Though it is virtually impossible to forecast with any degree of accuracy what the major engineering innovations will be over the next century, it is safe to say that this sector, which covers industries such as aerospace, automobile manufacturing, oil and gas and the nuclear industry, will have a key role to play in the prosperity of the UK.
Over the past decade, much has been said about the rise of the BRICs nations (Brazil, Russia, India and China), and there seems little doubt that China and India in particular are already well on the way to becoming global economic powerhouses. If the UK is to compete and prosper, it is clear that it must concentrate on developing cutting edge and innovative products and services by building on its existing strengths in the fields of science and technology.
Whilst private industry and individual entrepreneurs have an important role to play in developing new technology, products and services, due to the complexity and cost of bringing them to market, it is essential that future governments provide both the financial support and the framework necessary to enable them to compete on a global scale.
Looking at individual industries, it is already possible to see which direction they are likely to go in, at least over the medium term.
The Holy Grail of the nuclear industry has to be nuclear fusion, which holds out the promise of virtually unlimited power, without the problem of having to store and dispose of radioactive waste. Until relatively recently, it was thought that nuclear fusion reactors would have to be huge; the ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) currently under construction in the south of France will cost some £30bn and take the form of a 20m diameter doughnut requiring a staff of 1,000 to operate it. However, it now appears that smaller reactors, capable of being truck mounted, may offer an alternative solution.
In the shorter term, in order to meet an ever increasing demand for power that alternative forms of renewable energy may not be able to meet, it seems inevitable that a new generation of conventional nuclear power stations will be required in the UK. This brings with it a requirement for devising new ways of decommissioning older reactors and disposing of radioactive waste.
Aerospace and defence
Aerospace is one of the industries where the UK has the potential, in collaboration with the EU and US, to become a leading player. The UK is deeply involved in designing and building satellites and unmanned aircraft, developing new propulsion systems for sub-orbital air/spacecraft, building more efficient aircraft engines and constructing spaceports for commercial space travel.
A good example of the direction UK based aerospace companies might take over the coming decades is provided by Meggitt Plc, one of the county’s leading companies in the field of smart engineering for extreme environments. Specialising in the development and manufacture of components and sub systems for various sectors, the company recently announced that Sir Nigel Rudd is to become Meggitt chairman.
In recent years, the UK motor industry has undergone something of a renaissance, especially in the field of luxury cars. With the advent of driverless vehicles, alternatives to the internal combustion engine and a move towards highly complex materials to replace steel and aluminium bodywork, not to mention the miniaturisation of many components using nano technology, the possibilities for continued growth appear to be strong.
While the future for the UK engineering sector looks bright, remaining competitive in the global market is largely dependent on the country’s ability to produce new generations of talented and highly educated individuals who are given the freedom and financial support to invent and bring to market a constant stream of new products and services over an extended period of time.