Apprentice produces the right notes

Posted On: 
16th January 2018

British inventions are often monetised overseas and the benefits accrue elsewhere. From the world wide web to the electric car, this is the land of missed opportunity.

But that is changing thanks to the Catapult initiative, a nationwide network of technology centres, which are bringing British inventiveness back home. Catapults offer support, advice and technical know-how to businesses to help them bridge the gap between early-stage innovation and full-scale commercial production.

Catapults are playing a key role in advising innovators on how to profit from transformative new technologies

As the UK stands on the brink of a fourth industrial revolution, Catapults are playing a key role in advising innovators on how to profit from transformative new technologies.

Established by government-funded development body Innovate UK, there are 13 Catapults dedicated to different areas of innovation. To back specialised manufacturing, the High-Value Manufacturing Catapult is helping innovators make the most of a range of emerging technologies.

Businesses with a great idea or piece of research they want to turn into a market-leading product can work with one of seven specialised HVM Catapult Centres nationwide.

Nigel Perry, chief executive of the Centre for Process Innovation, an HVM Catapult Centre based in Darlington, says the centres offer unrivalled assistance to innovative businesses and can help them transform their prospects. “HVM Catapult Centres help companies reduce risk in the adoption of new technologies. Whether they are looking at a specific manufacturing operation or the entire supply chain logistics, the HVM Catapult Centres can substantially derisk the process.

“Companies work faster and quicker with the Catapult than they would on their own. They might be reluctant to progress or unable to deploy the resources that they need and find that they struggle to progress without the sort of advice we can offer them.”

Mr Perry says the HVM Catapult Centres have in-depth expertise, which can help businesses improve productivity and boost profitability. “There is a practice and art the Catapults can bring to help companies explore how new technology can be introduced to improve their manufacturing process. This is vital for bringing great new products to market,” he says.

HVM Catapult Centres work with manufacturers from the biggest giants such as Rolls-Royce, Jaguar Land Rover and Boeing down to small businesses and charities. In one project, the HVM Catapult helped Pashley Cycles, Britain’s longest-established bicycle manufacturer, develop a new bike, which was selected as the next-generation bicycle for the London cycle-hire scheme sponsored by Santander.

Pashley worked with the WMG Catapult Centre based at Warwick University. They jointly used 3D printing, laser scanning and measurement technology to create prototypes of the new bike’s components. As part of the development, WMG encouraged Pashley to move away from leather and steel and to try out plastic and aluminium, helping them to develop lightweight materials.

For the UK to fulfil its industrial promise, more manufacturers need to consider the benefits of working with the HVM Catapults. A company that is looking to translate an early-stage innovation into a market leading product will sit down to discuss their strategy with business development staff from an HVM Catapult Centre. The staff can advise on where to invest funds to get the best return and how to leverage technology for success.

The business advisers have a deep understanding of manufacturing and are skilled in translating academic research into real-world production. The HVM Catapult offers businesses world-class manufacturing equipment for testing new production processes along with the industrial expertise needed to turn nascent ideas and research into marketing leading successes.

They employ top engineers, manufacturing experts and industrial consultants, and put their knowledge at the service of businesses. There is a charge, although as the Catapults are non-profit making, they charge reasonable rates and companies can also tap into the grant funding also available through Innovate UK.

With exciting new technologies and processes coming on stream all the time, businesses need help integrating these into their production processes.

University of Sheffield AMRC Training Centre apprentice, Oliver Marsh, has scooped a major industry apprenticeship award for his role in helping the UK’s largest manufacturer of wheelie bins reduce the cost of its production processes by more than £135,000 a year.

The 21-year old aspiring rock musician, an apprentice with the OnePlastics Group, was the clear winner in the plastic industry’s equivalent of the Oscars – Polymer Apprentice of the Year Award, the official ceremony for which will be held in London next month.

Barnsley-born Oliver, who works in the state-of-the-art, highly automated MGB Plastics factory in Rotherham, said he was delighted to win the award: “It’s a privilege and an honour to get this award. Working at MGB has been brilliant; the company has given so much support and encouragement. My mentors at work have taught me how to use lean techniques and processes to drive improvements in productivity and performance.”

Having recently invested more than £25 million in advanced technology, including large presses, the company was equally keen to invest in its human capital: training the next generation of polymer engineers who will maximise the impact of this investment in its three plants at Rotherham, Tamworth and Hull.

MGB Plastics Technical Manager, Gary Blanshard, said the company wanted to bring bright young engineers into the business to enable it to maintain its position as the market leader in the supply of wheeled bins. “We decided that the best way forward was to get someone on board who had no pre-conceived ideas of how things should be done. The only way to do this was to train them from scratch,” Gary said.

“We invited the AMRC Training Centre to visit us and discuss what they could offer in the way of apprenticeships. They then advertised for a Technical Apprentice and created a short list of candidates.  After an extensive interviewing, Oliver was offered the position and began his apprenticeship with us.

“Having gained knowledge of CAD at the AMRC Training Centre, he has used this to great effect with us. He used CAD to model the fit of our lids, which some customers had identified as an issue, and found a mismatch between the hinge fixing pin and the bin mating hole. He redesigned the pin and improved the tolerances using CAD. Having tested a prototype and run moulding trails on the new hinge pin, he proved out the fit and function through assembly trials.”

But it is Oliver’s work in improving the moulding process that has most impressed the company. By using the lean principles taught to him by his close mentors at the plant. “He has transformed what was already a market leading printing technology used to emboss the more than 1.5 million bins we produce each year,” said Blanshard. “His forensic examination of the change-over process from one council crest to another has turned the operation into the polymer equivalent of a Formula One pit stop – fast, efficient and very slick.

“We estimate that this improvement alone is saving the business in excess of £137,000 a year by getting the plate changes down to just 34 seconds from 10 minutes. It is a brilliant example of a single-minute exchange of die (SMED) approach, which Oliver has picked up very quickly and developed with us.”

Oliver is now a key member of our plant automation team tasked with taking significant costs out of the business, and is looking at how the firm’s existing equipment might need to be uplifted to meet new standards for the industry.  “If there is a productivity-critical issue, Oliver is in the mix,” said Gary.

A keen musician, Oliver is the bass player in the band Alba Rosa – White Rose – who recently supported The Lost Days at the 02 Academy. Oliver is now in the enviable position of a being centre stage in both his new engineering role, and driving bass lines with the band.