Patrick Kniveton, IMechE president, on the rise of ‘multi-careers’ in engineering and how he sees the profession developing. He also argues that engineers must be more forthright, more political – and less modest


Author: Patrick Kniveton FIMechE, president of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and head of engineering improvement, Rolls-Royce

What is the future for mechanical engineers? Why are engineers so important? How do they contribute to the world in which we live? Are they inventors or innovators?

Engineers have been around since the dawn of mankind. They have, in one form or another, helped to advance civilisations by inventing the tools and processes that make our lives easier and more secure. They are also the perfect example of innovators, taking ideas and continually refining and improving them.

In 76AD, Greek scientist Hero of Alexandria developed the first rudimentary steam turbine. This aeolipile used a chamber heated by fire to displace steam from a vessel which made it rotate. What would have happened to the world in which we live today if the Romans had recognised and harnessed this power?

Where would technology be today if the Romans had used steam power in the same way as Watt or Stephenson? Would electricity have been discovered and utilised centuries sooner? Would we be 1,700 years more advanced than today?

What this demonstrates is that an engineer’s understanding of a technology is essential for the safety and well-being of people and the advancement of a society. However, engineers also need to be innovators and have the vision and foresight to see something and say, ‘Can I make this better?’


As an engineer, I have always expected to challenge, to question, and to find better ways of doing things. I grit my teeth when I hear phrases like ‘the science is settled.’ That should be heresy to our profession, and not the way we should think. Man’s progress would stall if we all thought that way.

Engineers should look forward; find the next step, the new idea, and the next innovation. It was this forward vision that our own founding president, George Stephenson, proposed in 1847 with the establishment of the Institution.

“To enable Mechanics and Engineers engaged in the different Manufactories, Railways and other Establishments in the Kingdom, to meet and correspond, and by a mutual interchange of ideas respecting improvements in the various branches of Mechanical Science to increase their knowledge, and give an impulse to inventions likely to be useful to the world.”

Stephenson was not an academic and would not have met our standard requirements for a registered professional title. However, he had engineering ability (in his presidential address, he described how he redesigned a steam pumping engine to enable it to drain a mineshaft) and he had vision.

He drove the creation of the network of railways that led to the economic growth of the UK, and then took the idea around the world. He was a multi-disciplinary engineer: earthworks, surveying, civil, mechanical, structural, thermal, signalling and operations management. He would probably have included electrical engineering if it had been invented.

It is essential that all engineers embrace the family of engineering, from designer to technician, and across the technologies, if we are to remain relevant and influential. We are all necessary parts in the delivery, every bit as much now as they were in Stephenson’s day.

Today, engineers input to bids, they design for safety, for life, for manufacture. They have to think in terms of whole systems or down to the tiny detailed part. They work at the limits of technology, or think beyond it. They construct, test, commission, decommission and recycle. And at every stage of this, they have to live within constraints: rules, codes and processes, some of which exist, and some of which they discover and have to define.

You get the very best from engineers when they are given the ‘impossible’ challenge. To remove 2% from cost or improve a speed by 2% often is challenging. But engineers are excited when faced with doing something 30% better, as it often has to take an entirely new approach.

We must also ensure that we match the breadth of engineering in the 21st century. A mechanical engineer practising today will be expected to have knowledge of systems engineering, failure mode and effects analysis, manufacturing engineering, control theory and control systems, operations management, electrical machinery and drives, operations management and renewable power, to name just a few.


George Stephenson, first iMedchE president

The great value of engineers is their numeracy and adaptability. Today, more engineers have ‘portfolio careers’. My own career has, so far, been in observatory telescopes, air conditioning plant, nuclear power, instrumentation, electronic traffic signs, infrastructure planning and design, engineering improvements, business management and engineering sales.

Over the years, all my career choices have required mechanical engineering, electrical engineering and practical skills, along with common sense. But it is this multi-disciplined portfolio that has allowed me to experience a multi-career – one where I can change company and start to learn about an entirely new sector and perspective, be it looking towards the sky or deep under the ocean.

As a proud chartered engineer, I have been able to use my general toolbox of knowledge and skills and apply it across many different and exciting sectors.

