about the factors that not only informed the original choice of the North East as the destination for the European manufacturing plant in the 1980s, but then helped it to achieve world-class standards and to lead the group to put more and more new models into the site. They talk of good logistics and access to air, road and, especially, deep water port facilities – essential for a factory seen from the outset as supplying the whole of Europe.

But they also talk about workforce attitude. "We were actually continually winning new models, and a lot of that was down to the 'can-do' attitude of the people," said John Cushnaghan, former managing director of the plant. Japanese executives speak warmly about their delight at how quickly the plant went from drawing-board to production and at quality levels achieved ever since.

They should not have been surprised, for there are common threads that unite the industries of the past and the present in the North East. One of those threads is sheer scale. The North East has always been a place for big companies and big factories. The Scotswood Road pub names all relate to the technologies used in Sir William Armstrong's huge Elswick factories that stretched along the north bank of the Tyne for half a mile and more.

Elsewhere in the region were, and in some cases still are, enormous industrial complexes: chemicals and refining businesses on Teesside, shipbuilding and marine engines in Sunderland, iron and steel, mining in both pits and open-cast. Historically, there was often a down-side to the scale of companies and plants in the North East: when economics change and formerly lucrative industries decline, the region suffers badly.

The Jarrow march of the unemployed to London in 1936 in the Great Depression symbolises the effects of mass job losses as basic industries contract or move away.

More recently, shipbuilding seemed just to melt away from the shipyards of first the Tees, then the Wear and finally the Tyne – replaced for a while by other large-scale fabrication work for industries such as North Sea oil. Coal mining now appears to be going the same way. Big industries leave big holes if they disappear. But they leave behind a legacy of infrastructure, from transport links to employment history, that is geared to the needs of the big-name global groups and attractive to them. Siemens is one of the global groups that is putting a lot into industrial training in the region.

A second related thread is that the North East as a region has long been a powerhouse for the economic development of the UK as a whole – and further afield. This goes back many years. In Tudor times, one reason why London was able to develop as a pre-eminent urban and commercial centre was that its citizens didn't need to go out gathering wood or digging peat for fuel, as they had a regular supply of sea-coal from Northumberland and Durham, brought down the coast in barely-seaworthy tub boats.

There are monuments to North East engineering and ingenuity across the globe. Sydney's Harbour Bridge is built of steel from Teesside. London's equally iconic Tower Bridge works because, when the locals couldn't fathom how to do it, they called in Tyneside entrepreneur William Armstrong, who had an answer for most things.

Today's industries are also very much geared to export. A region based on three relatively short river estuaries with easy access to the sea and not much hinterland to the north, south and west perhaps had no choice but to look outwards. But what started with exports of raw materials such as coal and iron is now universal: Nissan has been the UK's biggest automotive exporter for many years.

A third thread that unites past and present is innovation. The North East in the 19th century was the innovation incubator for empire and beyond. Wylam, a Tyne valley mining village, had at the start of the century an extraordinary collection of engineering talent: George Stephenson, Hedley, Hackworth and others worked in its mines. Their collective genius was less in terms of specific inventions – arguably, Stephenson's only true invention was the miner's safety lamp, and for that he was accused of having pinched the idea from the better connected Humphry Davy.

Rather, Wylam engineers were innovators in three crucial aspects. First, led by Stephenson, they brought together ideas from different inventions to do new things: steam-hauled railways, for example, combined ideas from 18th century inventors such as James Watt with age-old mining practice. Second, they were very much in the business of improving and reworking existing devices: it was Rocket's reliability and superior performance that won the Rainhill trials between Liverpool and Manchester in 1830, aided by five years' experience of running services on the Stockton & Darlington Railway.

The third aspect which these North East engineers pioneered in heavy engineering and machine building was the concept of standardisation and repeatability. The railway track gauge that has gone around the world, 4 ft 8½ in, is Stephenson's; the locomotive works he established with his son in Newcastle was perhaps the first outside the textile industry to apply the "factory system" of precision, tolerances and common componentry. Hitachi's trains from its new North East plant will be very different, but they're not such a distant relation.

