The state of education in the composites trade, part II

Andre Cocquyt (GRPguru.comm, Brunswick, Maine) continues his call for a unified national composites education standard, and suggests a practical way forward toward that goal.

Because there is a great need for composites education, many private efforts are crowding the marketplace to offer it, but they are doing so without a unitary national standard to follow and lack an industry-recognized certification for their graduates. As I pointed out in Part I (see "The state of ...." under "Editor's Picks," at right), the marine industry — despite its long history of structural composites in boatbuilding — is without a composites standard. But I don’t mean to single out boatbuilders. The fast-growing, multibillion-dollar wind energy industry also is without an educational standard, both for new blade production and for repairs. That will change because the Mineral Management Services (MMS), the arm of the U.S. Department of the Interior that regulates offshore wind energy, has recognized the current onshore issues and is doing due diligence and drafting regulations to make sure that offshore wind energy will not be as failure-prone as current onshore wind farms, where inconsistent quality and premature failure of blades are unacceptably high. (Although MMS has gotten bad press for its role in the BP oil spill, there has been a dialogue for more than a year with MMS employees who, even then, recognized the need for better offshore wind regulations but had a difficult time obtaining objective information.)

It shouldn’t be too hard to upgrade the quality of new blades to a set industry-wide level: As the industry grows, there is more incentive to deliver quality products and avoid warranty issues (across the industry, for example, blade warranties have trended down to two years for blades that are predicted to have a 20-year service life!). There is an understandable element of self-protection: Nobody wants blades to go bad. But until such action is taken, there is an educational vacuum: In the realm of wind blade repairs, OSHA has strict requirements when it comes to the safety aspects of working on installed blades, with mandatory certifications for self-rescue, certified climbing, even CPR. But there is no certification for the repair work. So it should come as no surprise that repair training facilities are coming online at about the same rate as new blade plants: Wind Energy Services Co. (WES), a division of Molded Fiber Glass Cos. (Ashtabula, Ohio), has opened three training facilities in the past three years; Knight and Carver has its repair and training facility in San Diego, Calif., and Vestas Wind Systems A/S (Randers, Demark) is supporting a number of training initiatives around the U.S.

Unfortunately, state governments, with no standard to reference, are reinventing the wheel and doling out grants for wind blade repair training left and right, including to schools with little or no prior composites program experience.

That there is no certification in the wind industry shouldn’t surprise us. I was talking to Abaris’ Mike Hoke at the American Wind Energy Assn.’s WINDPOWER 2010 conference about the shortage of experienced composites repair technicians in the wind energy sector, and I suggested that a program could be structured like Abaris’ aircraft repair programs, with a similar certification. I was dumbfounded when he told me there is no FAA certificate.

According to Hoke, a mechanic cannot be authorized by the FAA to work on aircraft and sign for his or her work without an “airframe” and/or a “powerplant” rating. Most repair technicians get both, and there are a number of two-year “A&P” schools around the country that offer this training, the minimum standards for which are spelled out in Federal Aviation Regulations Part 147 (FAR 147). But for composite repair, FAR 147 requires only about a week of training in basic fiberglass wet layup repair.

“While this is probably adequate for working on nonstructural fairings and interior parts on light aircraft,” Hoke says, “more training is needed to work on heavily loaded carbon fiber structures on an airliner, for example.” This is a well-recognized fact in the aerospace industry, and is one reason Abaris Training exists as a company, Hoke continues. “Our training goes well beyond the FAR Part 147 minimums, and ... there is a need in the aerospace industry for an advanced composite repair training standard that goes well beyond the Part 147 requirements. And there are people, myself included, working on setting this up.”

Ironically, Hoke says Abaris has a contract with the FAA to train its inspectors in the principles of composite repair: “We are running about 160 FAA inspectors per year through a special class we developed for the FAA,” he says, but points out, ”Even this class, which is required by FAA headquarters for their inspectors to take, is technically not an ‘FAA-approved’ class.”

