Products and people, not lean, for green revolution

Posted on 23 Apr 2009 by The Manufacturer

Engineering expert underlines green manufacturing challenge and makes urgent call to fill skills gap

Manufacturing and engineering expert Professor Lord Bhattacharyya sketched out guidelines at a lecture on Tuesday for potential solutions to what for many are the ‘Big Three’ business challenges; economic recovery and jobs, climate change and a stronger science and technology skilled workforce. His speech strongly advocated product excellence and the need for high quality people in manufacturing as key components of the solution, as well as more government involvement to provide science education in schools, and funding for low carbon engineering projects.

Lord Bhattacharyya, founder of the Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG) and a government advisor on engineering policy, began by reiterating the stark challenges the world faces from climate change, quoting research from the Tyndall Centre that claims UK government targets of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 34% by 2020 will not be enough to keep below a 2◦C temperature increase.
While warning that the climate change problem would affect companies in all sectors of manufacturing, he emphasised the opportunities that a ‘green revolution’ would bring to areas like the energy market, construction and materials industries and the reskilling for a greener and more science-savvy workforce.

A recurring theme of the lecture was to underscore the shortage of people qualified in science, technology and maths (STEM) subjects working in industry and to focus on increasing these core skills sets in the coming years. Several pressures are magnifying the skills gap and stressing the urgency of a solution. The planned expansion of the UK’s nuclear energy capability, the fact there is no increase in the number of physics, chemistry or engineering graduates, a disproportionate number of people working in engineering who are approaching retirement within the next 15 years, and half of the firms surveyed by WGM reporting mechanical engineering shortages.

It’s about the product

Bhattacharyya said that it was essential for UK manufacturing to focus on the product, and to ignore Lean and process innovation until better products were perfected. Better designed and made products would come from high calibre people, which is the challenge to manufacturing, to improve its image as a career path. Market forces should make a more level playing field and he expected the coming years would be the first time in a generation rewards in industry would be on parity with financial services.

He claimed that “the practical application of scientific expertise will be at the centre of the political, social and business agenda for a generation,” and that there will be many business opportunities for companies as well as huge personal opportunities for engineers. He emphasised the need to “put engineering at the heart of what it is to be British” and called for a vanguard of new Brunels, new Bazalgettes and new Lucases to step up.

Critical to the solutions proposed for these challenges was to recognise uncertainty in order to deal with it, to focus on the “known knowns” such as nuclear expansion, renewables and low carbon vehicle technologies (where factors like materials and battery efficiency will be important to exploit), and the “known unknowns”, such as which engine systems will dominate for low carbon vehicles in 20 years time. He was also ambitious in recognising the need for the engineering community to tackle more esoteric challenges like ITER fusion technology, geo engineering and carbon sequestration and human population pressures.

The solutions will come from industry, government and academia. At the government level, Bhattacharyya highlighted the paucity of funding for developing green technology in the UK, where only £500m support was made available for industrial support last year. In Japan, Y1.6tr (£10bn) has been provided for environmental projects alone. Govt should provide a stronger science education in schools and careers requiring STEM qualifications should be better signposted and more accessible.
Industry needs to endeavour to offer good reward packages to attract and retain the best people, which will be helped by a battered services sector and the demand for more clean energy infrastructure. And it must invest in the skills of workers. More university and company partnerships are needed to support employer-based learning, and he called for a simpler system of skills funding and access to funding. More integration of undergraduate and graduate study into professional careers was called for.

A video of the full lecture can be seen here:

The lecture was held at the Institute of Mechanical Engineers in London on April 21 and was co-hosted by IMechE, the National Skills Academy for Manufacturing and Warwick Manufacturing Group.