Interview: CNC Apprentice

Stonehill Engineering runs a successful apprenticeship scheme giving participants the opportunity to learn through real-world experience, while gaining the qualifications required to succeed in their chosen profession.

We interviewed Tom, a CNC Apprentice, as he reflects on what he has learnt during his apprenticeship and what he hopes to achieve next:

Why did you want to be an apprentice?
I didn’t consider an apprenticeship initially as most people I knew were focused on university. I went to sixth form but found all the coursework hard to manage – I prefer the practical side of learning. I made the difficult decision to drop out and took the first job I was offered at a coffee shop chain. This was great for increasing my confidence with talking to customers, but I wanted a plan for the future and my family suggested I consider an apprenticeship.

Why did you choose a Machining apprenticeship?
Before I applied, I looked on the company website and researched the role of a CNC machine operator. I watched lots of videos and thought it sounded really interesting. The fact it was a 4-year apprenticeship was also reassuring – if it takes 4 years to become qualified then it must be a big deal!

I wasn’t sure about working in a factory but as part of my interview I was given a tour and looked around all the machines, which were impressive. I was taken through the different stages involved in creating precision parts. I was also shown the computer programming area which was really interesting. I’d thought about being a design engineer when I was younger, so it was fascinating to see how all the different parts of the process fit together.

When did you join Stonehill Engineering?

I started as a CNC apprentice in June 2018 a few months before my college course began in September. This enabled me to get ahead with some of the practical aspects of my course. When I started college, I was one of the few who had some experience using the machines.

What qualification are you studying for?
I completed my Level 2 in Machining and am about to finish my Level 3 qualification at Cambridge Regional College (CRC). I have an Assessor who I communicate with regularly. There are so many different units you have to complete as part of your course, they make sure you are up to date and know what you need to do next. I don’t have to go into college now but at the start of my apprenticeship I went in 2 days a week, this decreased to 1 day as I progressed.

How did you find learning something completely different?

At Stonehill Engineering you are not put straight onto a machine, it’s expensive equipment and you are in control of whether it goes right or wrong, so you need to build up your confidence. I spent the first few weeks shadowing different people while they explained what they were doing. There’s a lot to learn and initially I thought: “There is no way I’m going to be able to do this!”, but over time you start to remember.

One of the ways that helped me to learn was when they broke down the whole process one task at a time. I was asked to take ownership of a small part of this process. Every time I did that task, they would watch to make sure it was correct and give me feedback. If I asked a question that had previously been answered I was challenged to figure out the solution myself.

Everyone in the team has varying levels of experience. One person had just finished his own apprenticeship and understood what I needed to learn and was keen to help. Other team members have years of experience and it’s great to have access to that knowledge when you need to ask more obscure questions!

What is a typical day like?
Very busy! We have a lot of work coming in that we need to make sure we complete on time. You must be efficient and always stay one step ahead, so as a process completes you have everything ready to start the next one.

Currently I operate the 5-axis machines creating complex parts. The term 5-axis refers to the number of directions the cutting tool can move and means you can approach the part in all directions. I get involved in making all different types of precision parts for both internal and external customers. We produce a lot of items for crash test dummies and pedestrian legforms used in automotive safety testing. Recently we’ve been working on parts for a British-built motorcycle.

We work in shifts and there is a crossover with the next team to give you time to understand what has been happening on the machine you will be operating – communication is crucial.

What new skills have you developed?
At first, I was taught how to use the 3-axis machine and once I felt confident I showed enthusiasm and put myself forwards to help with the 5-axis. As you improve you are moved onto the next step, as long as that’s what you feel comfortable with.

Apart from machinery skills, I’m also much better at communication now. You can’t afford not to be vocal if you see something that hasn’t been done correctly. If you make a mistake yourself, you need to be up front about it as there can be a knock-on effect for customer deadlines if it’s not sorted out straight away. It’s better to speak up and then show you can do better next time.

