Engineering a recovery


James Dyson on the government's tendency to 'forget' hardware

Where are we going to find new jobs and growth in the British economy? Software, social media and mobile phone app development? Not according to Sir James Dyson - he says the government is ignoring the importance of hardware and engineering, which provide far more jobs.

When I spoke to Sir James at the opening of the Royal College of Art's Dyson Building, he seemed mightily irritated about the UK's attitude to product design and engineering. He has put his money into a building which will, among other things, provide a home for start-up firms, mostly producing tangible products rather than software.

He pointed out that the government was supporting initiatives like East London's Techcity, home to many web start-ups, but hadn't put a penny into his project: "Government money is going to Silicon Roundabout but not into the production of hardware.

"The hardware trade around the world is growing at a much faster rate than social media or anything that's going on in Silicon Roundabout." He pointed out that Apple's success is based on hardware not software. "Hardware creates jobs, it creates exports, it creates wealth. I'm not sure that Google and Facebook do that."

Rory Cellan-Jones visits the Royal College of Art, where four business start-ups are developing hardware technologies.

But his biggest concern is what is happening to Britain's production line of engineers. "We're producing far too few engineering graduates - there's a 50,000 shortage now, in a few years time we'll be 200,000 short.

"Britain produces fewer engineers out of our universities than the Philippines." The vast majority of postgraduate researchers in British universities were from overseas - and were likely to to take their ideas abroad and compete with us, he said.

After our interview I went to chat with some of the young graduates who are turning ideas they conceived at the Royal College into products. They ranged from a waterless toilet for the developing world to a slideable screen designed to give patients privacy in hospitals - or act as an instant billboard. What they had in common was that they all involved hardware, offering the promise in the long run of exports and jobs if they succeed.

Whether it is true that hardware is better than software at generating employment is a subject for someone with a better economic brain than mine. It is worth noting that Dyson moved its manufacturing out of the UK many years ago - though the company does employ many engineers and designers at its Wiltshire headquarters.

But it is certainly true that for all the buzz around the TechCity initiative, it is hard to find any companies there employing more than a handful of people. iPhone apps and social media are a lot more glamorous to some eyes than fold-away hospital screens or waterless toilets - but they may not be the way to get Britain growing again.

Rory Cellan-Jones Article written by Rory Cellan-Jones Rory Cellan-Jones Technology correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    Ewan@18 I'm pretty sure that Apple employ thousands of people without making anything. My point is that if you have the IP on a product you are effectivily making it even if the manufacture is sub contracted out. The only way that goods can be manufactured in the UK and competitivly priced are if they are luxuary or niche products.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    According to the Economist over 300,000 people are employed in the USA making smartphone apps and the industry is expanding very quickly.
    Due to the global nature of the industry we could employ just as many, or more, here.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    I think what he meant to say was 'apple`s success is from its hardware it gets dirt cheap from Foxconn, who dont exactly pay well or employ outside of china/Taiwan.

    Also everybody now judges how good a phone is by what apps are available, and what the OS can do. So it does have a large part to do with software.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Paul @16 - I think you've missed the point. The claim isn't about making money, it's that making hardware provides more jobs than making software. When all you're engineering is designs to send out for overseas manufacture, you're essentially doing software. There are certainly no manufacturing jobs for the UK in that.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    @15.Phil Rogers - fully agree. Just look at the French word for engineer - "ingenieur" - and consider how much more that says about the skills and abilities engineers have. We need a new word!


Comments 5 of 21



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