So, where does this leave us with respect to a comprehensive educational model for the composites industry? Given the current conditions, I’d like to suggest that we stop writing curricula for the basics of composites, which I’ll call “Level One” for argument’s sake. There is a sufficient number of well-documented and tested curricula out there, with supporting textbooks and AV materials. The course length can be dialed in, a function of the program’s structure and the workforce needs, but the basic elements are always the same. And composites are not virtual, so a hands-on component of at least 50 percent is a must. The only thing to agree on is what a Level One certificate should represent. I am of the opinion that ACMA’s Certrified Composites Technician (CCT) model, if further updated and tweaked somewhat, is better than anything out there. Under that system, a composites manufacturer looking to hire would know if an applicant has a certified basic skill set. What needs to be added to that certificate, however, is a certificate of “learning how to make things” — in other words, proof of hands-on lab and classroom work. After that, they can go on and get further instruction. For such course work, I suggest the following:

  • Make advanced composites education into modular continuing education units (CEUs) awarded for each completed module. That way a Mainer can move to San Francisco and continue working or studying for a degree.
  • Make education modules conform to a template that has broad, national acceptance. Although there are institutions with great programs out there, they are usually very specific and person-oriented. I recently saw a “textbook” of a two-year associate degree graduate in mechanical engineering whose education included a composites course; it was a 4-inch-thick pile of photocopies, carefully assembled by the professor over years of teaching. It showed a high degree of dedication to the cause, but it was only representative of the field of expertise of one individual. Why not have some of our most talented higher education experts select a complete compendium for students who want to obtain a one-, two- or four-year degree and make this a national base requirement?
  • Make state or federal funding for any educational initiative conditional on the initiative meeting minimum criteria for composites education. This would include — besides a permanent, dedicated and suitable facility for composites training, hazard communication (HazCom) plans, a proper lab and hands-on work space — experienced instructors with teaching certificates and composites expertise, who meet the national template criteria, and mandatory issuance of nationally recognized certifications.
  • Limit new-employee financial aid for the composites industry to candidates with at least a basic Level One certificate. Career centers, in collaboration with local schools, could provide the prerequisite training via several mechanisms.
  • Take the stigma out of vocational education and create a composites education and apprenticeship model that is worthy of the name and doesn’t require many hours of irrelevant courses, which are the biggest detractors under the current system. New Zealanders figured this out years ago, and since then they have made a major impact on the worldwide composites scene with their engineering and hands-on skills (it’s not a coincidence that the latest America’s Cup winner had an unusually large quorum of Kiwis involved).
  • Create long-term funding. To succeed, public programs have a need for long-term funding and a “cluster” environment that allows incubator projects to grow into real businesses. This means planning in a minimum of five-year increments. One caveat in all these programs is a need for systemic audits to avoid the risk of having large portions of the funds rerouted to the generic piggy bank via inflated academic oversight and administrative expenses.

I also believe that composites education should begin as early as possible, with integration into public-school science curricula. The composites instructor at the Foster Regional Applied Tech Center (Farmington, Maine), John McDonald, CCT, has created a great program with minimal funding and maximum drive and persistence. Foster got a $30,000 Maine Technology Institute (MTI) grant in 2009, matched by industry donations, to improve the Center’s lab. Not that McDonald’s students waited for that: In 2006, their 86-lb Electrathon composite-bodied car won the national championship. McDonald recently certified 10 more students in closed molding, using the new ACMA CCT-VIP certification. During the three years he has taught the course full time, 45 students have gone through the program. Typically about 20 percent of the students go on to engineering schools; another 20 percent go on to boatbuilding. The rest go into other collegiate programs, work in the composites industry or join the military.

I recently asked McDonald, What is the best way to draw kids into composites, and at what age are they most likely to develop a more permanent interest level that sets them on the path for a career in composites? “Kids should learn about composites at the junior high level, when science teachers talk about materials and machines. We need to have teaching materials available for comparing materials, such as wood, metal, ceramics and plastics,” he answered. “At the high school level, students can be exposed to composites through science classes, technology education classes and most, significantly, vocational classes where students can gain entry-level skills.”

To do that, we need to teach the teachers “and promote technical and vocational education programs,” McDonald points out. “We need textbooks and units of instruction that help current teachers learn about the subject matter.”

I rest my case: Supplying the composites industry with skilled labor can be done via public education, using standard programs, as early as junior high or middle school. And private schools can play a role, too: It would be a great help if they could work within the same framework (such as that provided by ACMA’s CCT program, but with the addition of documented hands-on experience). Most importantly, they need to cooperate to create comprehensive, rather than narrowly focused, programs that uphold a nationally recognized standard.

Editor Pick

Composites: Past, Present and Future: Marine Composites Training and Education, Part III

In Parts 1 and 2, Andre Cocquyt outlined the difficulty that composites manufacturers have faced in finding skilled employees and described a transferable model for local/regional training programs. In Part 3, he discusses the critical issue of program funding.