Sept. 1, 2018 | Source: Composites Manufacturing

Photo credit Composites Manufacturing

On shop floors across America, composites industry workers are aging. According to a 2015 report from IACMI – The Composites Institute, 22.9 percent of workers in the IACMI region (Michigan, Colorado, Ohio, Indiana, Tennessee and Kentucky) are over the age of 55 and set to retire in the next decade. And as they retire, they are leaving with years of experience and essential knowledge necessary to maintain best practices on the shop floor.

“There’s a bit of fear there,” says Joannie Harmon Heath, workforce development manager at IACMI. “How are we going to keep what’s in Bob’s head here so that no one repeats mistakes or continues to do business as usual and there’s no downtime? Retaining tacit knowledge is a big concern … because the number of available workers is a significant mismatch to those that are leaving.”

IACMI projects that more than half a million workers will need to be replaced in the next 10 years. Currently, there are more workers over 45 than under 45, which means the pipeline is getting weaker. However, organizations like IACMI, ACMA, Abaris, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and SME (formerly the Society of Manufacturing Engineers) are all working with composites manufacturers to make sure they have the tools to thrive after the baby-boom generation retires.

Getting Lean

One way companies can help ease the transition to new talent is by reaching out to NIST’s Manufacturing Extension Partnership (NIST MEP), which works side by side with manufacturers to reduce costs, improve efficiency, develop next-generation workforces, create new products and find new markets.

“Some small companies know what they need to do, but they don’t know where to look,” says Mary Ann Pacelli, NIST MEP’s workforce development manager. “So we can connect them with a Manufacturing USA institute, colleges doing research, a lab that is doing research or another company that has the materials and help those companies adopt all these new techniques so that they can grow their business.” She notes that over the past three years, the program has achieved more than 950 success stories.

One of those successes came in 2016, when Smithfield, R.I.-based manufacturer Fiberglass Fabricators Inc. (FFI) connected with Polaris MEP, Rhode Island’s NIST MEP affiliate, to help the company cut waste from its processes. Tim Streuli, an estimator at FFI, says the company recognized the composites industry was becoming increasingly competitive and that many of its competitors had drastically lowered overhead. To keep up with its competition, FFI needed to operate more efficiently. The company had begun a lean manufacturing initiative in the 1990s, but the effort subsided due to personnel changes and a lack of process standardization.

“We had gone through kind of a generational turnover,” says Streuli. “The older generation had left and the younger generation has come in and … the transition was not as smooth and as forthcoming as possible. That had created some issues as far as the way things are done in the shop, so it was a matter of straightening everything back out.”

Polaris conducted Lean 101 training for FFI, which introduced the company to tools that leadership can use to make continuous improvements to logistics and operations. FFI leaders selected staff members to form an improvement management team, which had the opportunity to be trained on Polaris’ lean manufacturing tools and concepts, such as one-piece flow production to reduce unnecessary batches, workplace organization, project management and planning through visual tools, such as “value stream” flowcharts that help leaders make better strategic decisions. Polaris also helped FFI’s management team easily communicate the results of the program to stakeholders.

Streuli says that because of the improvements FFI made, the company was able to invest $300,000 in a new, quicker CNC machine that automated its glass-cutting processes and produced more consistent parts.

While some companies prefer to invest in workforce development programs for existing talent, others, such as Shape Corp., a Grand Haven, Mich.-based manufacturer of FRP, plastic and metal components for the automotive market, also approach the issue through K-12 engagement.

In the spring of 2017, Shape began working with the SME Education Foundation’s Partnership Response in Manufacturing Education (PRIME®) initiative, which helps manufacturers conduct analyses to identify their skills gaps and then develop a talent pool that can help them address their needs. Julie Davidson, director of talent acquisition at Shape Corp., says the company was drawn to PRIME because it incorporates a deep understanding of the needs of the industry and of educational systems. “It is not a cookie-cutter curriculum, but rather custom built to meet the needs of the business and ultimately the community,” she says.

SME PRIME developed a pre-apprenticeship program at Grand Haven High School, where students can learn different aspects of manufacturing over a three-year period. Throughout the program, students learn about quality, precision measurement, instrumentation and inspection directly from Shape Corp. employees. Year one, which started in 2017, focused specifically on quality. Year two will focus on industrial robotics, and year three will focus on Shape’s unique Radius-Pultrusion™ process for curved composite automotive parts.

