Whether it’s a lack of specific courses, or a fall-off in UK investment, the composites sector has more work to do in training. Lou Reade reports.
The UK is well known as an exporter of composite products – and, increasingly, in composites knowledge.
Rodney Hansen, who runs training and consultancy business Dark Matter (www.darkmattercomposites.com), has seen a dramatic shift in course delegates recently. While the majority of attendees on its ‘future’ programmes hail from the UK, the same is not true of the standard courses.
“We would typically see around 40% of delegates coming from overseas – but that’s shot up to 70%,” he says. “On one recent course, we had no UK delegates at all.”
The courses generally teach basic skills in composites, such as hand lay-up, infusion and prepreg, as well as aspects of design and engineering.
Hansen says the shift began around 18 months ago. Many of the ‘new’ delegates are from places such as Eastern Europe, the Gulf States and the Far East. In many cases, composites are relatively new to some of these markets, so they are taking the chance to learn the basics of the sector.
“I don’t feel that the UK is a stagnant market, but it is stable – and maybe too complacent,” says Hansen. “It’s happy with its current level of skill, and investing less in training than many other countries.”
While the drop-off in UK delegates predates the Brexit vote, the referendum could have some subtle effects of its own, he believes: if the UK lowers its styrene emissions targets, for instance, would UK companies then move investment to infusion – and infusion training?
On the positive side, Hansen says that UK companies are continuing to invest in consultancy and bespoke training courses – which are, in general, more experimental, more specific and at a higher level.
“Lots of it is next generation work for the future,” he says. “Work at this high end is healthy.”
Despite this evidence that work is shifting to a higher level, he says this does not excuse companies from investing in basic composites training.
“The UK has to be careful: we can’t just stop investing in composites training – because others are starting to take the lead,” he says.
Chris Little, who provides composites training through his company Consuta Training (www.consuta.com), also believes the UK is falling short when it comes to composites training.
He has been involved in NVQs and Trailblazer apprenticeships – and is currently the training director of Composites UK. But he says the UK has a lot of catching up to do.
“Historically, we’ve never had any qualifications just for composites – it’s usually for boatbuilding or aerospace, for instance,” he says. “It’s important to teach people about the underlying processes.”
Another part of the problem is the very wide-ranging nature of composites applications – from ‘Fred in the shed’ all the way through to cutting edge aerospace and automotive components. Devising training that meets all of these needs is no easy task.
The list continues: a lack of composites awareness at school level means that the materials do not make it into public consciousness; and, many engineering graduates have a limited understanding of composites, because it is unlikely to feature in their courses.
Underpinning much of this is a general lack of engagement: despite the existence of projects, such as Thrust, he says there are few examples of composites technology being taken out ‘on the road’ to inspire potential new recruits to the industry.
He is also frustrated by a general unwillingness of companies to invest money – and, more importantly, time – in training its employees. Many companies, he says, will only send its employees on short, local courses. His answer to this would be to have dedicated training centres around the country that meet the ongoing training needs within composites.
“For me, the National Composites Centre should be a hub – around which are arranged a series of ‘spokes’ that offer local training,” he says.
However, he is confident that this can change, and sees a bright spot in the recent creation of a Level 3 ‘Trailblazer’ apprenticeship in composites engineering – which will be available from September 2017.
“It’s the first time we’ve had an apprenticeship at Level 3 that’s dedicated to composites,” he says.
Sometimes, getting out to courses is not about a lack of commitment to training.
“We’re quite a small company, and we can’t spare too many staff at the same time,” says Graham Mulholland, CEO of composites company epm: technology (www.epmtechnology.com).
He points to a recent example, in which seven engineers needed to be trained up on Catia software. Rather than dispatch them on a course, he insisted that the training be delivered at epm’s factory – and in two-and-a-half days, rather than the normal five.
However, for Mulholland, the true value of training is that it enriches his company. He says that the particular needs – and growth potential – of the composites industry demands that he fill his company with as many skilled people as possible.
To this end, the company is now in its third year of running the ‘epm: academy’ – a scheme that it organises with Derby College as a way of attracting the most able engineering students into its ranks.
The college has around 80 students join its engineering faculty each year. After one year of study, all of them are offered the chance to compete for 25 places at the academy. This involves them spending their two ‘off days’ at epm – designing products and learning composites skills.
In the first year of the scheme, epm ended up employing seven people. Others have joined the scheme, but ended up working elsewhere – which Mulholland has no problem with.
“They’re doing it because they want to better themselves,” he says. “If you do it right, they’ll always come back.”
Mulholland says that the composites industry is on the verge of huge growth, with contracts getting larger and more complex – as well as being more difficult to fulfil. Having skilled employees gives him the confidence to bid for these difficult contracts – knowing that he will not end up disappointing the customer.
“It’s all about the skills you have in your company,” he says. “Without that, you’re dead.”