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!

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    I think some people are missing the point of the article, engineering products is all about IP rights. Apple is a good example all their product construction is outsourced, yet they still have plenty of money in the bank. I think the figure is around 80% of the value of an ipod goes to apple, the rest to the maker.

    By outsourcing manufacture you keep your products competitively prices.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    In the UK the term "engineer" has been diluted. People who work in simple maintenance and repair jobs seem to be called engineers. Real engineers don't get the respect they deserve. Managers think they're maintenance monkeys so they don't pay them high salaries. Ergo, engineering jobs are not attractive. In other European countries engineering is a respected profession.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    I agree with James Dyson! Have just started working for the start-up Kwickscreen in the RCA and all the innovations that are made here are so tangible and aren't just floaty ideas. Definitely more places like what there is at the RCA are needed!

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Much as I dislike James Dyson (he seems to regard himself quite highly), I tend to agree with him on issues like this - it is something that Government (and Parliament really) will never, ever get...MPs are typically PPE graduates and very few are from science/engineering.

    However, all George has to do is look to Germany...but that's unlikely as the Torys have stopped looking out beyond the UK

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    "It is worth noting that Dyson moved its manufacturing out of the UK many years ago.".

    Yes it is worth noting. If Dyson wants to talk the talk then perhaps he could learn to walk the walk too. And as a software engineer I find his remarks somewhat dismissive of my trade.

    But I agree that Britain needs to grow its domestic production and consumption.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    "£15-£17k"? Come to Derby, we have vacancies for Electrical Engineers doing both software and hardware.... not sure of the salary but I started on 16K in 1997 so I hope it's gone up a bit by now!

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.


    Even Lancia is still going in Italy, and owned by an Italian company
    Lancias were a dead company in the 1980s, lol

    When was the last time you saw a Lancia in front of you at the traffic lights???

    They are rebadged in the UK as Chryslers for some reason (ugh)

    Britain doesn't invest in itself
    Italy does. France does. Germany does.

    Britain doesn't

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Even companies like Fiat and Alfa Romeo still survive and produce in Italy and they were just like British Cars in the 1980s

    They were a bit of a nightmare to own, rusted like falling rocks and had a militant workforce who were always on strike

    The problem doesn't lie with the manufacturing sector

    Britain doesn't invest in its own people or its future

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    It's too expensive to manufacture in the UK. I get mine done in Europe, where it costs 2/3rds less. But businesses here can't charge less, because they have their own costs to cover, fuel, rates, rent etc. It's the COST of having a manufacturing business in the UK that needs to be tackled first, otherwise we'll never be able to compete.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    This is just two links I've posted
    Cars and aircraft

    This cars one is huge

    So the problem isn't manufacturing OR engineering

    At one point in time we were awash with both engineers AND manufacturing capacity

    It's all gone

    heavy engineering


  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    As mentioned
    Mr Dyson himself moved his manufacturing capacity out of the UK

    So even he isn't smart enough to manufacture stuff here on a long term basis, but he's part of a long term British malaise which started in the 1950s

    Our engineering capacity in the 1950s was quite mind boggling
    Aircraft ALONE

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Britain has always been bad for engineering, the only large engineering company surviving from the 1950s is Rolls Royce aero engines
    British Manufacturing gets flogged off or shut down, British Managers rank amongst the worst on the planet

    Cadbury was a perfect example

    British car manufacturing got obliterated, yet foreign owned car firms waltz into the UK and use the same workforce

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Demand for hardware engineers, yet the pay is ok but not fantastic? I don't see large numbers of adverts for engineering design jobs?
    Software: Workin public orprivate sector,someone frm china is never going totake all jobs because you need to understand local users.
    I chose hardware,more fun forme,but not as safe/well paid.
    Hardware, you are always being compared to a cheap person in china.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    I totally agree that we just don't seem to make anything anymore and something needs to be done about it. The success of companies like Jaguar Land Rover should be a springboard for engineering opportunities.

    I also think though that it's a bit rich this subject coming from Mr Dyson who, like the article says, moved all his manufacturing out of the UK. So when is he going to bring it back?

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    I agree completely, hardware is always overshadowed by aesthetics; take a Mac for example, it looks good and functions well, unfortunately the hardware inside is horrid and i could build a better pc for half the price. But it is not just the governments fault, i didn't see or hear anything on the BBC about Tahiti or Kepler or on any other "tech" related broadcasts (Click being one)


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