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Revealing Thoughts- Autumn/Winter 2019

Technicians and innovation: Establishing the workforce of tomorrow

Author

Professor Paul Lewis
King’s College London

Date

15/09/2019

Categories

Industry insight

The Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, recently announced that he would be leading a revolution in technical education, the outcome of which would be key to our country’s future economy.

Based on my work looking at the supply and training of technicians in various industries, including aerospace, composites, industrial biotechnology, cell therapy and chemicals, this revolution cannot come soon enough, as technical skills shortages in manufacturing are a major issue for employers.

The push to ensure that 50% of young people go on to higher education has resulted in large numbers of employers taking on graduates to fill technician roles. But, all too often, graduates lack the practical skills possessed by people who have come up through a vocational route like an apprenticeship.

In the short term, it is critical that technical education is reformed to ensure that firms have the skills they need not only to conduct business as usual but also to enable UK businesses to lead the way in developing and deploying innovative manufacturing technologies.

 

Technicians: the missing component to the UK’s innovation system

Innovation tends to come in one of two forms:

  • Radical innovation, involving the creation of original products and technologies that transform existing markets and/or industries, usually based on the creation of new knowledge through research carried out by highly qualified engineers and scientists.
  • Incremental innovation, which involves the gradual improvement of existing products and technologies, often through knowledge creation in the workplace.

Historically, too much of the UK’s thinking has been based on a view of innovation as a linear process, driven by fundamental scientific research, which is then straightforwardly applied in the workplace to create novel products and production processes. The UK excels at research – its universities rank amongst the top in the world – and yet this research strength has not always led to the widespread diffusion of new technologies throughout the economy. Such dissemination is vital to improve productivity and increase economic growth. This gives rise to the question: why aren’t more manufacturers directly benefitting from the research taking place in universities?

Firstly, because, an effective innovation system is anything but linear and involves much more than fundamental research, important though the latter is. An effective innovation system, one in which new knowledge diffuses through the industry to be applied to commercial ends, is a complex, non-linear and iterative process. Amongst other things, it relies on the diffusion and translation of research by individuals who can see how new technologies, techniques and processes can be applied to businesses. Technicians play a key role in that process.

This is illustrated in my latest report, Technicians and Innovation: A Literature Review 1. In it, I argue that technicians use their knowledge of science, engineering and IT, and their experience of commissioning, running and maintaining plant and production processes, to make a critical contribution to innovation. The report points to examples gathered through my own research and that of others, where technicians are integral to the deployment of new and more productive technologies and processes. For instance:

  • Technicians are involved in the installation, commissioning, maintenance and improvement of plants and facilities in the chemical industry and in industrial biotechnology.
  • In the automotive industry, technicians play a critical role in helping firms realise the potential for changes in technology and work organisation to reduce costs and improve output quality.
  • In the garment industry, machine operators who are more skilled at reading technical drawings take less time and require less supervisory assistance, when putting a new style into production.

Furthermore, the evidence presented in the report suggests that, in addition to playing a key role in putting new technologies to good use, technicians also make a direct and important contribution to the creation of the knowledge that informs both radical and incremental innovation.

For example, technicians make a direct contribution to knowledge creation by designing and building many of the instruments and experimental rigs involved in research. Researchers often do not provide the technicians with detailed technical drawings of the kind of instrument or apparatus required to bring the experimental part of the research projects to a successful conclusion. On the contrary, they often provide technicians with no more than a rough sketch of the kind of instrument or apparatus required to solve the technical problems that arise in the course of their research. A technician often then draws upon their general problem-solving skills and practical and theoretical expertise in engineering, to build the required instrument – for instance, applying their knowledge of the properties of different kinds of materials and/or understanding of what particular tools can be used to achieve. The process through which the final design of the experimental apparatus or instrument emerges is therefore perhaps best described as a dialogue or iterative process in which researchers and technicians work as a team in order to develop the instrument or experimental apparatus required to give practical effect to researchers’ ideas. Through such informal interaction with researchers, technicians make an invaluable contribution
to research.

