Research to Retail

Opening up Engineering

Historically, engineers have suffered as a result of people's misunderstanding of what they do, i.e. dirty environments, "to do with engines", narrow, isolating.

However, as I hope my experiences have revealed, the role of an engineer can be far from that definition. I have used my computer and my telephone far more than my spanner! My career has taken me into aerodynamics, manufacturing and prior to my academic career, into the North Sea as an engineer with BP. "Narrow" has certainly not been my experience…

BP Oil Rig

In March 1994 The New Scientist (1) reported that "within 18 months a new generation of shuttlecocks with carbon fibre feathers could transform players' attitudes". This claim formed part of an article aiming to summarise the main findings from a research programme that I myself had conducted with Dunlop Slazenger from 1988-1992 and it was, of course, referring to the game of badminton. Whilst the time scale was ambitious (to say the least!) it is still not out of the question that shuttlecocks may indeed be manufactured in the future with the use of carbon fibre technology

Given the briefing that I had from the organisers on the proposed subject matter of this conference, I have decided to cover the following 3 topics:

  • An example of a research programme that promises to make a "striking difference" for the future
  • The future of manufacturing
  • Expectations for change in my discipline, engineering

I would like to address these three areas in turn.

A Striking Difference

This is easy as there will always be a "striking difference" when developing the design of shuttlecocks.

As I have already mentioned, I completed a programme of research in 1992 on the design of shuttlecocks with Dunlop (2). But why? Although technical advances usually lead to synthetic materials replacing traditional ones, this is not the case in badminton. The game of badminton (which is thought may pre-date lawn tennis) is still defined by the feather shuttlecock and, although the synthetic (a form of nylon) shuttlecock is now widely used, professional players still prefer the feather model. The aim of the research was therefore to identify what differentiated the flight of the feather shuttlecock from the synthetic one. This was of academic interest but also of commercial significance.

Academically speaking, it is possible to demonstrate the challenge of understanding the complex shape of a shuttlecock by re-writing the title of my PhD. Instead of "The Aerodynamics and Mechanics of Shuttlecocks", it could be written as "The Aerodynamics and Mechanics of an Hemispherical-nosed, Rapidly-rotating, Porous Cone". Much previous work exists for simple spheres but not for the latter shape which is highly complex in terms of aerodynamics.

But what was the commercial significance? Every year approximately 1 million tubes synthetic shuttlecocks are sold by Carlton (6 in tube) and the turnover in shuttlecocks is approaching £5 million pounds. Knowledge of the effects of shuttlecock design on flight would be able to aid the development of new synthetic shuttlecock products which behave more closely to feather ones (3) and consequently would affect these sales figures.

In fact, in 1993, again in collaboration with Dunlop Slazenger, we initiated a product development programme which took the main findings of my PhD through to production of a new synthetic shuttlecock which is now on the shelves in sports retailers. The complete story was reported at the first International conference on The Engineering of Sport at Sheffield University, 1996 (4), but can be concisely summarised by the following:

  • Drag coefficient reduction at high speed explained why players feel that synthetic shuttlecocks travel faster and further than the feather counterpart.
  • Gyroscopic effects explained why players sometimes notice a sideways drifting and "nose-diving" of feather shuttlecocks during high clears.
  • These findings were incorporated into a new design aiming to reduce the differences between the feather and synthetic shuttlecock.
  • A new state-of-the-art manufacturing facility was installed at the company, costing approximately £1 million.
  • The new products, Tournament 800 and 900, was manufactured and sales figures speak for themselves: 1995 - 111,000 dozen (800 and 900), 1996 - 338,000 dozen (both), 1997 - 348,000 dozen (both). And markets are expanding!

As far as the future is concerned of this specialised area, academic interest is ongoing. As we speak, Professor Mont Hubbard is presenting our paper on the spin dynamics of shuttlecocks at a Biomechanics Conference in the University of Tokyo (5). The commercial significance....? Suffice it to say that, although carbon fibre shuttlecocks are not impossible, this would probably require another significant investment in the manufacturing technology of synthetic shuttlecocks and it most certainly can not be achieved in 18 month time scales. Watch this space...

The Future of Manufacturing

My teaching role at the University is as Industrial Tutor on The Advanced Course in Design, Manufacture and Management, a post graduate engineering course which provides recent graduates with a year of professional training prior to their careers in manufacturing industry. The graduates visit 60-70 companies in the year and have 8-9 industrial projects. Part of my role is to establish up to 20 collaborative industrial projects each year and to supervise the graduates during them.

As a consequence I am fortunate to have a regular insight into manufacturing industry in our country. It might surprise you to hear, considering the tone of some media coverage, that the majority of companies, if not already there, are certainly approaching world class. So please do not believe all the "doom and gloom" that you may read!

To demonstrate that my patriotism and belief in our manufacturing base does not blind me to the truth, I have brought some interesting statistics.

