I was reading an article in City A.M a while back – a freebie newspaper containing banking and business news and distributed to those lucky souls in London who take public transport. On this wet and cold morning no one was interested in taking a copy so as I walked by the guy handing them out, I stuck out my hand. I wasn’t expecting much but it was better than staring into nothingness (as you do on public transport in London because eye contact with your fellow passengers is to be avoided at all cost). I quickly thumbed thru the usual stories about one company or another that had merged or acquired another company. Then I came across an article by Marc Sidwell who is the managing editor of the said newspaper. I loved what he had to say about the Paralympics. I am now paraphrasing but effectively he said that by using all the available technology available to them engineers have been able to design better equipment for Paralympians who can then be faster and stronger. And by providing them access to the best equipment, engineers have enabled the athletes to liberate their human potential.
I think Mr. Sidwell’s editorial really hit it home for me because a few pages earlier I had read an interview with the new CEO of Dyson – Michael Bow. Dyson is one of those inspiring companies that got its start by taking a ho-hum product and market and slap it upside the head – ok I know vacuum cleaners are not something you write home about but Dyson made vacuum cleaners (or as they say hoovers on this side of the pond) cooler than a very cool thing on a balmy summer’s day.
Mr. Bow believes that companies need to invest more in R&D and to encourage risk taking in their engineers and designers. Apparently he practices what he preaches. Under his leadership, the company has reported record profits (profits have grown 30%) while their investment in R&D has increased from £45M to £59M – a very aggressive investment in their future. Unfortunately he has a resource problem – not materials, but human resources. In order for Dyson to continue innovating, they need a steady supply of engineers but according to the same article, the UK “produces only about half the engineers of say Mexico”; therefore, I suspect finding enough talented candidates may be a challenge for them. Now this is a dilemma and a half – without a steady stream of qualified engineers ready to innovate, the company may not be able to sustain its envious position in the market.
Reading these two articles in the space of 15 minutes got me thinking. It really is a crying shame that fewer kids decide to follow the path of engineering in England (I suspect this trend is the same in North America as well). Despite this trend, I personally don’t think the shrinking numbers should be a stumbling block for any manufacturer in the short term because those few who are entering the workforce are taught to use state of the art tools at school – from CAD to CAE and rapid prototyping. As a result, by the time they enter the workforce they hit the floor running. Therefore, their level of innovation hasn’t suffered because they can do more in a shorter period of time. And risk-taking has become more acceptable (I know many engineers by nature may even be risk averse). For example, simulation makes it easy to conduct multiple what-if tests to find the best possible design. As a result, you can take as many design risks as you like because you can test virtual prototypes and only advance the best of the best to the next step.
So even though this lack of engineering talent may mean that we may not have cooler and cooler vacuum cleaners or gadgets in the future, somewhere in the back of my mind I also think that fewer engineers means fewer opportunities for finding the next big thing that would further liberate human potential – whether it is to help Paralympians shatter new records or to help create prosthetic hands that help someone who’s lost his/her arm to hold his or her child. And wouldn’t that be a shame?
Until next time,