British hi-tech engineering is more successful than you think

 Building serious infrastructure – such as energy supply, energy distribution, road and rail – is a big undertaking.

It takes a long time to build, but an even longer time to plan and to generate enough confidence in the project that companies will embark on the substantial investments necessary.

For example, investments in large factories that can manufacture the equally large rotor blades for wind turbines, as has just been announced will take place in Hull. New port and manufacturing facilities in the city will be the centre for Siemens’ new turbine factories that will service the wind farms, current and planned, on Dogger Bank off Britain’s east coast. Hull and Siemens have spent years working on this plan to develop the capacity to make UK offshore wind farms happen. So it’s good news indeed to hear that the point of commitment has been reached.

What is hard for many people to imagine, because they are not common these days, is the “large” aspect of these factories. As a nation we have failed to keep up with the manufacture of the genuinely big stuff that is used across the planet, so this is nice to see. But this is is only a beginning.

Big as these factories will be, the offshore wind farm market has yet to happen at the scale hoped for. It is fundamentally expensive, so this new development is no nirvana. Offshore wind only accounts for 3-4% of total global wind energy. And these factories will be making only some of the components for these offshore wind turbines.

What is interesting in the way this story has emerged is what it shows us about the UK’s backwards view of what manufacturing looks like these days. Too many still think in terms of a big shed with many people walking in and out every day, so when that happens (as in Hull) we celebrate it. But when other, far more significant things happen that do not match this sepia-tinged view, we don’t even notice.

Building large and small

Manufacturing these days is totally global, and you earn your place in it by being a creative part of that global network. Hooray for these factories in Hull. But did you know that for years, Siemens has had a team of over 200 engineers in Manchester that is their global design, development and project management team for the company’s entire worldwide offshore wind energy division? They have designed and managed every Siemens offshore wind farm project, whether in German or British waters, or anywhere else.

And I note, again, in the reports of these new factories in Hull, the standard negative comment on how the Vestas wind turbine blade factory on the Isle of Wight closed in 2009. There is much more to that story, and it’s worth knowing because it was a good story, not a bad one.

What was well known when they built that factory on the Isle of Wight was that it was seriously size-constrained. As wind turbines got bigger, the size of the blades required outgrew the size of the factory. It also proved very expensive to manufacture the blades in that location, when it would inevitably involve considerable transport from the island to Southampton, from Southampton to wherever in the world they were destined, and then from that nearest port out to the wind farm site. Wind turbine blades are big things to move about and it costs a lot of money.

Many of them were in fact going to the American mid-west. So, logically, Vestas built factories in Colorado which have been very successful. Actually it was amazing that the Isle of Wight plant was able to manufacture for as long as it did in such a cost-ineffective location.

Exporting British expertise

So OK, the factory closed and that got lots of attention. But what really mattered got no attention at all. What Vestas recognised was British expertise: they invested £79m to create 220 jobs for engineers, and turned this team on the Isle of Wight into Vestas’ global blade technology development centre, which it has been ever since. Recently the centre received another seriously large investment to create an even bigger facility for specialised designing and testing of the ever-larger wind turbine blades powering the world’s wind farms.

This British team, after 30 years in the game, is still producing the best blade technology there is, earning its keep and bringing in both income and investment to the UK for blade technology, which is then applied all over the planet. So of course the Siemens’ project in Hull is to be celebrated. But the quiet success of British engineering prowess that doesn’t reach the news headlines is a bigger success story.

What I wish is that the British media would get beyond looking for old-fashioned manufacturing sheds, good as they are, and wake up the the much more fundamental stories of success that are sitting invisibly in Manchester, the Isle of Wight and elsewhere – the world’s leading wind energy consultancy company is the highly respected Garrad Hassan based in Bristol, for example – earning their keep by doing their homework, maintaining their leading-edge know-how, and getting on a plane to wherever their know-how is needed.

Isn’t that what we are supposed to do? That’s what success looks like.