Core engineering study programs are flooded with tried and tested processes, creating very monotone projects on the ground. This has led the major focus to being on delivering results, rather than developing new approaches. In turn new materials and processing techniques entering the manufacturing world leaves educational establishments and traditional SMEs behind.
Over the past year, we have been in conversation with many educational establishments and SME manufacturers. The repeated comment is that there is quite simply not enough qualified and experienced composite engineers available. The reason being that composites is not a widely taught subject in university, and there just aren’t enough straight forward degrees focusing on composite engineering and related manufacturing processes.
Many of the composites engineers today do not come from specialized composites courses, rather their knowledge simply come from exploring their structural engineering roots. The solid modeling and computer stress analysis programs (FEA) generally do not have composite modules in them either. These modules have to be bought from specialists and then learned on-the-job under great pressure to get it the right first time, and not learn from your mistakes — as mistakes are costly.
Our experience at Addcomposites is that we have to go and hire new team members from a particular sector where composites have not been the main subjects. Our recent intern joined us following a frustrating journey to find new and innovative ventures in composites, and is now able to gain first-hand experience with us.
So what does this mean for the industry in general?
Our first concern is that without a qualified labor force in these materials, processes, and techniques, projects will be performed through the conventional "metallic engineers" mindset, leading to composites designed as “black steel”.
Conventional structural engineers are able to pull from industry-specific standard technical publications that have published standard properties for metallic materials, and production processes such as weldings with standards and coded qualifications. However, in the emerging world of composites, very few similar standards exist. We are starting to see exceptions, of course, eg: the CIRIA Guideline for FRP Bridge Construction — give us more of this please! — as composites become more widely known and available for general manufacturing.
This raises our concern for the time, effort, and costs associated with the mainstream development of composite components, or stand-alone composite parts, when qualified and experienced composites engineers are not involved. The iteration from testing to redevelopment requires expert knowledge in the properties and most appropriate processes. Designs are often not as optimal or cost-effective as can be achieved — raising the question of are they actually “production-ready” or just complex engineering?