What do you enjoy most about being an apprentice?
I enjoy many aspects. I like how practical and hands on it is and I like the hours as my weekends are kept free. Although your work is monitored there is a lot of independence and you are not micro-managed – as long as you meet your daily targets you can go at your own pace.

Has anything surprised you about your apprenticeship?

Being a CNC Apprentice offers fantastic career progression. It’s a job where there is always a path in front of you and always more you can do. I thought I would have to finish my apprenticeship before I was trained on the 5 axis machines, but if you are keen and they think you are ready, then you are given the opportunity.

With an apprenticeship you earn straight away. You might not start on the highest salary, but you see incremental increases as you progress and by the time I finish my course I will be earning an amount that I didn’t think would be available to me at this age, without going to university.

How has Stonehill Engineering supported you?
It feels like the company takes responsibility for your apprenticeship, providing most of your learning in the workplace rather than relying on the college. They are very relaxed about the time you take to attend lessons, for example if you need to go in for an extra day. During the coronavirus pandemic the practical side at college was really restricted. When they asked us to come in for catch-up sessions the company had no issue with this, it was never questioned.

It’s a good environment for a CNC apprentice to work in as everything is done by the book with no short cuts. When you are first learning you are instructed to take your time and ask questions to make sure you get it right. We have a good team and our team leader puts your interests first and is motivated to help people who he sees are trying to succeed.

What future plans and ambitions do you have?

I want to keep pushing forwards and I would like to do my level 4 qualification, which involves more offline programming. I feel like I now have a career with options available to me for progression and skills that are of value to my company, something I didn’t think I had when I decided to leave sixth form.

What advice would you pass onto someone who is thinking of becoming an apprentice?
Remember university is not the only option for finding a career. As an apprentice you don’t need to have the same qualifications as someone who goes to university, you just need to show the right characteristics – that you want to work there, are willing to learn and will put in the effort.

Research the title of the apprenticeship you are interested in and what comes out of it at the end as you might be surprised about where it could lead.

Also, don’t focus on waiting until September when college starts to do an apprenticeship, join when you can and start getting experience straight away.

Is there anything else you would like to highlight?
Don’t ever feel like you are not the type of person who would fit into a factory environment. It’s the right balance of professional but also relaxed. There are all different types of people working here and everyone is very accepting. I have been made to feel really welcome.

If you are interested in becoming a CNC apprentice, or would like to find out more about the variety of apprenticeships available at Stonehill Engineering, please contact us.

Engineering Apprenticeships – A Practical Approach to Learning

We offer engineering apprenticeships in many different areas providing our apprentices with the chance to learn through experience, while gaining the qualifications required to succeed in their chosen profession.

We are pleased to announce that we are now extending our apprenticeship scheme and are currently looking for CNC Miller engineering apprentices.

Our apprenticeships offer a great opportunity to earn an income, whilst undergoing training and developing new skills. They provide real life work experience, allowing you to take a more practical approach to learning. All our apprentices are mentored by a senior member of the team, they are there to offer support and to use their knowledge, skills and connections to help you develop in your new role. Apprentices are important to our future and many employees stay with the company after they have completed their studies.

Stonehill Engineering works with a number of educational providers to support our apprenticeship schemes – there is a wide range of courses on offer at intermediate, advanced and higher level, lasting between 1 and 5 years depending on the type and level of training. Our apprentices attend college regularly and tutors visit the workplace to assess their work. Engineering apprenticeships are not just for the young – anyone over the age of 16 and not in full-time education can apply.

Our parent company, Encocam, is also a member of the Apprenticeships Ambassador Network for the East of England, supporting an initiative to promote businesses to be more actively involved in an apprenticeship scheme.

Our business thrives on the energy and ideas of our employees. If you are interested in starting an apprenticeship with Stonehill Engineering, contact us.

Quality Inspection Capacity Increased for Precision Engineered Parts

Stonehill Engineering is committed to producing precision engineered parts to tight tolerances and every job carried out is inspected to ensure it meets strict quality control measures before it leaves the factory.