Meanwhile, technicians’ experience of operating and maintaining machinery and manufacturing products, affords them important practical knowledge of which designs work well, and which would give rise to problems. This information enables technicians to provide advice to the scientists and engineers involved in R&D about which designs should be adopted and which will be hard to realise in practice and so should be dropped.

For example, in industries that use composite materials, technicians’ experience of how work is carried out at the workbench – and, in particular, their awareness of the difficulties that arise in realising certain kinds of design – enables them to provide valuable feedback to ostensibly better-qualified graduate engineers about how to design components in ways that make them as easy to manufacture as possible.

One high-end automotive company reported that it had greatly improved the process through which new composite components were made by having technicians in its design office who ‘have a feel for’ what composite materials can and cannot be made to do and what kinds of design can be made quickly and reliably and which cannot.

An organisation involved in the maintenance, repair and overhaul of commercial aircraft described how its technicians pointed out to a chartered design engineer that the repair he had designed for an aircraft structure would not be feasible because, in practice, the pipes and wiring looms on the aircraft precluded the kind of access needed to effect it.

In the UK, the critical role played by technicians all too often goes unrecognised, obscured by a commitment on the part of policy makers to a linear view of innovation that over emphasises fundamental research and development and so neglects other important influences on innovation particularly those stemming from technicians.

Training the technicians of tomorrow

There is no doubt that, for a technical education revolution to be a success, more needs to be done to recruit and train aspiring technicians. We all know how much of a challenge it has been, to date, to recruit young people into the manufacturing industry. Ensuring that more young people are aware of technician roles and understand that a technician career can provide opportunities to be at the forefront of innovation would surely make these roles more attractive.

But it is not enough to just recruit more technicians – we must also improve the quality of technical training so that firms are provided with the right quantity and blend of practical and theoretical knowledge to harness and exploit new technologies. This could result in a step-change in innovation and drive the UK’s productivity to the same levels as our international competitors.

The employers that I have talked to in the course of my research recognise the importance of technicians to their success. This message seems to be getting through to government and there are a number of important initiatives, such as ‘Institutes of Technology’ and a renewed focus on Higher Technical Education – that could make a real difference to the supply and quality of technicians and technical training.

We also need to ensure that the funding of technical education incentivises colleges and other providers to offer high-quality training courses for technicians. If technicians are going to be able to play a role in innovation, then technical training has to change so that technicians consistently go on to develop the broad occupational competence and underpinning knowledge that allows them to go beyond current practice.

This could, in part, be facilitated with better use of centres of innovation, such as the Catapults Centre, which work at the forefront of technology development in the training of technicians. Catapult could make a significant contribution to training for innovation by working with training providers to ensure they understand the skills required to make good use of emerging technologies and enabling access to training on the latest equipment and facilities.

Such an approach could help solve a problem that besets many of the businesses at the forefront of emerging industries. Those organisations are often small, pre-occupied with the immediate demands of running and developing their business, and lack the HR personnel needed to tackle the labyrinth of requirements to execute apprentice and technician skill development programmes.

Centres of innovation working with further education providers could ensure that small and medium-sized businesses, as well as the large and high-flying, have timely access to relevant training, allowing them to successfully introduce new technologies to their businesses. This would enable the UK’s innovation system to transition away from what Andy Haldane, Chief Economist of the Bank of England, has described as a “hub with no spokes” (i.e., lots of underlying research hubs with insufficient means (spokes) of disseminating novel knowledge, technologies and training to the lengthening tail of businesses in a way that boosts their productivity). Instead, we would have a mechanism to create a functional innovation system, that sees knowledge regarding the latest innovations disseminated more widely in a way that benefits business on a national scale.

In addition to these measures, I believe we need a change in perception and attitude towards technicians and the role that they play in innovation. The Gatsby Foundation’s ‘Technicians Make it Happen’(TMiH) campaign showcases technicians and the differences that they make. I hope that, if you employ technicians, you will agree that technicians make invaluable contributions to the success of your business through innovation. If that is the case, do consider contacting the TMiH team to champion the role of technicians in your organisation and beyond. With a collaborative approach, a revolution in technical education and training is achievable.

For more information, please contact Lauren Golding,Technicians Make it Happen and Gatsby Foundation, [email protected].

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