Josh Cramer, the interim executive director at the SME Education Foundation, says that at the end of the program in spring 2019, the students will spend two days with Shape, where they will have the opportunity to receive industry-recognized certification in seven areas of precision, instrumentation and quality. Students will go through the entire process of making a component; Shape’s destructive testing technology will then be used to analyze and evaluate the students’ work.

According to SME’s Education Foundation website, 84 percent of last year’s graduating seniors in PRIME programs intended to pursue careers in manufacturing, and 60 percent of those students intended to pursue post-secondary education in a field directly related to manufacturing. A big reason for that, says Cramer, is that the curricula go beyond just principles of manufacturing; they also help students understand how the company they’re learning from got to where they are today. At Grand Haven, Cramer wants to make sure the students can make the connection between Shape’s history and the impact it has on the quality of the parts they make.

At the university level, IACMI pairs university students with composites manufacturers through its internship program. As Harmon Heath explains, before their internships, the students are trained in basic FRP manufacturing processes. That way, by the time they begin their internship, they already have background knowledge and training on each company’s specific equipment. “It’s really a win-win for everyone,” Harmon Heath says. “The industry partner is getting an intern … that has already received some training and background knowledge, so they’re hitting the ground running. And for the interns, it benefits them because they feel like they can add value.”

That was the case for Alix Ambrose, a mechanical engineering major at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, who interned with RMX Technologies for 10 weeks in 2017. During the internship, he provided engineering support for the modification and operation of research while developing equipment focused on commercializing a new plasma technology for carbon fiber. He also assisted in the execution and analysis of data gathered from a test matrix to finalize several engineering details that are critical to the design of the new technology.

“Alix brought a unique and valuable perspective to our organization,” said Jonathan Ford, a project manager and design engineer for RMX Technologies in an IACMI press release. “With a little training, he quickly became an integral part of our team working alongside our researchers and scientists to develop and test new technologies.”

Harmon Heath says the internship program has become increasingly diverse. She points to the fact that 38 percent of the 2018 IACMI internship class is female, which is more than double the national average of women in engineering in 2015 (15 percent). She says that by increasing the diversity of internships and candidates to fill these internship positions, IACMI is better able to support a well-rounded workforce and reach students who are likely to enter an immediate workforce market.

As Cramer tours the country to help manufacturers and schools develop PRIME programs, he’s learned that not only are manufacturers having trouble getting quality talent; they’re having trouble getting talent, period. During ACMA’s Composites Executive Forum in 2017, Cramer said that even if 100 percent of the graduating high schoolers in the Pittsburgh metro area got jobs in manufacturing, employers in the area would still be short 20,000 employees.

A big part of the issue stems from a familiar foe – the negative perception of manufacturing among students and their parents. Harmon Heath believes many parents’ fears come from personal experiences in the 1970s and 1980s, when many American manufacturing jobs were offshored and either they or their parents were left unemployed. In addition to job security, many high school and college-aged students still view manufacturing jobs as inherently dirty. But ironically, according to Harmon Heath, the positions manufacturers are having the hardest time filling aren’t dirty at all.

“It isn’t like that anymore,” says Harmon Heath. “That’s not to say that there aren’t some jobs that are hot or you might get dirty doing them, but many of the manufacturing jobs today are in a very clean environment. These jobs require a high level of skill.” Those skills, she says, can only be obtained through education in a community college technical program or on-the-job-training.

To help reshape the conversation around composites manufacturing, IACMI participates in the National Association of Manufacturers’ (NAM) annual Manufacturing Day, during which manufacturers from all over the country open their facilities to the public to give hundreds of thousands of students and their parents an idea of what a career in manufacturing actually looks like. During Manufacturing Day 2017 in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood, IACMI and LIFT – Lightweight Innovations for Tomorrow inaugurated the IACMI Scale-Up Research Facility (SURF), which is used for innovative automotive research and development projects. Harmon Heath says exposing middle and high schoolers to the facility helped create awareness of what it means to work on a 21st century shop floor. She believes parents get to see that automotive manufacturing can be a real career and not just a temporary job for early career professionals waiting for a “real” opportunity. And for students, activities at SURF show how cool manufacturing can be.

