The UK is at the forefront of developing scientific research into new composite materials. This is an important technology that has huge potential for the future of high value manufacturing in the UK.
With potential accelerated organic growth in the established composites-using sectors like aerospace, motorsport and renewables, together with the emergence of substantial new markets for composites products in sectors such as automotive, rail, oil and gas, the UK has the opportunity to grow its current £2.3bn composite product market to £12.bn by 2030 (UK Composites).
The Government’s Industrial Strategy underpins collaboration between Government (The Department for Business Innovation and Skills, or BIS) and the composites industry to bridge the gap between early research and industrial production – and this is also supported by the world-class National Composites Centre (part of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult).
However, if a diverse range of sectors are to adopt composites and take advantage of their light/right-weighting properties, low maintenance and significantly reduced through-life costs, a number of barriers need to be overcome.
Regulations, codes and standards are often inappropriate for composites, this is because they are both explicitly and implicitly based on named materials, such as steel, and do not permit consideration of composites applications (despite the benefits of the materials in many cases). There is also limited high volume production capability of composites (key for industries such as automotive) and critically, the overarching skills shortage.
COMPOSITES SKILLS SHORTAGES
There is a chronic skills shortage across all sectors of engineering and manufacturing in the UK – and that certainly applies to composites. Simply put, there are not enough people in the marketplace with the requisite skills. It’s a direct result of a lack of investment in STEM education and vocational training over many years.
Some forward-thinking companies have already independently invested in or established links with innovation centres to access training – but it is unlikely this will be enough to keep pace with the needs of industry.
While essential for the long-term, manufacturers can ill-afford to wait for these skills to become available - they need ready-made skills in their businesses today to meet the short-term demands the market is placing on them.
As an industry we must think creatively: Could the Composites Technician Trailblazer Apprenticeship be used to upskill existing or new employees? How can people with transferable skills be encouraged to engage with new technologies?
There are signs that things are improving. I am seeing more high-quality candidates coming into the marketplace. We also come across candidates who are typically mid-career and are looking for a new and interesting challenge. However, looking forward, the skills shortage dilemma will continue to prevent progress.
INFLUENCING SCHOOL-LEAVERS TO TAKE UP COMPOSITES AND ENGINEERING APPRENTICESHIPS
Schools have an important role to play in encouraging young people to take up composites and engineering apprenticeships.
There is currently too much focus on academic and classroom learning in schools rather than practical skills and problem solving. For the future of British manufacturing, it’s vital that both avenues are open to young people and that those with good hands-on skills are shown the potential of a career within manufacturing.
Industry also needs work closely with Government, industry bodies and education establishments to communicate their future skills requirement and ask the question: How effective higher education engineering courses are at preparing the next generation of skilled engineers.
There are still schools where pupils make birdboxes or nightlights when technology means they could be creating something far more advanced and engaging. Building links with schools and introducing teachers and students to both general engineering and the opportunities available within niche areas such as composites is critical.
There is tremendous growth and significant change happening in the UK composites industry - it is an exciting place to be right now. I would encourage composite manufacturing firms to have an open approach when it comes to recruitment and welcome you to join the debate!
Visit www.jonlee.co.uk/composites for more information on our composites recruitment services.