To develop competitive advantages businesses need graduates with engineering skills and entrepreneurship capabilities in order to continuously improve and remain competitive, writes Colman Ledwith

There are many definitions of entrepreneurship, however, it generally refers to the capacity to recognise and pursue opportunities. This can be purely for commercial gain and the pursuit of profit or can be to enhance social or cultural wellbeing.

Entrepreneurship is sometimes considered in conjunction with the terms creativity and innovation. Creativity is the ability to generate new ideas and innovation the ability to implement those ideas. There are no restrictions on the activities that entrepreneurship can be applied.

Engineers and entrepreneurs (as well as intrapreneurs) recognise the need for change and identify the means by which to implement that change.

Engineers use mathematics and technological tools to develop solutions. They tend to tread carefully, utilising well-used analytical methods to design and construct. Engineering is ultimately about solving problems.

Entrepreneurs are less cautious. They tend to act on instinct and use creative logic to pursue a solution. They see problems as opportunities.

The commonality between engineering and entrepreneurship is the ability to take action.

There are many serious problems in the world today, for example, poverty, housing shortage, plastic particles in rivers and oceans, to name a few. Long-term sustainable solutions to these problems have yet to be discovered but it does not prevent engineers and entrepreneurs working in unison.

Changing worlds – why entrepreneurship?

Students of engineering today face a very different world than that faced by their equivalent 50 years ago. The slide rule and ink pen have been replaced by sophisticated computer packages such as 3D modelling and finite element analysis.

The world of work is also changing in many ways with the enhancement of technological systems. Assembly lines once populated with human endeavour are being replaced by machines capable of performing many of the back-breaking and difficult jobs.

The outcome is that many industrialised jobs are under threat with these advances. Robots and automated systems are displacing many traditional jobs. Should this be of concern?
During his professional career, the former world chess champion Gary Kasparov played many chess games against computers.

In his book ‘Deep Thinking’ he questions the negative impact of technological progress when jobs are lost or displaced, he states: “People whose jobs are on the chopping block of automation are afraid that the current wave of technology will impoverish them but they also depend on the next wave of technology to create sustainable new jobs.”

What of the next wave of technology? One example is driverless cars which are at the latter stages of development. However, as creative thinking continues, the technology cannot be far off when the driverless cars are used to collect groceries from the supermarket, or for taxis controlled by sensor technology.

The technology of today, such as smart phones, Skype, passive heating and renewable forms of energy have greatly enhanced living conditions. The world is changing. There are many major problems occurring in industry and society.

Each problem can be viewed as an opportunity and a challenge where fresh and creative thoughts can be allowed to flourish in order to advance new and innovative responses.

Creating a culture of entrepreneurship

There is a need to enhance the level of indigenous activity and ensure that industry is constantly innovating and updating its products, services and support processes.
Entrepreneurship plays a key role in driving the pace of innovation.

The Irish economy needs to keep pace with developments if it is to remain competitive. Industry needs to embrace entrepreneurship and enhance a culture of creativity and innovation.

This will improve the ability to develop new products and services as well as creating roadmaps for future offerings to the market. However, it is necessary that employees have the necessary training as well as the tools and techniques to advance a creative and innovative culture.

Where necessary, businesses can collaborate with outside practitioners to ensure that the required knowledge and capabilities are readily available.

Financial supports have to be engaged to support change. Businesses should systematically budget for innovation services as easily as they do for marketing or financial services. A good starting point, for example, could be a percentage of annual revenue (or profit).

The 2017 Global Innovation 1000, shows that the top 1,000 largest companies around the world are spending approximately five per cent of revenue (roughly $15 trillion) on research and development. The figure rises to 10.7 per cent for the top 10 companies.

Embracing a spirit of creativity and innovation will ensure that the economy remains competitive in international markets.

Entrepreneurship and education

The third-level education sector is vital in supporting a growing and vibrant economy by ensuring that graduates have the skills and knowledge necessary to meet the challenges of the modern working environment.

Future engineers need to be equipped with tools and techniques to allow entrepreneurial thinking to flourish. This places an onus on the educators to embed entrepreneurship-type training in engineering modules and programmes.

The Dundalk Institute of Technology recognized this need and in 2011 they introduced a Bachelor of Science degree in Engineering Entrepreneurship as an add on level 8 programme. The objective from the outset was to enhance the creative and innovative ability of the learner and to foster understanding of the need for an entrepreneurial culture.

The programme utilises a multidisciplinary team combining resources from the School of Engineering, the School of Business and Humanities and the Regional Development Centre (RDC). The RDC acts as the interface between the academic activities of the Institute and the industrial life of the region.

The aim of the programme is to produce graduates who are not only competent in the core technical skills but also have a mindset capable of recognising and pursuing business opportunities. The programme places entrepreneurship as its core theme and each module subscribes to the theme.

The new venture development module is central to the programme. Students start with an idea for a new product or service and throughout the one year of the programme learn to develop the technical, financial, marketing and legal aspects of the idea.

Supporting the new venture development module are the following modules:

• Creativity and innovation;
• Enterprise and operations;
• Project engineering;
• Sales and marketing;
• Project management;
• Infrastructure development;
• Entrepreneurship and innovation for sustainability;
• New venture finance;
• Legal intellectual property and commercialisation.

In addition, students have a choice of two discipline specific electives. As a result the programme allows engineering and entrepreneurship to successfully co-exist.

The programme structure is designed to replicate, as far as possible, the development process experienced in a commercial environment. Students can connect with every aspect of the design and development process.

One student’s experience

The experience of one graduate, Mark Travers who completed the programme in 2016, highlights the potential of the programme. He first graduated from the institute in 1996 with a level 7 qualification in mechanical engineering. His subsequent career involved the use and management of scaffold systems in North America and Europe.

During this time he came to recognise shortcomings with existing systems and decided to develop an idea for a system which offered greater efficiency as well as increased safety for the operator.

With this in mind Mark returned to full-time education and enrolled on the engineering entrepreneurship programme with the objective of gaining a level 8 honours degree and at the same time developing his idea.

During the year on the programme he designed, tested and developed his scaffold system which he called the T-Section. He conducted significant market validation of his idea and submitted a patent application of his design.

The combined efforts of the staff on the programme provided Mark with the support necessary to move his work beyond an academic exercise and towards commercial reality. On completion of the programme, Mark manufactured the scaffold system. He demonstrates the ease of use and benefits of the system on a YouTube video.

Final word

In order to develop competitive advantages businesses need graduates with both core engineering skills as well as entrepreneurship capabilities in order to continuously improve and remain competitive.

Combining engineering and entrepreneurship in both education and industry is the logical conclusion.

Author: Colman Ledwith, head of Department of Electronic and Mechanical Engineering, School of Engineering, Dundalk Institute of Technology. Email: O'RiordanMechDundalk IT,education,research
There are many definitions of entrepreneurship, however, it generally refers to the capacity to recognise and pursue opportunities. This can be purely for commercial gain and the pursuit of profit or can be to enhance social or cultural wellbeing. Entrepreneurship is sometimes considered in conjunction with the terms creativity and...