My current position is head of engineering improvement at Rolls-Royce. Rolls-Royce has become one of the best-known and most successful British companies in the world due to the quality of its engineers. The company realised very early on the need to maintain its engineers at the forefront of all its specialisms. As a result, Rolls-Royce has established 24 engineering skill groups.

Some are very focused, such as nuclear and hydrodynamics. Others cover a wider sphere, such as service and engineering business management. We encourage our engineers to move jobs to gain experience, within or between sectors and specialisms and in different countries around our global organisation. This helps to spread new ideas and benefits from new technologies.

Rolls-Royce needs many different specialist engineers: blade cooling specialists, composite materials specialists, factory systems designers, aerothermal engineers, installations designers, pipe stress analysts, reactor physicists, safety case engineers to name a few. However, these specialists are not produced by universities, nor would we expect them to be developed by an academic institution.

What companies require is the universities or colleges to give students a thorough grounding in all the basic engineering skills in fluid dynamics, thermodynamics, how to design structures, what materials to use and why, how electric motors work, the different types and their characteristics. Once recruited, many large engineering companies will have a range of internal courses or training programmes to develop the specialist knowledge required.

Aside from the academic knowledge and technical skills of any candidate Rolls-Royce are looking to recruit, the company also spends just as much time assessing their behaviour. Assessors will look for characteristics that demonstrate leadership or innovative thinking or strategic awareness. This is the way we find the innovators and team players who are able to develop our world-leading technology.


But what sort of people are engineers, and are we doing enough to describe our achievements? I asked some of our engineers to give three words that describe engineers to them. We asked young and old, male and female, experienced and new to the profession, office-based and site-based, and these are some of the words that we found:

•          Logical, open-minded, patient

•          Imagine, think, make

•          Creative, analytical, diligent

•          Resourceful, rational, thorough

•          Knowledgeable, conscientious, approachable

•          Imagination, integrity, fun

For me, I would summarise that engineers have three characteristics that make them so valuable:

They create. Everything that is built around us is created by engineers.

They are highly professional. Dedicated, determined, skilled, continuously developing, and working in an environment of uncertainty, identifying trends, patterns, solutions, leading teams and communicating.

They are mostly very modest. When you walk through an engineering office, look around and appreciate the sheer creative and analytical power that is being quietly applied.

As Sir George Edwards, one of Britain’s best aircraft designers, once reminisced: A passenger commented on an early Concorde flight: “Mach 2 travel feels no different.” “Yes”, Sir George replied, “that was the difficult bit.” This quotation by Edwards, who led the design team for the joint Anglo/French Concorde project, demonstrated all three attributes: creativity, professionalism and modesty (imagine all the engineering challenges behind his answer!).

And yet, this is one of the reasons why the profession may be failing to attract more people into engineering. We need to demonstrate the pride in our achievements and be more vocal as a profession, both individually and collectively.


As a President of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, I have a privileged position to lead our organisation for 12 short months. With this in mind, I have three objectives for my year:

1. The Institution and engineers need to be forthright, and political. Engineering is fundamental to the quality of life and prosperity of future generations. The role of engineers has helped our society develop for thousands of years. By the Industrial Revolution, the innovation and invention of engineers took pride of place in society.

I believe we have become too modest and this needs to change. With 100,000 individual voices, the Institution can do a lot more if we are all prepared to shout the values of engineering. Added to the co-ordinated voices of other professional institutions and, more importantly, our partner companies, we should be sending the outside world a clear message that engineering and manufacturing are the cornerstones of a successful and profitable nation.

2. We need to seize the initiative. Since the global financial crash of 2008, all the political parties have finally recognised that engineering generates real wealth. Engineers will be central to the regeneration of our infrastructure. The Institution’s own reports and policy statements have already generated worldwide attention, whether they are policies on food waste, geo-engineering or liquid air storage. Now we should focus on regeneration of this infrastructure.

3. We must support SMEs to become large, internationally competitive employers of the future – can this be a new form of our technical organisations?

The 2012 Hugh Ford Management Lecture showed the development of Rotork, Renishaw and Spirax Sarco, from new businesses into growth businesses in the SME range, and how they became powerful international companies, delivering strong growth. But they took ten years during start-up before they shifted up a gear to double in size. This second phase, when they were all still small businesses, lasted a further ten years. It was only after this time that they accelerated into medium businesses.