The North East's reputation for engineering innovation does not just rest on this one group of engineers of the distant past. Other industries and industrial empires were built by later 19th century engineers. Armstrong was an inventor and innovator in his own right with the development of hydraulic power and a serial entrepreneur in partnership with others in businesses that ran the full range of heavy engineering, from ships and their engines through to armaments. On the way, he was also the backer of Joseph Wilson Swan, inventor of the incandescent light bulb, and Armstrong's Tudorbethan mansion Cragside, at Rothbury in Northumberland, was the first to use hydroelectric power for lighting, with Swan's lamps.

Direct lines of continuity to today's engineering business can be found too in the work of Charles Parsons, the Irish aristocrat who invented the steam turbine. Like Armstrong, Parsons worked through a network of partnership companies, and he was influential in wider infrastructure terms, in that the first power generation application for his turbo generator technology was at the Newcastle and District Electric Lighting Co, which he had set up himself to demonstrate his own ideas for wide-scale power generation.

Parsons' original works in Newcastle celebrated its 125th anniversary last year and is still in the same general line of business, manufacturing and servicing gas turbines for power industry customers. The name, though, is now Siemens and that global group also includes some of Parsons' North East partner companies of more than a century ago: the Hebburn switchgear and instrumentation plant of Reyrolle is still a Siemens operation, and Parsons' original Tyneside employer, Clarke Chapman, has merged into the same group along the way.

But if that suggests continuity, then there is also significant innovation in the business profile of the region too. Much of Siemens' work in the North East these days is to do with the renewable energy business and the region as a whole has reacted to the reduction of coal industry with a series of diversifications into other energy businesses.

For a period in the 1970s and 1980s, former shipyard and heavy engineering skills seemed likely to be tidily redeployed in the growing industry supplying structures into the then-new North Sea oil and gas industry. In the event, other places became the UK's oil capital and changing rig technology was more suited to other sites rather than the North East's riverside yards. But there remains a significant equipment supply and maintenance business in the region for the industry.

Renewable energies are now proving a potentially rich sector, and not just for big businesses such as Siemens. Blyth, a former coal port serving the mining area to the north of Newcastle, has become the UK's centre for testing the giant hardware required for the offshore wind turbines due to be installed far out to sea in the current round of licences, and for wave and tidal power devices too.

The development at Blyth, the National Renewable Energy Centre, is now part of the UK's new industrial/academic research landscape and is overseen by the Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult. It's a subtle change, but an important one in terms of North East industry: the vast 'sheds' in which the structures are tested look like modern equivalents of the old shipyards and heavy engineering plants. But their role is research; thinking as much as doing; brain, not brawn.

And that's true in other places in the North East. On Teesside, for example, an offshoot of petrochemicals and fertilisers businesses is the Centre for Process Innovation, which heads the biotechnology, industrial biology and flexible electronics segments in the national High Value Manufacturing Catapult.North East universities are in on the act too: Northumbria continues the renewables theme and is known for expertise in solar energy, with the ironic twist that if it can make solar power work in Newcastle, then there's more potential for it than some people credit.

Newcastle University is taking over the site of the former Scottish & Newcastle Brewery, original home to Newcastle Brown Ale, for a £50 million development it is calling "Science City" that aims to conduct a wide range of 'real-life testing' of the way technology-based systems work in practice: integrating human experience into intelligent vehicles, for instance, and making them fit into working cities.

The industrial heritage of the North East is of a region that gets things done: giants of engineering innovation, huge industries and enormous factories, a reach that extends out across the globe. The current industries of the region build on that heritage where they can, but increasingly there is a new dimension to them as well. They are about thinking, researching, designing and developing as well as doing.

If one plant can be said to embody both the heritage and the modern future of North East industry, it would probably, perversely, be the plant that operates in the industry that the old North East missed out on entirely, the automotive sector.

Nissan's carmaking plant has many of the attributes of the factories of the Stephensons, Armstrongs and Parsons of yesteryear: it's big – much bigger than Nissan probably ever thought it would be – it has national and international significance, it uses the region's helpful geography and infrastructure and it has partner companies surrounding it. But Nissan's success in the North East has also been based on the newer virtues of productivity, flexibility, research, design and technology. Maybe these things don't get pubs named after them. But the world has changed and so has the region.

John Pullin is a freelance technical writer and general legend when it comes to composing prose aimed at, or about, the engineering sector.