Sometimes there’s no harm in being reminded that Britain is a veritable hotbed of engineering excellence. It’s easy to forget such a fact. That timely prompt came at the end of last month when more than 400 people gathered for the Royal Academy of Engineering’s annual awards ceremony, held this year in the exquisite surroundings of London’s Royal Opera House. The night was a glorious celebration of all that is great about British engineering, and it was good to see some very talented individuals getting the recognition from their peers that they so richly deserve.
The prestigious MacRobert gold medal went to the team behind Jaguar Land Rover’s cutting-edge Range Rover Evoque, which has sold in huge numbers all over the world. Chief programme engineer David Mitchell went on stage to collect the award, and it was good to see him make a pointed note of crediting the dozens of engineers at Jaguar Land Rover’s Gaydon and Whitley facilities in the Midlands who worked together so seamlessly to develop a vehicle that has truly captured the public’s imagination. The award also reflected the wider renaissance of the company, which has become one of the country’s biggest manufacturing success stories.
But the night wasn’t just about JLR, which has a big research budget and a deep pool of technical talent that it can tap into. The two other contenders for the MacRobert award – Andor Technology for its highly sensitive Neo sCMOS camera that enables scientists to map a genome in only a few hours, and JBA Consulting for its J-flow hyper-accurate flood-risk modelling system – are far more modest outfits in terms of size. But both firms have clearly taken their visions and delivered them into innovative products that other companies want to buy. As such, both Andor and JBA have fascinating stories to tell.
The MacRobert award has a history of backing winners. Previous recipients include EMI, which in 1972 developed the CT scanner, a vital medical device that can now be found in almost every hospital in the developed world. In 2002 Cambridge Display Technologies won the award for its light-emitting polymer displays, now used extensively in TVs and smartphones. Last year’s winner, Microsoft Research, won the prize for the human motion capture system used in Kinect for Xbox 360.
Encouragingly, business secretary Vince Cable was in attendance at this year’s event and he spoke effusively about the value of engineering to the economy. Cable stated once again that politicians had learned lessons from over-reliance on the financial sector and were determined not to make the same mistake twice.
And there have been signs that such sentiments are starting to feed into policymaking. Last month Cable launched the Advanced Skills Accreditation Scheme, which will give engineers from 2,000-plus companies the chance to take one of 5,000 master’s degree module places.
A few days before that announcement, the Department for Education confirmed the opening of a further 15 university technical colleges, which offer pupils aged 14-19 academic and technical training. Businesses will help shape the curriculum, to meet their skills requirements.
These initiatives are to be welcomed. But there’s no doubt that more action needs to be taken. The MacRobert event provided Vince Cable with a showcase of engineering excellence. Let’s hope he responds to it accordingly.