Olympic effort

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Very few teenagers get to represent their country on the world stage: Rebecca Adlington, then 19, swam to gold at last year's Beijing Olympics, while Arsenal's Theo Walcott made his England debut at 17. But there is another way.

In September, a squad of nearly 30 young British people will compete at World Skills in Calgary, Canada. This pits youngsters from more than 50 countries against one another, in around 75 vocational disciplines – from hairdressing and landscape gardening to 3D CAD and CNC machining. The UK hopes to compete in around 30 categories. Those on the Calgary shortlist are already preparing for a final showdown in June, when a three-day trial will determine final squad members. One of them is Fraser McLean (large image here) , a Rolls-Royce apprentice from Paisley. His event is CNC Turning, and he will spend between now and June honing his skills in an attempt to make the UK squad. “I need to reach a high level, if I’m to make it,” he says. If he succeeds, he will be just 18 when he takes part in World Skills 2009. 2011 BECKONS NOW But before that – by early April, in fact – the UK needs to find fresh candidates to compete at the next event, World Skills 2011, which takes place in London. And you don’t have to be a teenager to enter: candidates born after 1 January 1986 are eligible for London 2011. The event, which takes place from 6-9 October 2011, will take over the whole of the Excel exhibition centre in London. Less than 10 months later, the venue will host events at the 2012 Olympics. Simon Bartley, chief executive of UK Skills, says: “Five years ago, engineering generally withdrew from skills competitions. Now it is back with a vengeance.” He says that UK Skills has three priority areas: those where there are skills shortages; those of strategic significance to the UK; and those that dovetail with events such as World Skills and EuroSkills (see www.euroskills2008.eu). “Every industry and sector should be holding skills competitions,” he says. “Every college should be doing it.” There were 840 competitors at World Skills 2007 in Japan, with 950 expected to compete in Calgary. He hopes to welcome up to 1,300 to London in 2011. The UK entered 21 candidates in 2007, aims for 28 this year and 33-35 for 2011. Phil Jackson represented the UK (in CNC Milling) at World Skills 2007 in Japan. For him, the opportunity turned into a career booster. He was an apprentice at machine tool company Yamazaki Mazak – working in production on the shopfloor – when he was encouraged to enter. After several qualifying tests, he was the only person left in contention – but had to pass a final test before joining the squad. Candidates are tested on a range of skills, including: manufacturing components; selecting appropriate holding devices and tooling; and reading engineering drawings and converting them into machining programs. The nine-month period leading up to the final test is punishing, as candidates are prepared for the event. At one point, Mr Jackson went to Japanese machine tool firm Mori Seiki’s showroom in Paris – to practise on machines that would be used by all finalists. “It was non-stop training,” he explains. “My mentor would visit me every fortnight to give me drawings and timescales. I kept practising to get the time down.” World Skills is built on two critical pillars: speed and accuracy. It is not enough to do a job properly. It has to be done against the clock. The final event in Japan was the pinnacle of this. Day One consisted of a four-hour cutting job: two hours to program in MasterCAM, then two hours to cut an aluminium component. Candidates then wrote a program for a similar cutting job on Day Two. Mr Jackson again: “We don’t make ‘real’ components, they’re just complex shapes with a tolerance of 20 microns.” They then move on to tackle two six-hour jobs – in steel. Some of the cuts they are assessed on include: pocket milling; slot bores; and drilled, tapped and reamed holes. When he returned from Japan, Mr Jackson was promoted to Mazak’s applications office, where he demonstrated machines and supported machine programming training for customers. He has since left the company and now makes injection mould tools for flow regulator manufacturer Neoperl. “I would definitely recommend entering World Skills,” he says. “If I’d not done it, I might still be working production shifts. It’s had a massive effect on my career.” Mr Jackson’s only real regret is that he did not have more time to practise on ‘competition’ machines. “We only had two sessions on the Mori Seiki machines, so I struggled in Japan,” he says. “It lost me points and time. I’ve suggested that people need more time on the right machine.” UK Skills has already taken this into account for Calgary, says Andrew McLean – a toolroom supervisor at Bentley Motors who acts as mentor for CNC Milling. “In Canada, they will use Haas machines,” he says. “I’ll be getting two delivered on lease, so the lads can be trained up on them.” ‘The lads’ are Christopher Coates and Elliot New (see large image here – both Bentley apprentices and both aiming to be the UK representative for CNC Milling in Calgary. Mr McLean was asked to be their mentor after they made the shortlist. They will receive intensive training until June, when they go “head to head”. Even then, there is no guarantee of a place – “They will be benchmarked against the World Skills standard,” he explains. Some of the key skills they must demonstrate include: milling of profiles, pockets and threads, as well as drilling and tapping – just about every aspect of CNC machining, Mr McLean explains. However, they are assessed only on the final component. No marks are awarded for ‘technique’, only for results. For Mr McLean, this is as it should be. “In our particular skill, it’s all objective: if it’s that size, it’s right; if it’s not, then it’s wrong. Other disciplines, such as hairdressing and restaurant service, are more subjective,” he says. As well as coaching his two charges, Mr McLean must also look ahead to London 2011: once potential candidates have entered, he will need to assess them and select which ones go forward to the next level. One of the biggest challenges for UK Skills has been to convince companies to give their apprentices ‘time off’ to attend courses. Many are less than encouraging. “I would say it’s their loss,” he opines. “For a little bit of time and effort now, they will reap the benefits later. If you put investment in now, you’ll get it back tenfold later.” He says the specialised nature of CNC machining has reduced the number of entrants, making World Skills training hard to justify – especially for smaller companies. “It’s been an up-and-down process of getting people involved, because it’s not a cheap thing to do. I’m trying to set in place a way of getting a wider variety of entrant.” He says one way might be to shortlist candidates using “college machines”, so they are picked on their skills and potential, rather than the machine they are using. “I can then give dedicated training to these few,” he says. “Otherwise, we will restrict people who are capable, but do not have the facilities.” LAST MAN STANDING Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce apprentice Fraser McLean (large image here) is looking to be the UK’s first competitor in CNC Turning since 2003. He is the last man standing in his category: in June he will battle against himself, and the World Skills benchmark. He recently passed a three-day ‘squad selection’ trial at Warwick College. The first day was spent programming on MasterCAM. “I was given two drawings that I’d never seen before, and had six hours to draw up and write a program for them,” he says. The next two days were spent cutting – one job per day – to tolerances of 50 microns. He used a Dugard Eagle 100 to machine a range of features – including external threading, grooves, chamfers and undercuts. “I had to be careful with the [program] offsets and check after each operation that I’d measured properly,” he says. When Machinery spoke to Mr McLean, he was between sessions at Brathay – one of the many courses that candidates attend. Brathay is different: it does not teach technical skills, but instead focuses on ‘personal development’ – including mental conditioning and healthy eating (www.brathay.org.uk). “It helps us to become world class competitors,” the hopeful contestant offers. The UK has not traditionally set this category alight: it has entered CNC Turning only twice in the last six events and last fielded a candidate in 2003. In CNC Milling, it has entered four of the last six events. In that time, just one candidate reached the ‘magic’ 500-point mark – ensuring a ‘medallion for excellence’. According to UK Skills’ Simon Bartley: “We really struggle to put teams forward in more than three or four engineering categories.” In terms of improving this level of performance, he says it is vital to attract more entrants – and a large factor here will be employers. “There can be a reluctance from employers to take part – and some don’t like it if their employees get on the shortlist,” he says. “We have to demonstrate to them that it is worthwhile.” This article is taken from Machinery's March 2009 issue