The flat, wind-swept expanses of Norfolk are not renowned for their centres of technological excellence. But the tiny village of Hethel, eight miles from Norwich, has been home to Lotus, one of Britain's best-known sports car companies ever since its founder, the late Colin Chapman, took it there in 1966. As renowned as older classic marques such as Aston Martin and Jaguar, Lotus has won considerable sporting success (seven Formula 1 titles, for example). But the distinctive Lotus image is based less on engineering brawn than on constant technological innovation - epitomised by the Elan, the Europa and the Esprit. Great performers all of them, but with far more grace and elegance than macho muscle.
For Lotus, as a low-volume specialist manufacturer, superlative design and engineering innovation are doubly crucial to its success. In addition to perfecting its own vehicles, the Lotus engineering division has to exploit every new technological development in its ongoing consultancy work for major manufacturers such as Chevrolet, OpelVauxhall and Isuzu, which provides a large slice of the company's Pounds 65 million turnover. So the company seemed like a natural target for a visit by Graham Chivers and Nick Blaker, respectively head of technology and school manager at Sheringham High School, some 30 miles to the north. Did the skills and qualities being developed on the school's design and technology courses have any relevance to the high-pressure business of sports-car manufacturing?
Despite its reputation, Lotus hasn't always got things right. In fact an over-reliance on engineering almost led to the company's demise after the failure of the re-launched Elan in 1992. Over-investment in engineering a front-wheel drive car with superb handling had forced up its price to Pounds 25,000 - a hopelessly uncompetitive price-tag in a recession-hit market, against the cheaper, more conventionally engineered Mazda MX5 and Toyota MR6. Following this debacle and the 1993 take-over of the company by Bugatti Industries of Italy, the company was radically reorganised to make it more explicitly marketing and design-led.
Design director Julian Thomson sums up the shift: "The design department used to be simply handed a complete engineering package and told to style it. Now we're asked to define the car from the beginning, we have control over the engineering process - and we work much closer with the engineers." Today customer wants and needs come first. The proof of this new philosophy is provided by the Lotus Elise, launched to great acclaim last autumn; the new model will go on the market this year at "around Pounds 20,000".
"Research showed that the market wanted a simple, lightweight, high-performance car that went back to basic values," Thomson said. "We looked at all the possibilities, not the engineers - we defined the engine position, the body-shape and so on." As usual with Lotus, the car did incorporate some radical new technology - a superlight chassis, formed from aluminium extrusions bonded together - but this time innovation was geared to the customers' demands, not the engineers' whims.
Like all car companies, the Lotus design department makes great use of auto CAD (computer-aided design) technology. "Does this mean that traditional hand-drawing techniques, which we use on the DT courses, are redundant?" asked Graham Chivers. "Not at all. The first important aspect of being a designer is being able to draw, to put your ideas on paper," explained Mr Thomson. "The second important quality is the ability to work through the design process, to critique your own work - and for that you need to be able to show all your preliminary sketches and drawings." Graham Chivers felt encouraged. "I always say to kids, don't throw anything away except the rubber, because you might be rubbing something out that is important."
Can this emphasis be replicated successfully on a classroom course? How do you get children to think their way into other people's heads? "It's not easy. In key stage 3, we simply lay down some broad parameters, but in key stage 4 pupils have to sort out their own brief," responded Graham Chivers. "We ask them to imagine the customer as their friends, parents or relatives. On one project they were asked to look at the needs of handicapped people, which involved some role-play situations."
Once the Lotus design department has defined a new car concept, through sketches and models, the engineers then have to make it work, on time and on budget, through detailed engineering design, testing and evaluation - in the words of senior development engineer, James Turner, "until the first prototype is on the test-bed, you don't know it works". Ken Sears, chief engineer of the vehicle design division, described the particular skills he looked for in his staff. "We recruit both graduates and people with some other technical education. The first thing is we'd like them to write decent English - a lot of the work involves writing reports and critiques of proposals . . . and they need to be interested in a broad range of things, in reading and books. You can't find it all on the Internet."
Sears, an engineer turned manager with a great respect for design, sees the difference between an engineer's and designer's approach to a simple thing like a door handle: "My view of handles is that they shouldn't fall off. I'm interested in loads and stresses; whereas Julian [Thomson] is interested in its shape and style. Should it be round or square - or should there be a handle at all?" At Sheringham High School, Graham Chivers stresses how his DT course uses both approaches: "We look at aesthetics, colour, texture and style, but we also consider forces and loads - and we have to make the result to a high quality. They have to be things people are proud to take home."
Talking to Sears and other Lotus design engineers, it is clear that the pace of development, and the relatively small size of the company, put a high premium on individual adaptability and multi-disciplinary team-work. Darren Blake, a 24-year-old design engineer, explains: "At Lotus the scope of work a design engineer does is much wider and you constantly have to liaise with the rest of the team - at Ford you might be asked to work just on rear-view mirrors for two years. Here on one project, I might work on several different parts of the engine - it's a fast learning curve."
The other main feature of the design and development process, pioneered by the Japanese, is non-sequential working, in which different stages of development are compressed and overlapped - a process which demands increased liaison and communication between different teams, if the finished result is to gel. An example of this accelerated work process was provided by Darren Blake. "We're constantly tackling more than one problem at once. While we were working on the new V8 power unit, six months before we saw the finished engine, we bought in two V8s from another company to use as 'mules' - we stripped them out and put on our own kit, to test and refine the design. It saved us months of development time."
Such processes and skills are difficult to replicate in schools. Although many of Sheringham's DT projects are done in groups, Nick Blaker thought that "the emphasis on team-work is important here - and it's not that accessible on DT courses at present". One Sheringham experiment which gained high praise from Ken Sears is the school's annual "industry day". Working in conjunction with the modern languages department, DT students have to design, develop and market a new chocolate product to a fictitious company in Strasbourg, with final presentations in either French or German. "One year the team working on the sweet and those doing the packaging failed to communicate," Blaker explained, "and it didn't fit the packet."
"A very realistic situation," roared a highly amused Sears. "Things like that happen here all too often." More seriously, Sears commented, "I think you learn more from things that go wrong - at Lotus we allow people the opportunity to explore things. But it's not endless, you stop it by a constant process of review and appraisal - you ask whether they are confident of meeting a time target, for example."
Graham Chivers felt slightly uneasy about this approach. "The trouble is, kids can come up with some great ideas, but can they make them? It can be very disappointing not to be able to. While many of our design and make activities are open-ended to some extent, how much can we allow kids to go down dead ends? There is a course to cover - and I wouldn't like kids to see DT as a constant process of failure, due to time and material constraints."
Flexibility, adaptability, inventiveness, persistence, multi-disciplinary team-working - these seemed to be the qualities most highly valued at Lotus. How did Sheringham High's DT teaching measure up? "Actually I'm quite reassured that the way we're doing it is right," Graham Chivers concluded, "but I'm not convinced it's the same elsewhere in the country."
Chivers and Blaker were both surprised at how little Lotus staff, apart from Ken Sears, knew about current design and technology practice in schools. This is despite the car company's developing contacts with Sheringham, such as the current project in which pupils are creating a multi-media information pack on Lotus for use in its reception area. "If we are starting to get it right in education, then we can assume that in five years or so there will be a growth of interest in engineering," Blaker remarked. "I feel that the national curriculum does give us a broad base to deliver high quality DT teaching - and it's flexible enough for us to bring in things like marketing or technical drawing too."