From supersonic cars to human jet suits, the city continues to be at the forefront of innovative and ground-breaking design and is well placed to nurture the next generation of talent with two major universities and a thriving startup sector.
Yet, the drive to build inclusion and improve diversity in a field traditionally dominated by white men is proving a challenge, with one industry insider saying a “dramatic culture shift” is needed to enable underrepresented groups to thrive.
Yolanda Carillo Padilla, a lifecycle engineer for Rolls Royce and elected chairperson of the Gender Diversity Network for Bristol, says the multi-national firm she works for is ahead of the curve on striving to create a more balanced and representative workforce – something that will only benefit the sector.
“I think change itself is one of the biggest challenges,” says Yolanda, who works in the defence section at the company’s Little Stoke base and works with the US Navy to resolve any in-service issues, technical queries and safety concerns.
“There will always be people that are a negative force against progress and change, because they are too attached to their own comfort zone.
“Diversity of thought, gender, culture, race, religion, background, those are the key factors for success in the future and one of the biggest challenges within the industry is being courageous enough to create momentum for change, acting on recruitment, talent retention and development.”
The engineer believes the future of the sector is looking positive, adding: “It makes me proud to be part of a company that is brave enough to acknowledge when it’s time to change and takes action to make it happen.”
There are other significant challenges facing the sector, with Brexit posing a concern for many reliant on European supply chains and markets.
Airbus bosses have issued repeated warnings that a ‘no deal’ Brexit scenario – all too likely under Boris Johnson’s leadership – would directly threaten the company’s future in the UK.
The aerospace giant, based in Filton, is a major employer for Bristol and if it carries through on the threat to leave, the consequences could be devastating for the city and many businesses in the aerospace giant’s supply chain. Rolls Royce bosses have issued similar warnings.
Then there’s the money needed to fund innovative engineering.
Bloodhound, the Bristol-built supersonic car, has put the city on the map with its ambitious bid to break the world land speed record, but the project has faced more twists and turns than a racetrack over the years.
After skidding to a halt in December 2018, when the firm financing the project went into administration, Bloodhound is now back on track after a Yorkshire-based entrepreneur stepped in to save it.
Under the new ownership of Ian Warhurst, CEO of Grafton LSR Ltd, the freshly-assembled Bloodhound team is set to run high speed tests in South Africa in October.
The attempt on the world land speed record is the first in the digital era, with digital platforms sharing the data from hundreds of sensors in real time to allow budding engineers to see exactly how the car is behaving as it dices with physics.
To ensure engineering continues to thrive in the future, it’s essential the industry attracts new generations of talent and embraces emerging digital technologies.
Billed as the next frontier in human flight, the cutting-edge suits approach the concept of flight in a completely novel way by augmenting the human mind and body with just the right amount of technology to make humans fly.
Speaking about the evolution of engineering, Abhishek says: “Fortunately, modern times see the real cutting-edge is driven by healthy competition between businesses, rather than war.
“As cities become busier, businesses are looking to the skies to provide goods and services in new and interesting ways, from drone deliveries to flying taxis. The governments that can accept and adapt relevant regulations the quickest will capitalise on these new developments in technology first.
“With regards to civil aerospace engineering knowledge, Bristol is one of the biggest hubs in Britain thanks to its numerous established aerospace businesses, which have now sparked spin-offs and startups that can go onto explore the limits.”
Abhishek and Lewis both work with undergraduates at the university and give them the opportunity to work on short-term projects with companies such as Gravity.
While the UK has long been a leader in research, Pete Stirling, the CEO of STL Tech, argues the realisation of great concepts into valuable products and services has been poor in comparison to other nations – but this is changing.
“The emergence of suitable infrastructure and funding to transition research into commercial reality is now providing the major change,” says Pete, whose St Philip’s-based company provides engineering and technology services across various industry verticals, supporting both startups and corporates.
He continues: “More researchers than ever are now becoming entrepreneurs as they see a clear route emerging. This is supported by the growth of science incubators, such as Unit DX, where we are located, providing an ecosystem that encourages innovation.”
Pete adds that aside from political uncertainty, truly embracing digital transformation remains a major challenge for large engineering organisations, which are still largely dependent on legacy systems and processes.
He predicts that innovative engineering has the power to change the future, whether in the development of further renewable energy sources beyond wind and solar; advances in life sciences or a drastic shift in the way we travel.
Looking to the future of the industry, Dr Lisa Brodie, the head of department for engineering design and mathematics at UWE Bristol, says changes in the regional, national and international landscape will undoubtedly have a direct impact.
A charted engineer with more than 15 years’ experience in the sector, Lisa now leads her team to deliver a practice-based learning experience for students.
She says: “The sector has changed dramatically, as you would expect with a subject aligned so closely with technological change. Increasingly, the fusion between digital, physical and biological is leading to new fields of engineering and adding to the demand for new talent in these areas.
“As educators, we have a fundamental role to play addressing skills gaps, but making the profession more welcoming to everyone is incredibly challenging. There needs to be a dramatic culture shift to allow underrepresented groups to thrive and be their best.”
Lisa predicts a move towards a more a ‘socially–relevant’ curriculum, focused on delivering societal impact and topped off with a breadth of wider experience outside of traditional teaching.
The next generation of engineers
Plans to build a £100m Bristol Digital Futures Institute have been hailed a chance to transform how technologies can be applied to benefit society.
The international research centre at Bristol University’s new Temple Quarter Enterprise Campus is part of a unique collaboration between university engineers, social scientists, corporations, councils and community partners.
Black South West Network is one of the partners contributing to the project and the organisation’s director Sado Jirde says it will bring huge potential in re-imagining the role of technology and engineering to address social issues.
“Beyond communication and access to knowledge, we can also begin to imagine the role of technology in really addressing some of the social issues,” said Sado.
“How do you use that for areas like health or education? There is huge potential but the question is, technology exists separately from communities, so how do we bring those two together? Especially for marginalised communities, who over-consume technology but don’t participate in terms of producing that technology or benefitting from that technology.”
Dr John Bradford, of High Tech Bristol and Bath CIC, runs DigiLocal, an initiative that works with communities to run tech clubs for young people from the age of eight to adult to develop problem-solving and build resilience.
He says that while much of the new innovation is coming from startup companies, entrepreneurs, and young people trying out the unthinkable, university remains the standard path of entry to many careers, presenting a barrier to some talented young people.
“There is also a perception that taking on a non-graduate as a work placement, paid intern, or apprentice, is a net cost to the business,” says John.
“Changing that mindset and seeing those young people as a vital source of diversity, new thinking, and affordably skilled talent, will differentiate the successful businesses from the also-rans.
“Several firms in the region are making that transition and seeing the benefits. I’d love to work with more so that the talented young people we see every week at DigiLocal can realise their ambition to contribute to the sector in Bristol.”