Whether it’s tackling climate change or helping to ‘level up’ deprived communities, maintenance engineering underpins efforts to make the world a better place

Let’s start with the importance of manufacturing to the UK economy. Make UK, the manufacturing employers’ organisation, says that productivity in manufacturing has outpaced the rest of the economy almost two-fold since the 1980s.

British manufacturing contributes £191 billion to the UK’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), employs 2.7 million people and pays starting wages that are 13% higher than the national average, says Make UK.

The government’s ‘Levelling Up’ agenda depends on boosting productivity and growing the manufacturing sector to create more jobs and higher wages. Make UK says the strategy puts manufacturing centre stage in measures to improve society at large.

Levelling up is just one of the many challenges facing society but, as the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) points out in its report Engineering priorities for our future economy and society, engineers are well placed to play a leading role in tackling these challenges.

At stake, says the report, is the UK’s “prosperity, security and wellbeing”. But it adds: “Engineers have the skills, insights and ingenuity to help tackle many of these challenges in ways that optimise efficiency, economy, safety and reliability.

“As engineers, we are problem-solvers and innovators, with a unique perspective on the world. From increasing productivity and renewing our infrastructure, to the skills gap and the threat of climate change, these challenges rightly lie at the heart of the UK’s Industrial Strategy.”

The UK has 450,000 engineers, according to the Royal Academy of Engineering, the umbrella body which brings together 39 different engineering organisations. The Academy, which co-authored the report with the IMechE, points to the critical role of engineers in achieving net zero.

Engineering and green energy
Ian Clarke, CEO of consultants Velocumen, who advises manufacturers on future technology, says achieving net zero by reducing energy use and switching to green energy sources is a key area in which engineers can influence change.

“We live at a really exciting time for engineering,” he says. “One of the big drivers for industry for the next five years will be energy. A lot of companies will be pivoting from caring about productivity to caring about energy.”

But just switching to “green” electricity may not get you to net zero, says Richard Jeffers, Managing Director of RS Industria at RS Group. “If you think that’s solved the net zero problem you could still be chucking loads of electricity away by inefficient operations,” he says.

“Maintenance engineers are doing a lot of this stuff anyway,” he adds. “They are already focused on energy consumption because increased energy consumption is almost always related to some sort of maintenance issue.

“If you’ve got an electric motor on a steady load and the current consumption goes up, that’s because there’s either an electrical or mechanical fault on that system. So tracking the electricity consumption of any asset will not only help manage your utility costs, but it is also a very effective leading indicator of failure.”

The belief that, just by doing effective maintenance engineering, you can make a major contribution to the challenges facing society, is one shared by Dr Moray Kidd, Maintenance Engineering Academic.

Putting a value on maintenance
“Maintenance engineering has historically had a bit of an image problem,” he says. “It’s rarely taught in higher education at undergraduate or postgraduate level and this leads to some confusion about the discipline. In many cases it’s not seen as a career choice or a role that requires innovative thinking, and that’s not the case.

"In terms of the environment and sustainability there are a lot of exciting opportunities, especially with Industry 4.0 and the application of machine learning to process data."Dr Moray Kidd, Maintenance Engineering Academic

“You’re often involved in the design of new assets and you’re responsible for maintaining complex technologies. In terms of the environment and sustainability, there are a lot of exciting opportunities, especially with Industry 4.0 and the application of machine learning to process data.”

Switching from preventative to condition-based maintenance – using digital monitoring to understand how an asset performs in real time – can play a big role in making manufacturing more sustainable, Dr Kidd says. “Changing components just because the schedule says so is wasteful from a sustainability perspective,” he says.

RS’s Richard Jeffers says the profession needs to do more to make the public aware of its contribution to society. “My mother doesn’t like it when I describe myself as a maintenance engineer because she says people will think I’m a mechanic,” he says.

People don’t understand what a maintenance engineer actually does, he adds. But without maintenance engineers on hand, food production would falter, transport systems would break down and much of modern life would grind to a halt.

“I think the maintenance engineering community, to an extent, deserves the perception of society that we’re the grubby end of the world because we as a profession talk about ourselves in that way.

“Maintenance engineers are not good at talking the language of business and as a result they become seen as a cost centre rather than a value centre,” says Jeffers. He offers an example of how to change focus onto the value of the job.

“An industrial steam boiler consumes its own capital cost in gas every year – and that was before this year’s price increases,” he adds. “So probably it now consumes twice its capital value in gas annually.

“Actually the cost of maintenance is a fraction of the cost of the gas. So don’t talk about having an extra 20 grand’s worth of maintenance spend – talk about reducing your gas consumption by 3%. And then suddenly, it’s an easy conversation.”

It's therefore vital to convince the public about the value of maintenance engineering to society. Awards, like the Society of Operations Engineers’ Sir Moir Lockhead Safety Award for outstanding work in improving maintenance engineering safety, already help that process.

The Royal Academy of Engineering has a programme dedicated to working with teachers of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) to raise the profile of engineering and attract the next generation into the profession.

Clearly, all the professional bodies are doing their bit to raise the standing of the profession. But what can you do personally? Well, maybe you could follow Richard Jeffers’ example and start by convincing your mum of the value of what you do!