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Design Matters

Ian Risk, CTO of CFMS, makes the case for why engineering design is critical to long-term economic growth.

In order to address the challenges of an environment that is rapidly evolving in terms of technology and business practice, the UK Government established an Industrial Strategy in 2017 with the prime objective to improve national productivity. So far, government-sponsored initiatives that this policy initiated, such as Made Smarter, have focused on the importance of industrial digitalisation for manufacturing and the impact this will have on our economy.

Whilst the importance of this is clear, it loses sight of the fact that, first and foremost, to successfully develop new products, businesses need engineering design. Without this, nothing of any consequence can be manufactured, it is an essential element to secure a stable and resilient industrial base. It must be the primary requirement of any industrial strategy.

High value design is critical

As should be apparent from recent industrial events, the proximity of design to manufacturing operations is a key determinant of operational activity for global companies, especially in times of major technological change. The design process develops the characteristics, quality and performance of the product which, in turn, creates customer interest and establishes a brand.

High quality design provides the intellectual capital on which a product is based and differentiates it in the marketplace helping to define purchasing behaviour. In the modern era, this is not just about performance, the impact on our environment is more important, and the ethics of a product can determine its commercial success. This all starts with design.

In terms of industrial operations it also has a major influence on the type of manufacturing process required and the capabilities needed to realise a viable product that meets customer requirements, such as a shift from metallics to composites.

The automotive sector provides clear examples of how critical the engineering design process can be. Those companies that adopted a commercial ‘build to print’ approach left their operations highly exposed to market fluctuations, thus damaging resilience to change. Reductions in global demand have led to some major brands retrenching their activities to internal design hubs that are responsible for developing new product lines. The intellectual property embedded in highly skilled and experienced design teams takes years to build and becomes part of the intellectual fabric of a region, whereas pure manufacturing operations are more portable and can easily move from one location to another, especially when cost is the primary driver. As a result, building and retaining design capability in advanced engineering is critical to securing business operations, as it holds the key to long-term economic growth and stability.

The business case for investment

Research has identified huge commercial benefits from the adoption of design as an integral part of company strategy. Organisations that use design engineering out perform their counterparts by more than 200 per cent over a ten-year period. Evidence shows that every £1 invested in design generates a return of £20 in revenue and £5 of exports. Given advanced engineering contributes more than 25 per cent of UK GDP [and is a key industry for the West of England], investment in this field is not only vital to retain market presence but it also offers the opportunity to reap major rewards. [The most recent Science and Innovation Audit recognised advanced engineering as the cornerstone of our regional economy and highlighted the need for investment in ‘High Value Design’ to keep pace with global developments – both technically and commercially.

Recent developments in digital technology are creating new business models that illustrate this changing environment. An increasing number of manufacturers are now focusing on selling services or ‘capability’ derived from usage data rather than just simply a product (so-called servitisation). Design is, therefore, no longer just about initial form and function, instead it must consider and demonstrate the through-life capability, cost and reliability of the product. This means more needs to be known about the product before it is built. With continually reduced lifecycles and increasing costs of physical prototyping, this can now only be done virtually and so simulation and design tools are critical. In most cases, these are developed and refined over many years to ensure their validity and reliability. Increasingly, operational data is critical to this process as it can provide insight into how products are used in practice and how a design needs to evolve or improve. This changes the nature of the relationship between vendor and customer, where the latter will play an increasingly more important role in product development.

Design and agility

Irrespective of the market, the evolution of products has been shown to follow a similar pattern, whereby disruptions in the market occur sporadically as new technologies are adopted to enhance performance and offer customers improved capability. The speed at which these technological changes are now happening is unprecedented, creating huge opportunities for agile companies that can adapt but extremely destructive for those unable to match customer expectations.

Industrial agility is dependent on a business’s ability to create, develop and test new products at the speed demanded by the market. For today’s world, this means that the design culture, tools and methodologies must evolve at the same pace as the digital sector to maximise the potential of new technology. Within advanced sectors such as aerospace, design methods for each new market ‘disruption’ have historically been refined over approximately a thirty-year period to progressively improve product performance. In the modern era, this timeframe simply does not exist. Additive Manufacturing (AM) is a prime example of this phenomenon, in which years of traditional design and manufacturing experience are no longer valid. Companies preparing for this market development will be well-placed to exploit AM to the full while those not will, most likely, fail.

Global opportunity

Engineering services are strategically important to the UK with a domestic market worth between £30-40 billion annually and a global market approaching at least £1,000 billion by 2025. The UK only has a five per cent share of this and design is the key to unlocking this opportunity. Design is the phase of the product lifecycle that has most influence over cost. By controlling this, manufacturers can exert stronger influence over the value chain and procurement policy for the product. Major national investments, such as the new Tempest aircraft for the MoD could be worth in the region of £20 billion for the West of England economy. However, with current design methods alone, the question is whether developers will be able to realise a viable, cost-effective solution.

This evolution in design methods is necessary to keep pace with technological advances such as the availability of improved power/weight electrical power sources, or regulatory changes such as emissions targets. The breadth of development and the costs associated with this is beyond the potential scope of any one organisation. Effective partnerships between industry, academia and government are necessary to maintain a leading edge in design capability and economic security.

To unlock the potential in high value design, we continue to reach out regionally and nationally to those organisations who can work with us to push the boundaries and provide the foundations for the UK’s future industrial design needs.

Engineering stakeholders continue to work with government to realise this ambition, but with major technological disruptions facing industry, more needs to be done, sooner, to avoid serious economic impact to the UK.

For those that can influence the debate, design creates, design evolves, design pays and design matters.

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