When one looks at much of small-scale British manufacture, and I speak with particular experience of polymer processing and to some extent paper-making, food and fine chemicals, the thing that is striking is the very low level of brains employed in these businesses by comparison with the university plus standard which obtains in companies like Rolls Royce, ICI, BP and Shell.  Many smaller manufacturing companies are owner managed and have a real succession problem.  The task, therefore, is to feed into these companies one way or another, well motivated, extremely well trained young engineers.  But these engineers must be generalists, in the sense of being able to turn their hand to all the functions of a manufacturing company.  Now these functions are, of course, production, process development, selling, finance and personnel management.  Nobody can be an expert at all of these things, but they should know something of all of them and they should know enough to know where they need to use experts. 

Every company will need at some stage to employ auditors, but it may not need an FCA highly paid to run its finance.  That’s a matter for decision.  But anybody running the company who can’t understand a balance sheet or a profit and loss account has a tremendous handicap.  Why shouldn’t every engineer, certainly every engineer on a four-year course be able to do exactly those things?  The balance sheet is just that; it is something which engineers do all the time: balance flows in and out.  A profit and loss account is simply a snapshot of the cash flows in and out of the company during a year.  In essence in our terminology as engineers, the balance sheet is the integral of the profit and loss account stretching back to the formation of the company.  So what is difficult about that?  What stops this happening is the tremendous prejudice among university academics against anything which is to do with finance. 

In my view as an engineer, there are four flows which matter: the flow of momentum, the flow of matter, the flow of energy and the flow of cash.  Every problem involves the last flow and some problems involve all four flows.  This recognition, or rather lack of recognition is the thing which inhibits, more than anything, the flow of engineers into the small and medium-sized enterprise sector.  The culture is all wrong, if people do not recognise that the specificly narrowly technical problem is only one part of the broader system problem which anybody has to cope with when working in industry. 

In my view technology can only exist in industry.  It can’t exist usefully in a laboratory, still less in an office.  It is only when it’s working that it can truly said to be technology.  It is what people pay for, either in the form of the products produced from it, or as a bundle of know-how, which they can then take, bill and operate somewhere else.  The iron test of the value of anything is what people are prepare to pay for out of their own pockets.  This may seem to be an excessively philistine view of the world.  But in our field of engineering and business, it is the iron rule, the only rule that at the end of the day matters. 

With these factors in mind I propose a new engineering degree course representing, as I see it, a relaunch of the engineer as decision-maker.  I have provisionally titled this Master of Engineering for Business.  Its fundamental philosophy is that engineering is about making decisions.  The engineer is not merely in my judgment a decision-maker, he is the decision-maker above all.  Perhaps he shares it with those two other vital other ingredients of a modern civilization: the farmer and the doctor.  However it is important, I think, to see the ingredients of any decision in a practical situation.  These decisions might be composed of specifically technical factors, such as the thermo-dynamics or the chemical reactivity or the structural integrity of an engineering object.  They almost certainly include factors to do with people and they definitely include factors to do with cost, price and timing.  The relative proportions of the technical, the personal and the financial will vary from decision to decision, but in my view few, if any, engineering decisions are more than 50% technical and some are almost zero in technical content. 

Now this balance of realities does not need to be reflected exactly in our engineering courses, because particularly the personnel side of a decision cannot be easily taught or imitated within a university course.  But obviously attention must be called to this and many courses do try, through team work on design projects, to introduce this personnel element.  But there is every reason for showing that the financial side must enter into every engineering decision.  There is an old fashioned phrase which says: “an engineer is someone who can make for six pence, what somebody else can make for a shilling”(a shilling being 12 pence).  And there’s some truth in that, as we recognise. 

Now if we carried out our engineering courses along the lines that everything we did was essentially a model of reality, we embedded the concept of the mathematical model in our courses from the beginning, we then immediately ask ourselves what is the purpose of such a model?  Now those of us who have been engaged in mathematical models for real engineering projects know that the form of the model is not merely influenced by the objectives, it is dictated by them. 

Now of course this is not an idea confined to engineering, but it is something that is repeatedly overlooked.  Why do we do calculations on things like gears and beams, on chemical reactors, on structures, in which the pound, the cash, the cost doesn’t figure?  What is the point of doing it?  If we want to recover for our students the sense of relevance to the real world, engineering started in the real world, and we must emphasize this key element of reality. 

One of the most important things that any practical project undertaken in an industrial context underlines and illuminates is the fact that there are certain things which are more important than others.  As an illustration the design of a heat-exchanger.  Now along with pipes, heat-exchangers are probably the most ubiquitous piece of equipment.  They find their way into use in all the process industries, which consititute around 65-60% of Britain’s manufactured output and are very important in the utilities industries, in energy power-raising industries and even in the assembly industries such as cars and other forms of energy using machinery.  It is a universal experience that the analysis of heat-exchangers in university departments is carried on as if the only thing that mattered was the flow of liquid down a tube and its loss of heat to its neighbour. 

Now of course this is important, but the single most important problem with all heat-exchangers is fouling.  You can go to any catalogue and this is of course what people do in industry, having established the heat transfer load, they can look it up and they do.  The thing they have to make a judgment about, the thing that they have to use their intelligence on is fouling, because the fouling factor first of all varies during the life of the equipment and secondly becomes the single most important element in the heat transfer resistance and therefore the performance of the equipment.  And yet I think there are very few courses that even draw attention to this and still fewer which actually talk about how it comes about and how it can be mitigated.

This paper was based on a speech given to the North of England Plastics Processors’ Consortium AGM in 1997.

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