Portsmouth England UK.Royal Navy Dockyard with aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth alongside the Princess Royal jetty. August 2017.

Defence lifeline for UK shipbuilding, Covid boost for robots: best of the week’s news

Image credit: Peter Titmuss/Dreamstime

E&T staff pick the news from the past week that caught their eye and reflect on what these latest developments in engineering and technology mean to them. For the full story, just click on the headline.

Ben Heubl, associate editor

Royal Navy commissions to boost UK shipbuilding industry

This announcement by the Ministry of Defence should get us thinking. It’s true that shipbuilding is part of British history, but there are unanswered questions regarding the MoD’s justification for returning to the ‘good old days’ of defence contracts.

Until recently, the UK maritime and marine sectors employed 111,000 people in 6,800 companies and contributed over £13bn to the economy, with shipbuilding and repair alone contributing around £2bn of this, according to a 2015 Department of Transport report. Everyone should be in favour of rebuilding a strong shipbuilding industry for commercial purposes.

I say commercial purposes because I find it questionable to dump money on reviving a Brexit-ridden, Covid-contracting economy by using defence contracts as a GDP booster.

Many would agree with the idea that we should “revitalise this amazing industry as part of this government’s commitment to build back better”, but betting billions on a single card - arguably three, as there are Fleet Solid Support warships - for war and defence alone may not be prudent if the money could be spent more smartly.

Previous criticism raised questions about what happens to all the employees between defence shipbuilding contracts. Such a hiatus could last for years and leave people without income if there’s no steady work that they can fall back on.

Internationally, UK competitiveness in shipbuilding may also be overstated. Among the top commercial shipbuilding companies, Britain is nowhere to be found. Competitive strength is somewhat limited. The largest companies in this sector are either from Korea, Tokyo or China. Likewise, UK efforts to "work with international partners,” as the defence secretary says, may be somewhat contradictory, making Britain more dependent on foreign contractors than building up its own resources. Foreign companies might also hesitate to surrender their intellectual assets quickly and easily.

We’re all aware that Britain’s fleet is ageing and the calls for ship replacement and refitting grow louder, with good reason. However, to favour an industry that has only recently managed to refocus on less fluctuating sources of business, such as commercial shipping and offshore renewables as well as ship repairing, may not be as helpful as the Government hopes.

Wouldn’t it make more sense to prop up shipping companies that have already found their footing in these new areas instead of luring them back into defence contracts that may be gone the next day or year, or last only for a certain amount of time?

Some of the industry has managed to build on its core engineering capabilities and diversified into new markets: “This strengthened the resilience and sustainability of those shipyards and their supply chains against economic shocks and fostered an entrepreneurial spirit in our commercial shipyards,” a 2017 MoD report claimed. Is getting the entire UK shipbuilding industry back on government defence contracts - however appealing that might sound – the answer to the current situation? At least for now, the Government believes the answer is yes.

Covid-19 speeding shift to automation in the workplace, report finds

Technology integration has many fans, but will workers be in for the treat? I’m not sure. I received a press release last week which talked about the cities and countries rated best for tech workers, with London at the top - for both workers and students - although it’s less viable for contributing to tech research.

We looked deeper into the source data provided by the OECD and found an upbeat trend that suggests the share of employees working in professional, scientific and technical activities increased from 7 per cent to 9.5 per cent between 2008 and 2019, in the lead compared with the other four largest European economies.

UK technology employment trends

Image credit: Ben Heubl/E&T

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Covid-19 speeding shift to automation in the workplace, report finds

Coronavirus has drawn attention from technology-related issues that just a couple of years ago were preoccupying the mainstream media. ‘Robots are coming for your jobs!’ is just one of the scare stories that’s slipped out of the headlines, not least because so many people are more concerned about whether those jobs are even going to exist when we emerge from the pandemic than the fact a machine might be able to do them.

Behind the scenes, the current situation is actually speeding up the process of what commentators refer to as ‘automation in the workplace’, according to this research by the World Economic Forum. The upside is that the areas where machines will replace humans are largely in mundane tasks, such as data entry and routine administration, and that adoption of technology is expected to create more new jobs than it eliminates. The bottom line, the WEF reckons, is that during the next five years 85 million people will be handing their jobs over to machines but 97 million new roles are likely to emerge.

Anyone in the forecasting business has to acknowledge that right now their predictions come with a host of qualifications. This trend is just a continuation of something that’s been happening for some time now, though, and it seems reasonable to expect that it’ll carry on. What we need to remember is that behind every throwaway story buried in the technology section of a website or newspaper about a funky new product or system capable of doing a job without the need for humans to interact, there’s probably a real person who now or in the months to come will be looking for a new one.

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

Hands-on review: RHA TrueConnect 2 wireless earbuds

If you're in the market for a new pair of true wireless Bluetooth earbuds, you should probably read this review. For a limited time, RHA is offering E&T readers a 30 per cent discount on any current product in the RHA range, including their newest product, the TrueConnect 2. Full details are included at the end of the review. You're welcome.

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