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Engineering will never be the same again

Mark Hansford

The world of UK engineering is changing fast; and two significant events in the last week serve to highlight just how fast.

The world of UK engineering is changing fast; and two significant events in the last week serve to highlight just how fast.

The first was the seismic news that United States giant Aecom is to acquire fellow US giant URS, creating a monster of an engineering firm the likes of which UK engineers have never seen.

It’s hard to even comprehend what it will be like to be one of the 95,000 employed by the mega-firm. How will you get your voice heard? How will your innovative ideas be allowed to bubble up to the surface?

And let’s face it - this deal is only going to trigger more. Presumably the economies of scale are going to be significant, and so how can the likes of Atkins, Arup, Mott MacDonald and Hyder not respond?

As we report this week, industry commentators are already noting that alongside Aecom URS these UK leaders are already looking “pretty medium sized”.

The second was more low-key but in my mind equally seismic. It was High Speed 2 chief engineer Andrew McNaughton demanding more innovation; more future-thinking from the UK engineering fraternity.

He wants us - you - to embrace emerging technologies such as 3D printing and radically change how we build.

Or in his words “join the 21st century” and refrain from doing things the way they’ve been done for years.

McNaughton’s challenge is but the tip of the iceberg. Technology is now there to radically change how we build. But it’s also challenging what we build and why.

Wearable technology will in the coming years revolutionise how we choose to travel but also how we choose to live - and we need to respond with appropriate solutions. Different solutions. And, as we report this week, an industry of mega-firms does not always respond with those kind of solutions.

NCE’s job in all this is to influence that change for the better. “By ventilating the issues of the day we hope that everybody might be better informed and more able to respond in a co-ordinated way to a fast changing industry and world.”

That is how our first editor Sydney Lensson put it in our first ever issue back in May 1972.

And it is exactly as I would put it today, proud and honoured as I am to this week be chosen as NCE’s seventh editor.

The intention back in 1972 was for NCE to “convey the excitement of an idea” rather than the mathematical detail of technicalities. That too remains true today; more so even as we look ahead at these disruptive technologies that directly threaten the status quo.

What’s changed is the way we convey that excitement - nowhere is technological change being felt more keenly than in communications.

Demand for news is now instant; and NCE’s website is increasingly the place to go for your news as it happens. And stories are no longer told only in print; they are told interactively through images, through video, and through live events.

But however we report the issues of the day, excitement remains the buzzword. It is a fantastically exciting time. Throughout NCE’s 42 years, engineers have been building pretty much the same things in pretty much the same way.

That is about to change.

  • Mark Hansford is NCE’s editor

Readers' comments (3)

  • Mark - delighted that your position has finally been made permanent. I think the shift to larger firms programme/project managing things had already accelerated in UK; see the emergence of MACE and others as managers, not designers. Strangely; UK Contractors seem not to want to have design innovation in-house, viz. BB divorcing PB.

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  • The creation of these very large organisations is a transitory thing. Anyone dealing with a large US owned company knows its a very painful process. Halcrow with its recent American owner is almost impossible to work with and has in many ways already disappeared. The growth of integrated design technology means that these large companies will be uncompetitive in the future and there is no such thing as a low cost engineering centre, ultimately the project costs more money. Companies like Arup have nothing to fear but fear itself. These reality is that very large enginering companies earn money by being paid, by uneducated clients, to constantly re-invent the wheel. When clients wise up there will be a rapid move back to small / medium number (1000-3000 employees) compaines who collaborate and look for value rather than the comfort of 90000 people. It just doesnt work. The production ratio of fully integrated design companies is probably 10 to 1 and that means these companies are massively overstaffed and over valued. Its no longer size that matters.

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  • Nick Munro

    In the past British consulting engineering firms had a major part of their workload from overseas operation but after combining with larger competitors from abroad, especially American companies, they become the UK local branch office of the combined company where all decisions are made in the US head office by Americans.
    The mergers or acquisitions serve to enable American companies with little or no experience outside America to sell themselves overseas as International companies. They are also able to claim the years of experience of their British acquisitions as that of the combined company to which they contribute a minor part.
    Steven Trowbridge is correct in his analysis - these enormous companies do not offer additional benefit to potential clients and the sooner they and clients realise the better for everyone.

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