The first set of figures is from the last government's white paper on Competitiveness published in 1996 (6).

Although our manufacturing labour productivity (i.e. output per hour worked) is less than West Germany, France, US, Japan, their lead over us has diminished sharply between 1979 and 1989 and has continued to diminish since 1989.

The second set of figures I acquired only two days ago. As part of my course's Induction module, we invited a representative of the Competitiveness Unit in the DTI to speak. We were given current statistics relating to Manufacturing Industry. So these statistics are "hot off the press" (8):

The UK's manufacturing output has been growing steadily from mid-1992 to mid-1997 and our manufacturing output per person has grown faster over the 1989-1995 than all our major competitors other than Italy. Our manufacturing labour productivity has been increasing since before 1991 apart from a short period from mid-1995 to mid-1996.

The third set is from an independent organisation called The Institute for Management Development on World Competitiveness (7) which is used by The DTI for information.

The document reports on IMD's research which examines a country's performance in 8 key areas: domestic economy, internationalisation, government, finance, infrastructure, management, technology and people. It then produces a ranking index for each country. According to this overall ranking index, the UK has reached its highest ranking for the last four years, now lying in eleventh place.

In the Budget, the Chancellor forecast manufacturing output to grow by 1.5% in 1997 and a further 0.75% in 1998. I am not privy to the information that he has but can only speculate on what the future of British Manufacturing may be. I have to say also that I am an optimist.

We need to improve our management techniques and our manufacturing technology. We need to concentrate on niche markets and high-tech industries. Hopefully in the next decade or so our world ranking for competitiveness will be much higher than eleventh, perhaps even first, and our manufacturing productivity might begin to exceed France and Germany and become the best in Europe, perhaps even giving Japan and the USA pause for thought!

The Future of Engineering

As a chartered mechanical engineer who has spent a lot of energy talking in schools about the role of the engineer, I would suggest that another conference more specifically entitled "The Public Understanding of Engineering" would greatly benefit all of us. Or indeed, as has sometimes been discussed at The Engineering Council a soap opera about engineers to help the general public understand what it is we actually do!

Historically, engineers have suffered as a result of people's misunderstanding of what they do, i.e. dirty environments, "to do with engines", narrow, isolating. However, as I hope my experiences have revealed, the role of an engineer can be far from that definition. I have used my computer and my telephone far more than my spanner! Although chartered with the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, my career has taken me into aerodynamics, manufacturing and prior to my academic career, into the North Sea as an engineer with BP. "Narrow" has certainly not been my experience. This is reflected in the Engineering Institutions ten training criteria: five of which are technical but five of which are managerial and commercial.

I may sound partisan but it disturbs me greatly that this mis-perception about what an engineer does can have long reaching effects, particularly on manufacturing industry. Relevant statistics from The Year of Engineering Success (9) with regard to training our engineers are alarming. In 1962 44% of students took a maths and/or science A-level. In 1994 this had dropped to only 17%. And although the number of entries to engineering degrees has increased by 22% in the last ten years, it has increased by 533% into mass communication studies. Each year industry needs 30,000 chartered engineers and is only provided with 15,000 and there are currently 2,500 apprenticeships waiting to be filled.

And yet the unemployment statistics for chartered engineers should encourage young people to apply. Earlier this year when the national unemployment figure was 8% and the graduate unemployment figure was 5%, the figure for chartered engineers was only 2.5%. (Source: The Times).

To speculate on what the future of engineering is, I have to try to remain an optimist. Let's hope it is that school students are given accurate advice on what an engineering career has to offer so that they can aim to ensure that British manufacturing productivity in the future will be the best in Europe.

In summary, I have endeavoured to give you an insight into the future of the design and development of shuttlecocks, British manufacturing and Engineering.

References

Cooke A.J. March 1994, The flight of the Shuttlecock, New Scientist

Cooke A.J. 1992, The Aerodynamics and Mechanics of Shuttlecocks, PhD Thesis, Cambridge

Dixon, J. & Cooke A.J., 1995, Managing Product Design: A Case Study from the Consumer Sports Industry, Product Design Seminar 1995, Teaching Company Directorate

Cooke, A.J., July 1996, Proceedings, The First International Conference on the Engineering of Sport

Hubbard, M. & Cooke A.J., August 1997, Spin Dynamics of the Badminton Shuttlecock, Biomechanics Conference, Tokyo University

Competitiveness: Creating the Enterprise Centre of Europe, ISBN 0-10-133002-2, HMSO, http://www.hmsoinfo.gov.uk/hmso/document/compet96/compet96.htm

World Competitiveness On-Line, May 1997, http://www.imd.ch/wcy/factors/overalldata.php

UK Economy Core Brief: A-7 Manufacturing Sector, May 1997, DTI

"Dull, Dirty and Underpaid?" Video, The Year of Engineering Success, April 1997