Mechanical engineering and the demise of manufacturing
18 April 2013
The development of Ireland’s wind-energy resources has long been a source of controversy. While the media debate rages on about the amount of energy that can be generated and associated noise pollution from turbines, the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) has queried the number of jobs that large-scale development of Ireland’s wind-energy sector could create.
With its wild, rugged coasts and expanses of rural, under-developed land, Ireland may seem an obvious location for so-called ‘wind farms’. But concerns have been raised about the country’s capacity to manufacture turbines on a large scale and reap the benefit of associated mechanical manufacturing jobs. In a recent article in The Irish Times, ESRI researcher Prof John FitzGerald said that the manufacture of turbines would most likely take place in China or Germany, rather than in this country.
“…We don’t do mechanical engineering [in Ireland],” he stated. “Insofar as there would be jobs [in wind energy], it would be in IT software and control systems that we might develop. There would be jobs in maintaining it – a smaller number of jobs which still no one will sneer at – but jobs in building the things are much less likely.”
So, does Ireland ‘do’ mechanical engineering? Has the sector stagnated in this country and if so, what does the future hold for those who have graduated with mechanical engineering degrees?
“Ireland has not traditionally been a centre for mechanical engineering, which is what we’re talking about in the case of turbine manufacturing,” said Prof FitzGerald. “Now the market has decided on our behalf, so to speak, that it won’t be carried out on a large scale in future. I think it’s too late for us to move into that space in a big way.”
Ireland has never had true motor vehicle manufacturing, he continued. “We had some presence in the mechanical manufacturing sector, such as Packard Electric in Tallaght, but our car-manufacturing industry effectively disappeared after it withdrew from Ireland. There was also the Ford facility in Cork, but it was mostly assembly. We have excellent indigenous companies in Ireland in the mechanical engineering field, but there are no major tool-makers; no large-scale employers such as aircraft or automobile manufacturers. Large-scale employers can really help to drive an industry and we don’t have that.”
Prof FitzGerald believes that when Ireland won independence from the UK in 1922, this had a significant effect on manufacturing that often goes unmentioned.
“Protectionist policies meant that the UK wanted its manufacturing done at home; the avenues closed off in terms of Ireland supplying the UK market. It was a case of ‘ourselves, alone’. Industries such as shipbuilding and car manufacturing in Ireland suffered as a result.”
He added that if Ireland had joined the European Economic Community sooner, the country might have been able to develop stronger links with mechanical manufacturing companies on the continent. “As it turned out, we joined too late [in 1973] for our manufacturing industry to take advantage of European connections.”
Prof FitzGerald added that Ireland is right to focus on alternative areas in engineering such as software and pharmaceuticals. “I think our opportunity has passed in terms of becoming a mechanical manufacturing powerhouse – countries like Slovokia, Hungary and China have cornered that market. If a company needed 20,000 machine tools to be manufactured tomorrow, for example, we probably wouldn’t be able to meet that order.
“In terms of windmill assembly, it would likely be cheaper to import the component parts and assemble them here. I don’t know if we’d have the capacity to manufacture huge numbers of heavy components, such as towers. In terms of job creation, however, we could focus on different aspects of windmill production where we’re already strong – for example, software components to manage the operations of the windmills. Our competitive advantage lies in areas such as high-end IT equipment, computer services and financial services now.
“In the mechanical manufacturing field, it’s not enough to supply your home market anymore – it’s the world market, or bust,” Prof FitzGerald concluded.
Dr Basil Regan is the senior research and development engineer with C&F Green Energy. It is part of the C&F Group, which was first established in 1989 in Galway and now employs over 1,800 people in eight sites worldwide.
“The proof of our engineering capabilities can be seen from our customer list, which includes IBM, EMC, BMW, Mercedes, Ford and VW – all of which have awarded us multiple global contracts,” said Regan.
The company manufactures wind turbines from 6kW to 100kW and specialises in small-scale turbines, although it is developing 300kW machines. It is the first company in the world to successfully miniaturise megawatt wind technology. This meant that C&F Green Energy needed to undertake considerable mechanical design work – it had to develop brand-new designs in house for aspects such as braking systems and generators. “It’s harder to control braking in a smaller turbine because they move more quickly than larger types, for example,” explained Dr Regan.
He reckoned that turbine manufacturing could easily be done on this island and would be more cost-effective than importing component parts. “It’s a matter of scaling up the technology – it’s not harder to produce a larger turbine than a smaller one. It might even be argued that it’s easier because the technology is already out there – it wouldn’t be necessary to produce new designs like we had to do for smaller turbines. For instance, we weren’t happy with the blades that were being supplied to us, so we now make them ourselves.
“Nearly all of our suppliers are local, too – the capacity is already there. We’ve no issues with transportation of heavy components such as towers. However, I think the best solution to large-scale turbine production in Ireland would be for a major international company such as Vestas to set up Ireland. We could make turbines in an Irish facility under licence. Then there would also be spin-off companies from that facility and even potential competitors.”
