GLOBALISATION AND new technology have reshaped the profession to such an extent that it is no longer possible to predict the future by looking at the past
This was the theme of last Tuesday's Unwin Memorial lecture given by Professor Roger Flanagan of Reading University.
A crowded lecture theatre was told that companies must invest in new technology and be able to react quickly to industry changes if they are to remain competitive in the global marketplace.
Flanagan criticised the construction industry as slow to pick up on new technology and said a move towards integration of design and production is inevitable and essential.
His biggest complaint was directed at the lack of willpower to invest in innovation: 'The technology is there. Companies need the guts to invest in its development and application.'
Flanagan also outlined the changing shape of a growing global industry. This would see technology clustering to countries specialising in particular fields and companies returning to their core business.
The rewards reaped from a more positive attitude to new technology were highlighted. Flanagan was particularly impressed by one site in Hong Kong where virtual reality goggles allowing workers to experience a fall from a high rise building had resulted in a large reduction in incidents.
He suggested that advances in materials science mean that engineers can now specify products before they exist.
There was some good news. Flanagan believes that British engineers are the best in the world. However, they must recognise this and stop knocking themselves as overseas customers are put off by constant self-criticism.
British engineers should not be afraid to learn from overseas. Flanagan described the 'technology brokers' - people who scour the world for good ideas - used by Japanese firms.
'We must get rid of our 'little England' attitude of frowning on overseas innovations. There are good ideas all around the world. Let's go and use them. We need to get involved in creative swiping.'
In a busy question and answer session Flanagan blamed the project based nature of the construction industry for inhibiting investment in new technology. However, he accepted that quantifying the benefits of new technology is not easy and made funding difficult to get.
(See feature p20).