Posted on February 14, 2017 by staff

Inside BAE Systems’ high-flying academy


Dirty hand and nose prints on the windows are an unlikely measure of success but that’s the yardstick BAE Systems has set itself for its new £15.6m training academy in Lancashire.

The Academy for Skills & Knowledge (ASK) was officially opened in December and is tucked away on the Samlesbury Aerospace Enterprise Zone alongside BAE Systems’ military aircraft advanced manufacturing centre.

Given its discreet location the people behind the project want the outside world to peer in to see what’s going on inside – hence the reference to the hand and nose prints on the windows.

The ASK (as it is known) is packed full of tech, mirroring the latest advanced manufacturing technologies and factory layouts used at BAE Systems including robotics, 3D printers and a virtual reality ‘cave’.

It will also accommodate a Hawk jet trainer for apprentices to understand the engineering complexity and build of an aircraft at first hand.

As well as training all the apprentices and graduates in the company’s military aircraft business the academy will act as a collaborative skills-hub for the North West’s engineering and manufacturing sector, offering an education centre for school children from five to 14.

One of the accusations directed at BAE Systems over the years has been that its scale has enabled it to hoover up the best apprentices, causing problems further down the supply chain.

Dave Holmes is the manufacturing operations director for BAE Systems Military Air and Information.

He believes the benefits of the academy will extend far beyond BAE.

We’ve built it outside the factory gates,” he told BusinessCloud. “We’ve got a relationship with 20 schools around the region to bring the STEM subjects into reality. For every 10 people we employ inside the gates we’ve got 12 employed outside.

“We want to create a conveyor belt of talent so it gets children interested in engineering, manufacturing and the science subjects. We recognise that science is moving so fast we need a facility to keep our existing employees so they can add value through life.

“Manufacturing is very sexy. It really is what drives the economy. Manufacturing in the North West has never gone out of vogue.”

And that is the crux of the matter. Manufacturing may never have gone out of fashion in East Lancashire but the sector’s oil rag and metal-bashing reputation has failed to excite a generation of children.

That’s why BAE has invested £15.6m of its own money on the academy and used technology to engage with youngsters.

A good example is the VR ‘cave’, which is a virtual version of BAE hangar and has a life-size VR model of a Typhoon jet. Apprentices can interact with the aircraft, get a 360 degree view of the plan and remove panels to see the technology that lies beneath.

It’s so lifelike that it’s no surprise to learn that the company behind the software also works in the entertainment industry producing VR rollercoaster rides.

The academy has 26 classrooms in total and took three years to design and build. A few days after my visit a gloomy Bank of England governor Mark Carney predicted that robots could put 15 million Britons out of work – without mentioning the opportunity that making all these robots presents.

Chris Toulmin is an assessor trainer at the academy, having previously worked on aircraft for 16 years.

As he spoke an £83,000 robotic cell works away in the background, replicating the mundane jobs that would normally be done by hand. The robot never needs a lunch break, a holiday or requires time off sick.

“It’s not about replacing the person but removing that boring tasks,” explained Toulmin. “Let’s get the coded welders doing the good stuff. If we can get the robot doing the bread and butter stuff then that’s the way forward.”

BAE Systems is also exploring new technology like AR and VR to help train apprentices.

Manufacturing development engineer David Holmes (and son of Dave) explained: “The business is starting to look at augmented reality, virtual reality and mixed reality to deliver work-based instructions to engineers.

“It allows the operator to visualise the job in front of them before actually doing it. The idea of this is to improve the quality of the work done.”

The real heart of the facility is the education room, complete with its own mock runway. Designed for primary and secondary school pupils it offers students as young as seven a chance to come on site and see STEM in action.

Andrew Bloor is the head of early careers at BAE Systems Military Air and Information and said the aim of the education room is to “inform and inspire” children in engineering.

“When kids are in school they don’t really understand what engineering is like in a company like ours,” he said. “They think of it as a shop floor environment with overalls. A lot of engineers think engineering is good fun.

“We want to encourage our apprentices and early careers people to innovate and experiment while they’re not on a programme. We want people to try something and fail.”

A total of £50,000 has been spent on 3D printers to teach skills in the computer designing and rapid prototyping of parts, which is increasingly used in modern manufacturing.

There’s also a carbon fibre cleanroom for trainees to understand the materials used in Typhoon and F-35 aircraft.

Zoe Garstang is a BAE Systems’ apprentice who joined the company in September 2016.

She said: “Walking in to the academy is like walking into the future, all the technology we have here is really motivating. I want to be involved in designing and manufacturing the next generation of military aircraft and the academy will give me the perfect start to my career.”

It’s also hoped the building will give a much-needed kickstart to Lancashire Enterprise Partnership (LEP) and Samlesbury Enterprise Zone in particular.

LEPs date back to 2011 and are seen as critical in boosting the skills base to fuel economic growth. In Lancashire’s case those key sectors include aerospace, advanced manufacturing and creative and digital.

Despite lots of talk there’s been a marked shortage of buildings coming out the ground – until now.