However, Dr Regan acknowledged that there were issues with mechanical engineering in Ireland. “Prof FitzGerald is right when he says there’s a lack of opportunities for mechanical engineers in general, especially in heavy engineering. Four or five years after graduation, people can lose their knowledge of pure mechanical engineering theory. Most wouldn’t be able to calculate the load of a shaft – they’re great when it comes to computer-aided design, which is a great skill, but poor on calculation.”
Dr Regan said that there was no clear, defined path of career progression in Ireland for mechanical engineers. “Engineers make a beeline for management or project management and move from ‘hardcore’ mech work – they slot into different roles. Here in Galway, they typically manoeuvre into companies like Boston Scientific or Medtronic, or into stent production.
“There seems to be the perception – and it’s probably true – that staying at the mechanical or technical side of the business means staying at the bottom rung of the ladder. From my dealings with German companies, for example, mechanical engineers seem to have a much higher standing. That’s probably because they have more opportunities within the pure mechanical field.
“I’ve heard mechanical engineer CEOs say that marketing is an asset, but engineering is a cost – something to be outsourced as cheaply as possible to somewhere like China. In Ireland, some mechanical engineers at the top may have gone on to do MBAs and perhaps lose their understanding of the value of groundwork.”
William Egenton, managing director of Dromone Engineering, an Irish company that develops hitching technology excavator attachments for the agricultural and construction markets, has previously stated to EngineersJournal.ie that the company has had to look abroad when hiring engineers.
“I don’t know if it’s because we’re a rural business, but we need to keep third-level standards up and feed through students from secondary school. Dromone has market opportunities that could grow our sales to as much as €20 million by 2014, but we need to recruit staff with the requisite skills to meet this target. It’s difficult to find Irish engineering professionals with the specific experience and skills we need.
“People don’t realise that it’s fun to work in this industry – but we’ve no hotshots like Mark Zuckerberg representing us,” said Egenton. “What young people don’t realise is that within 18 months of joining a company like Dromone, they’d be attending international trade shows and representing the company – and utilising their skills –in countries like America, China and France.
Egenton said that there were opportunities in indigenous companies that mechanical engineers would not be afforded if they worked for large-scale multinationals. Irish companies like Combilift in Monaghan, Dairymaster in Kerry, McHale’s in Mayo and Keenan’s in Carlow offered the chance to gain experience at many different levels. “Many indigenous companies have a lot of flair and encourage this in young engineers,” he added.
According to Egenton, niche areas offer the most growth potential for Irish engineering companies. To hold its own, Ireland must focus on innovation, protecting intellectual property and developing a competitive mindset.
FUTURE FOR GRADUATES
Sean O’Leary, senior lecturer in Cork Institute of Technology’s (CIT’s) Department of Mechanical, Biomedical and Manufacturing Engineering, agreed that there were more avenues for opportunity for mechanical engineers than were available in large-scale or multinational manufacturers. “We must remember that mechanical engineers are needed in so many different industries,” he said. “Biomedical and pharmaceutical facilities need considerable numbers of mechanical engineers, to give just two examples.
“Mechanical graduates are very mobile – when mechanical engineers work in senior management, they bring excellent skillsets to any industry and a unique perspective to benefit any business,” O’Leary continued.
He said that CIT’s third-year mechanical engineering students have no problems securing 10-week placements as part of their study course. “There are plenty of opportunities out there for them, and indeed, all 30-odd students have been asked to stay on and work in their placement companies.
“There’s an old-fashioned perception that’s hard to overcome when it comes to mechanical engineering, however,” O’Leary acknowledged. “It’s still viewed by many as a ‘men-only’ profession. Only between 5% and 10% of our students in CIT are female – compared to the biomedical course, where around 50% are female. For the future of the mechanical engineering sector in Ireland, we need to get the message out there that there’s more to the sector than just factory work – there are so many more opportunities than people – and potential students – might think.”
He highlighted a number of examples from CIT. The winner of last year’s European Student Innovator of the Year was CIT’s Kieran O’Callaghan for his project, entitled ‘Real Time Interactive Obstacle Detection and Navigation Aid for the Visually Impaired’. Engineers Ireland Student Innovator of the Year 2012 was Martin Evans, for his design and development of an ‘advanced scrum machine’, in conjunction with Munster Rugby. Another CIT alumnus, Connor Barry, won Graduate Employee of the Year Award 2012. Barry has worked a process development engineer and quality engineer in Abbott Vascular’s Irish operations.
“None of these career paths would seem obvious for a mechanical engineer, but there are many options for graduates if they think outside the box. We need more role models for the profession, such as Louise Connolly of ESBI, who was Engineers Ireland Chartered Engineer of the Year 2011 and the first female winner of that accolade. Mechanical engineers can of course go into management, but they also have many options if they decide to stay in the field.
“Mechanical engineering is a much broader church than heavy equipment and manufacturing, so we must get the message across that it’s actually a somewhat ‘weatherproof’ profession,” O’Leary concluded.