Repeated studies have shown that there are key conditions to enable SMEs to grow strongly, and if these are not present, they will not break out of this small company stage.

They are:

1. SMEs need the right technically qualified people with project management skills.

2. SMEs need development programmes for all their people, including management – this includes training and technical development.

3. SMEs need to be able to recognise and proactively engage in identifying opportunities.

4. SMEs need to be aware of, and then use, industry and technology developments.

5. SMEs need to have vision.

6. SMEs need to know about new processes and design and manufacturing methods.

The Institution has over 100,000 members with so many different ideas and from so many different industries, academic establishments and opportunities to network. How would it be if instead of just disseminating knowledge in the traditional way (lectures and seminars), we could seed and lead the development of new engineering business ventures?


‘Engineer’ has been used by many companies and local tradesmen for roles that by our definition may be classed otherwise

Over my many years of being an engineer, particular topics continue to re-appear again and again. These often-emotive subjects seem close to many members’ hearts and it generates a lot of debate and letter writing to magazines and journals. One such subject is the widespread and common use of the term ‘engineer.’

‘Engineer’ has been used by many companies and local tradesmen for roles that by our definition may be classed otherwise. However, this is unlikely to change. The use of the word is now so ingrained into common parlance that any change, even via legislation, would take years to occur and would be practically unenforceable.

In addition, even if the subject gained any interest from Government, the subject is evenly split down our own engineering community. Some very large companies already use the term ‘engineer’ in its broadest sense and would be very unwilling to implement a change that would serve only to be a demotivating action to their own employees.

However, although the term ‘engineer’ cannot be easily changed in common language, the community does recognise Engineering Technician, Incorporated Engineer and Chartered Engineer. These are protected by law. These titles cannot be appropriated by unqualified people. Action can be taken against people misusing it, and this does happen.

Therefore my proposal is that we should refer to ourselves by our full professional registration title, at every opportunity. This is a route that the accounting and surveying communities have adopted for many years with great success – you are more likely to hear these communities refer to themselves as Chartered Surveyors or Chartered Accountants.

As engineers, we constantly talk about wanting to improve our status. I argue we already have that status, but we are too modest to tell anyone. So how should we overcome that modesty? Should we call for licensing? Who should get us that status?

I believe it is simpler than that. Every one of us has a story about what we have created from ideas. We should tell these stories and not wait to be asked, but make sure it is relevant to the people you are talking to, whether it is on a train, at a party, or in a meeting. Ensure you tell them you are a professional engineer. Say this every time you have an opportunity. Engineers are real people. We have icons people can name: Stephenson, Brunel and Watt for example. But has technology seriously stood still since the 1850s?

Some argue that engineers work in teams today and so there are no famous engineers. I would argue that this is no truer today than it was in Stephenson’s day. Stephenson achieved what he did through many people in the family of engineering.If we examine the 20th century, we find Whittle, Royce and Gresley as perfect examples. So why don’t we celebrate scientists and engineers who are shaping our lives today?

In the 21st century, engineers and scientists continue to create new products and inventions, such as Dr Kenneth Matsumura and the artificial liver (2001), Elon Musk and his work on SpaceX (2002) and Tesla (2003), Dr Anthony Atala who developed tissue engineering and printable organs (2004), Sir Jonathan Ive and the iPhone (2007), or ProfAllan Paull and scramjets (2007).

We should celebrate today’s engineers and understand that we are a whole family of types of engineering people, who all are necessary to deliver the quality of life and improvements that we enjoy. How we are seen by the rest of society is in the hands of all of us. As the anonymous saying goes (though supposedly found pinned to a site hut during the construction of the Konkan railway), ‘I am an engineer. I serve mankind by making dreams come true‘. Am I proud to be a chartered engineer? Most definitely.

This article is an excerpt from Patrick Kniveton’s presidential address in 22 Clyde Road on Friday, 7 March 2014. O'RiordanMechEngineers Ireland,innovation,manufacturing,United Kingdom
  Author: Patrick Kniveton FIMechE, president of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and head of engineering improvement, Rolls-Royce What is the future for mechanical engineers? Why are engineers so important? How do they contribute to the world in which we live? Are they inventors or innovators? Engineers have been around since the...