If you ask me

The skill demands of the aerospace and defence industries underscore the need to maintain a high level throughout the lifetime of a product. Also, is there an easy way to identify the likely winners for Team GB in the Olympics of the future?

Flying high - but for how long?

It will come as no great surprise that the aerospace and defence industry relies on a solid skill foundation. It is by maintaining and nurturing new talent that it has progressed and made the steps forward which have resulted in some of the technological wonders of our age, such as the Airbus A380 or the unmanned aerial vehicles that are increasingly becoming a necessity for any nation's defence and security.

Universities are seeing a steady increase in science, technology, engineering and mathematics-related subjects, which is encouraging - but why is there the fear from industry, particularly in the UK but also in the US, that higher-end manufacturing is suffering from a skills drain?

The answer perhaps lies in the engineering and technology industry's competition for its highly skilled workforce. Consultancy firms and the financial sector have long realised the benefits that a STEM degree can bring them, and have recently been very successful in enticing STEM students away from the traditional path that their degree might once have led them. Of course, not all STEM students follow this route, but when one looks at the lower numbers who, having undertaken an engineering degree, enter the profession, one sees that industry has reason to worry.

This is especially the case for the aerospace and defence industry. The typical aerospace technology lifecycle is not so much the matter of a few years, but of decades. New technologies can take up to 15 years to progress from the concept stage to product application and this underscores the importance of maintaining the right skills base throughout the lifetime of a product. Without the steady influx of skilled workers, a nation such as the UK, while reaping the benefits of the past will have nothing prepared for the future. To ignore this fact would be like failing to mend the roof while the sun is shining.

Obviously, it is a global marketplace, and no one nation or industry should have a monopoly on the brainpower available. However, it is still necessary to attract the talent in order to maintain a progressive and competitive industry.

Phil Willis MP, who chairs the House of Commons Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee, addressed this issue on his visit to International Youth Day at this year's Farnborough International Airshow. During his tour of the show, I introduced him to youth groups from both the US and the UK. After these brief encounters Mr Willis lamented the nation's general lack of enthusiasm for innovation and engineering while praising the abundance of it present in the US representatives.

These are not just UK issues, nor are they peculiar to the aerospace and defence industry - rather they are challenges that traditional manufacturing nations must prepare to face in the rise of the manufacturing behemoths of China and India. It is time that we began to ask ourselves what has caused this lagging interest and what we can do to reverse it.

Samuel Jones, Society of British Aerospace Companies

A nod to the sports scientists

Team GB has landed back in the UK, and a nation is grateful for its efforts - if not a little confused.

Surely, we have become accustomed to thinking, the British have never been so unfit and obese? Surely, while your typical Olympic rower is burning around 10,000 calories a day in training, the youths of Britain are busy consuming around 10,000 calories of fast food and sugary soft drinks? (Just kidding - it's a paltry 5,000 calories.)

But. not so. Some much-needed glister has been delivered to this athletically-sceptical host-elect. Obviously, the ribboned accolades are rightfully slung round the necks of the athletes. But what made the class of 2008 stand out?

Has the implementation of technology played its part in the selection and training of our team that has vacuumed up gold medals with the efficiency of a Dyson? Absolutely.

In January, we reported a partnership between British sport and BAE Systems to help British athletes in their quest for medals leading up to 2012. The company is providing expertise in structural and mechanical engineering, aerodynamics, hydrodynamics, mathematical modelling and simulation to some of Britain's major medal-winning hopes.

This is effectively an acceleration of the expertise BAE Systems has already provided to our podium-topping Olympic heroes.

Additionally, Team GB has also been using a new material - developed by kit-maker Adidas - that gives extra elastic power to athletes' muscles. The material, known as TechFit PowerWeb, uses thermoplastic urethane - a type of polymer - which provides support to key muscle groups.

Bands of the material are fitted inside special shorts and tops worn by the competitors, and act like springs to help the contraction and expansion of muscles. The material could improve explosive power and give faster sprint times.

But is this cheating? The same Adidas materials would have been available to other teams also sponsored by the brand. Additionally, much of the technical expertise engineers are providing is primarily helpful for the identification of up-and-coming talent and honing skills and fitness on the training circuit rather than during competitive events.

A more controversial move across the competing nations could be the use of genomics. This is the mapping of an individual's DNA. It is being developed by scientists to identify inherited diseases, but it could be used to identify the next Michael Phelps or Chris Hoy.

Currently, such techniques are too expensive (about £150,000 per person), but the US government has awarded $56m (£24m) to companies and universities actively looking to lower the cost to under £500.

Therefore, if you think your child is a potential medal-winning athlete, a simple blood test is all that would be required to see if little Johnny has the stuff that champions are made of.

All this sounds to me like a frightening, 'Gattica'-style dystopia considering the prestige bestowed on the nations that excel in the medals rankings and the pressures that some sports leaders are put under to deliver the gold medals that sports fans crave.

Kris Sangani, assistant editor, E&T

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