Closing the gap on manufacturing

MPs, economists and academics are largely ill-informed when it comes to the issue of design for manufacturing. Given the importance of manufacturing to economic recovery, Peter Mucci FRSA argues for a new approach.

Despite the fact that the modern world relies heavily on manufactured goods from domestic products to telecommunications, IT, energy, transport and defence, politicians seem to ignore them as a huge driver in society.

It is astonishing that a government thinks it can function effectively when virtually none of the 650 MPs – and most civil servants and advisors – have qualifications relating to manufacturing. It is perhaps not surprising that we have seen a string of failures of large state-managed engineering systems.

The long-term aim should be to increase the number of qualified engineers in parliament and Whitehall. In the shorter-term those MPs and officials who are directly involved in departments where technology plays an important role should be kept up to date with industrial practice using continuous professional development (CPD) as is commonplace in industry. There are artificial divisions between the pure and applied in education that do not exist in industry. In secondary education, design and technology is being marginalised and is now considered a low- grade A ‘level for university entrance. In higher education, the subject of design for manufacturing is hardly taught, often because recruitment of lecturers is not based on their industrial experience or their ability to apply knowledge to industry.

Perhaps the most alarming situation however, is in government funded university research where there is no category of engineering design for manufacturing as a subject for published papers. As a result there are no design/manufacture journals given high ratings in the research assessment exercise (RAE). To make matters worse there are few papers protected for intellectual property (IP) prior to publication.

This needs to change. We need a higher number of universities offering design for manufacturing as a degree and research subject. This will take time: in the meantime we need to increase the number of lecturers recruited for their design and manufacturing ability and increase the number of promotions to senior status based on successful application work with industry.

Policy makers like to hector the manufacturing sector about its lack of output and ‘competitiveness’ particularly with respect to China. This is despite the fact that the UK (and the rest of the EU) cannot possibly compete when they have to properly abide by minimum legal requirements of HSAW, Working Time, Leave Entitlement and so on, when their competitors do not. Recent figures for manufacturing costs for electromechanical systems are 5:1 UK v China. This is clearly not a level playing field.

It is a sad indictment of the situation that UK product design and manufacture regulations may require a factory in China to conform to 60 pages of technical specification for a product but not one regulation concerning the welfare of its workforce!

As part of all trade agreements for goods imported into the UK from non-EU countries our aim should be to establish minimum supplier worker welfare standards. At the same time policy makers need to learn to make whole cost comparisons with imported goods and only use the word ‘competition’ when the rules are the same between countries.

We must ensure that innovative design work is first IP protected.

Small, innovative companies are unlikely to be able to afford the high cost of doing this and, even if they can, often find that is ineffective and insecure. Electromechanical patents can easily cost in excess of £500,000 for priority in only a small number of countries. There is no guarantee given in law that a granted patent is secure. Nor is there any free legal support if it is blatantly infringed; this is a common practice in undemocratic countries, and by some large corporations, confident that the small or medium size enterprise (SME) cannot afford to fight the case.

Even in the EU, there is no easy route to protection and plans for a low cost ‘petty’ patent have been abandoned. Should an SME wish to file in the EU under current patent law, it will find that – contrary to the perception of politicians – many of the EU states require ‘validation’ before they grant a patent. This includes high translation costs with patent agent fees typically £200 to 400/hr. The cost of patents is often higher than the development costs of the product.  We need to return to the idea of a simple, low-cost, patent for SMEs and abolish ‘validation’ fees in the EU. In addition, as is the case in the financial industry, patent agents should need to put in to writing the actual average costs of obtaining such a patent and the alternatives (for example, ‘unregistered rights’) plus a statement of risks/benefits.

All patent specifications should have clear computer aided design (CAD) drawings and diagrams to accompany them and all applicants maintain a log of their work (as in the USA)

The RSA is developing new work around enterprise: these are just some ideas to kick off a discussion about the issues that we need to address and I hope other RSA Fellows will join me in this.

Peter Mucci DIC CEng FIMechE FRSA is the holder of several patents. He was Senior Design Engineer and then Director in electromechanical industries and a Director of MEng university courses. He supervised several Design Council prizewinners and is a founder owner of Powertile Ltd, renewable energy specialists.