Engineering apprentices from Schaeffler (UK) Ltd and Varian Medical Systems (VMS) Ltd are benefiting from a scheme set up by the two companies to help broaden the knowledge, skills and experience of their apprentices. The Apprentice Swap Scheme, which was introduced in 2012, involves two engineering apprentices from each company exchanging their roles for 3-5 days. By doing this, the trainees gain an appreciation of what it is like to work in a different type of manufacturing environment, as well as getting an opportunity to learn new disciplines.
Schaeffler and Varian know each other very well. As a manufacturer of precision bearings and automotive engine components, Schaeffler UK's plant in Llanelli, South Wales is a high-volume, highly automated production environment, with a mix of CNC machinery, automated handling and assembly lines, a deep drawing press, coating plants and heat treatment furnaces.
Varian is a world leader in the design and manufacture of radiotherapy machines, equipment and software, and employs around 220 people at its UK plant in Crawley, Sussex. Although the number of employees at Llanelli and Crawley are similar, Crawley is predominantly an assembly plant that builds and tests more than 600 complex high-value medical machines and patient couches, in low to medium volumes, each year.
Schaeffler UK has been supplying high-precision linear guidance systems to Varian for use on their patient couches for over 10 years.
Gareth Gravell, toolroom technician at Schaeffler UK, comments: "Our working relationship with Varian is very good. The two companies have very similar cultures, in that we are always looking to continuously improve our products and we both value our apprentices very highly. We therefore decided to introduce an Apprentice Swap Scheme, as there are currently no similar nationwide or UK Government-led schemes in existence.
"The Scheme is helping our engineering apprentices to gain an appreciation of what it is like to work for one of our customers and to get an insight into that customer's processes and working methods. The Scheme is a win-win for all parties concerned, as not only do the apprentices broaden their knowledge base and practical skills in a completely different working environment, they also get to see how the bearings and linear systems made at Schaeffler are integrated into Varian patient couches."
Warren James, engineering apprentice at Schaeffler UK, volunteered for the Apprentice Swap Scheme in October 2014. Warren spent 3 days at Varian's Crawley plant, learning how patient couches are assembled and tested, including the key role that linear guidance systems are playing in these high-value machines. Warren, who is currently in the third year of an engineering apprenticeship at Schaeffler Llanelli, works in the toolroom. He has an HNC in Mechanical Engineering from the local college, Coleg Sir Gar, but after completing his 4-year apprenticeship, Warren hopes to further his qualifications by studying for an HND.
As you'd expect from any toolmaking apprenticeship, most of Warren's time at Llanelli is spent operating a variety of metal cutting machinery, including lathes, grinding, milling, drilling and turning machines.
Warren explains: "I volunteered for the Swap Scheme as I'd only ever worked in one type of manufacturing environment and so for me, getting to see inside a totally different engineering company was an opportunity that I didn't want to miss.
"At Varian, I spent most of the 3 days on fitting and assembly tasks, which involved some electrical wiring - a completely new experience for me as a mechanical engineering apprentice. I also gained an insight into how complex medical machines and patient couches are assembled and tested, which was fascinating."
The latest Varian apprentices to benefit from the Scheme are James Verdon and Luke Pennington, who spent 4 days at the Schaeffler Llanelli plant in September 2014, during their final year of a 4-year apprenticeship. As multi-skilled fitters at Crawley, James and Luke were both eager to broaden their practical mechanical engineering skills by working in a toolroom and general machine shop environment.
As James Verdon states: "Both Luke and myself spent 1 year full time at the local college in Crawley studying for an NVQ Level 3 in electrical and mechanical engineering. Our second and third years of the apprenticeship involved a day-release to the college and 4 days working at the plant, where we spent 4 months in each area of the business.
"It was the first time I had worked outside of Varian and so I didn't know what to expect. However, the people at Schaeffler quickly made me feel very welcome. I loved the variety of work in the toolroom. It was challenging but very rewarding, as we had to read engineering drawings, interpret these correctly and then program the machine to cut the parts from metal - all completely new experiences for us both."
Luke Pennington agrees: "We volunteered for the Swap Scheme because most of our time at Crawley involves assembly and fitting. We wanted a taste of toolmaking and metal cutting in a high-volume, automated factory, so it was a great opportunity for us. I'd spent time at other supplier sites, but these were just factory tours with no opportunity to broaden my practical skills. We thoroughly enjoyed our experiences at Llanelli and we will certainly be encouraging our two new Varian apprentices [who will start in September 2015] to volunteer for the scheme."
For more information about the Apprentice Swap Scheme, please go to www.schaeffler.co.uk.