“We increase [students’] awareness on what these types of jobs are, but we do it in a way that’s engaging and fun,” says Harmon Heath. “They get to see technology being used in fun and cool ways, and they don’t realize that what they’re doing is really science and learning. It just feels like it’s a lot of fun.” One example of an activity that always captivates students, she says, is playing the game Connect Four with industrial robots.

Cramer believes that another great way to get young people interested in manufacturing careers is to create programs that appeal to their inner sense of purpose. He believes that Generation Z is driven by how it can impact others, as opposed to some of its millennial predecessors who are driven more by self-importance. That doesn’t mean, he adds, that one generation is “better” than another, but that engagement strategies need to change as manufacturers look toward the future.

“I think this generation of students, more so than any, always looks to ‘How is this bigger than me? How do I make an impact?’” he says, noting that by showing a young person a simple composite manufacturing process, a company can put its own work into perspective and help inspire future professionals.

Cramer says that type of engagement must start early, though. For example, SME PRIME outreach also includes elementary and middle school students, their parents and community members to build excitement and awareness of manufacturing, similarly to how kids get excited about first responders during a school’s career day. That early exposure, he says, can ease recruitment once the kids get older.

Future Opportunities

With high-performance composites markets like aerospace and defense primed for major growth over the next few years, the need for skilled composite technicians in those markets will undoubtedly increase. To help manufacturers prepare for this trend, earlier this year ACMA expanded its Certified Composites Technician (CCT) program to include a new course that allows professionals to become certified in “Advanced Composites.” Because the learning curve for advanced manufacturing processes, such as vacuum bagging and autoclave, is steeper than it is for traditional FRP processes, for the first time in the nearly 20-year history of CCT, ACMA is requiring enrollees in the program to gain prerequisite knowledge prior to certification in the new program.

That’s no surprise to Lou Dorworth, direct services manager at Abaris Training Resources Inc., which became an ACMA Affinity Program partner a few years ago to bridge the training gap between GFRP- and CFRP-intensive processes. Dorworth, an industry veteran since 1978, says with the aerospace industry transitioning to more thermoplastic composites, the skill sets employers need are becoming increasingly complex.

“What I’m seeing now is a real interest in being able to manufacture more quickly and with techniques that are more aligned with fabrication rather than with deep processing, which thermosets require,” says Dorworth. “But I think we’re going to see more and more demand for training [in thermoplastics] starting with … basic classes like we did with thermosets back in the ‘80s and ramping up to full-scale fabrication training events.”

But for that to happen, companies like Abaris need to be fully equipped with the resources to train high-performance composite technicians properly. That’s why the company decided this summer to move its east coast operations from its facility at Atlanta Aerospace Composites to the Composite Prototyping Center (CPC) in Plainview, N.Y. The CPC, Dorworth says, gives Abaris access to advanced technology it did not have available for trainees in Georgia, such as automated fiber placement robots for thermoset and thermoplastic designs, large autoclaves, RTM and VARTM systems, and CNC routers with five-axis alignment verification systems for cutting, milling and machining. In return, Abaris brings expertise in prepreg manufacturing, wet layup, tooling, adhesive bonding and composite repair to CPC.

Abaris and CPC believe the Long Island region’s workforce development efforts will benefit from Abaris’ presence at CPC, as the area’s manufacturers will gain easy access to more advanced materials training programs, which will enable them to build a more proficient, skilled workforce able to work with composite materials. They believe that, in turn, will help position those manufacturers for greater subcontractor opportunities awarded by larger manufacturers.

Strengthen Your Skills Through the CCT Program

ACMA’s Certified Composites Technician (CCT) program has been the gold standard for certification in the composites industry. The program allows composite manufacturers to elevate their standards, enhance production performance, recognize professional expertise and improve their employees’ knowledge of composites. Recently, ACMA expanded CCT to include a new program that allows professionals to become certified in “Advanced Composites” (AC). For more information, contact Andrew Pokelwaldt, ACMA’s director of certification, at