There is currently an almost complete absence of manufacturing as a subject at all levels of education and publicly-funded research, implying that it has no creative or intellectual content worthy of challenging young minds. The time has come to take a new look at the business of designing and making things, argues Peter Mucci FRSA.
Ignorant attitudes to manufacturing see it as a nineteenth century phenomena with its belching factories and unprotected labour and so avoid it as an economic force for good. Politicians are generally uneducated in technical matters; the backgrounds of the 650 MPs in parliament show that only around 1% have had any previous manufacturing experience. An industrial strategy based on an inexperienced political elite does not make sense; neither does the absence of manufacturing as a respectable subject for academic research.
Meanwhile, young people are persuaded away from learning to design and make things and become unemployable whilst these very things are imported from countries with unregulated employment laws.
Even the highly complex activity of design for manufacture gets little recognition in higher education, where it must be avoided if the aim is a high research ranking. The clue to this almost universal downgrading of design may lie in its multidisciplinary nature, because it brings art, science and engineering together and subject combinations always alarm academic purists. However, there is increasing recognition that in meeting some of the manufacturing challenges we face, that as well as specialists, we need a greater emphasis on multi-disciplinary teamwork in universities.
There is political and educational belief that intellectual skills and manual skills are mutually exclusive abilities, and young people should be streamed accordingly. It is conveniently forgotten that a surgeon has both these skills and yet is one of the most valued members of the community. The Bauhaus brought both mind and hand abilities together and the result was one of the World’s greatest engines of design for manufacture.
However, the current funding model in higher education, which still values and promotes only those who publish their ideas rather than apply them, often elevates the most trivial research advance to a status it does not deserve. It compels bright people, who seek status, to spend years closeted in academia, doing research when they could be creating new products and inspiring others. The intellectual capacity of individuals and their ability to work in teams when bringing today's complex products to global markets far outweighs that needed to publish an average research paper.
The UK has some of the most developed education and training facilities in the world but, by and large, these facilities are not being used to support even the strategic product needs of the UK, despite the fact that the lack of employment opportunities for young people, is now a common political theme across all major parties.
This is also despite the fact that when industry leaders were surveyed over 30 years ago about the purpose of higher education, the almost unanimous response was 'to provide a skilled workforce'. Since then, key access points for young people to pursue careers in manufacturing, such as apprenticeships, technical colleges and polytechnics, have been downgraded in the drive to expand the 'university' sector with its plethora of low-quality courses, many in subjects guaranteed to provide the student with a degree in one hand and unemployability in the other.
Real value is only achieved if knowledge converts to creativity then to design and finally to manufacture. This applies whether the product is two or three-dimensional. Design links the thinking and the doing because if it cannot be designed it cannot be made. The creation of products provides transferable skills, and, in an inclusive enlightened working environment, offers dignity in employment and independence for the UK in areas of strategic importance. For product reliability, accuracy, sustainability and recyclability, design and manufacturing systems must attract those with the highest abilities who in turn can train others to be creative.
Policies must be shaped to allow the natural creative spirit of people to be channelled into sustainable growth, without harm to the environment or the exploitation of labour. At the same time, we need to accommodate current trends in employment and technology; including the rapid growth of the self-employed sector, as reported by the RSA recently with similar, and not unrelated, growth in the number of people working from home. Technology now allows complex products to be made in compact, clean conditions, for example 3D printed products are already being made in the home.
The RSA was once at the forefront of design and manufacturing policy, and its effect on social change. In the years after its foundation at the beginning of the industrial revolution it made major contributions to new industrial thinking from textile production to shipbuilding. It took on specific tasks where it saw the need for a creative input and by its achievements, was quoted at the time as 'underlining how much the State had left undone...'
The challenge is now to encourage the same creative work but in the context of today's technological advances and educational opportunities. Its contemporary mission – to unlock people’s power to create – should include challenging the fitness for purpose of departments of state dependent on technology but run by those only qualified in politics, philosophy and economics (PPE) and not in science, technology, design or manufacture.
We need a strategy that encourages the reintroduction of polytechnics, financially linked to industry, with a range of courses from craft skills to advanced manufacturing methods to allow both UK and overseas students to excel in their chosen field, move between fields, and to be encouraged to seek employment in UK industry. The changes in technology, employment and demographics in the UK call for a social review of both how products and/or their components can be delivered in the future. There is no doubt that people and systems are now available to create a new 'cottage industry' which will change the way things are designed and made and put the UK at the forefront of the next industrial revolution.
Peter Mucci FRSA FIMechE Apprentice engineer and graduate of Imperial College is a designer and patentee of subsea electrics, polymer analysing systems and solar energy products. He writes on design and intellectual property rights (IPR), was Director of University MEng courses, an adviser to the government on IPR and is founder and director of a manufacturing SME.