The quality inspection room at Stonehill, which is temperature and light controlled, has recently been expanded by fifty percent to enable the addition of two new machines, increasing inspection efficiency and capacity. Quality procedures are computerised at each stage to ensure compliance with customer needs and quality standards.

A new Profile Projector magnifies the specimen part and displays its profile on the projection screen, which includes a grid allowing highly accurate dimension and angle measurements to be taken.

A Height Gauge is used to measure height or step dimensions as well as diameters, as well as centre to centre distance of bores or grooves and the size of grooves.

These two new machines complement the range of existing inspection equipment, which includes a 3-axis QCT gantry-type coordinate measuring machine (CMM), Faro arm, roughness gauge, hardness tester and a wide range of precision mechanical instruments and gauges, as well as calibrated granite tables. The machinery is well-maintained and constantly checked by qualified engineers to ensure full performance.

Precision engineered parts manufactured by Stonehill Engineering are measured at the beginning, middle and end of each batch, to ensure consistent quality. A dedicated Quality Control team with four Quality Inspectors is responsible for the process of checking dimensions and other part characteristics against the corresponding drawings and specifications.

Items regularly inspected include parts for motorcycles and for crash test dummies. It is imperative that consistent quality of crash test dummy parts is achieved as they are placed under considerable stress during testing and in the field.

As a division of Encocam, Stonehill Engineering meets the ISO 9001:2015 Aviation, Aerospace and Defence quality management system requirements. This framework helps to control processes in order for consistent levels of quality and performance to be achieved.

For further information on our quality testing procedures and precision engineered parts, please contact us.

Stonehill Engineering expands CNC facilities

Stonehill Engineering recently took delivery of a fourth 5 axis CNC machine, bringing the total number of machines to 15. 

The new 5 axis machine, from Mikron AgieChamilles, increases our capacity even further as the 7-pallet station gives us the ability to run ‘lights out’ overnight and during the weekend. It also means that Stonehill Engineering now has three identical machines. 

This new CNC Machine gives Stonehill Engineering the potential to apply the SMED (Single-Minute Exchange of Dies) principle of running identical parts on each pallet and each machine, bringing the next level of flexibility and heightened efficiency to the business and to our customers.

Dr Mike Ashmead receives his OBE

Dr Mike Ashmead OBE: Following the announcement of his Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list in June 2019, Dr Mike Ashmead attended his investiture on Friday 25th October at Windsor Castle, when he was presented with his award by HRH Queen Elizabeth II, (Shown in the main photo, credit: Jonathan Brady/PA). The OBE was awarded in recognition for services to Exports and Innovation in engineering.

Mike started his Huntingdon-based business in 1988; today Encocam Ltd employs over 200 people. He began with an ambition to produce his own aluminium honeycomb and has gone on to developed a business with expertise in the design and manufacture of composite panels, energy absorbers, automotive safety products, and motorcycles. The company, which has developed market-leading products, began exporting in 1990. It is now one of the region’s largest exporters with offices in the UK, Spain, Holland, Germany, US and Japan, exporting over 80% of its total production.

Dr Mike Ashmead, who has a BSc and PhD in Chemical Engineering from Aston University has worked in the Engineering industry as a Chemical Engineer and a Process Development Engineer. Since the company began over 30 years ago, it has innovated and grown to eight divisions ranging from energy absorbers and safety test products for the automotive sector, through to composite and decorative panels, motorbikes and racing products, all inspired by the engineering challenges set by our customers.

In 2017 Cellbond, the Automotive safety division of the company was awarded the Queen’s Award for Enterprise: International Trade, a great acknowledgement of the company’s progress. In 2018 Encocam celebrated 30 years of innovation and success; events were held across the business with employees, customers, suppliers and partners, to acknowledge this milestone.

Dr Mike Ashmead OBE started his company with the goal of manufacturing aluminium honeycomb, to be sold and used all over the world. He was not afraid to take risks then, to achieve this goal, and will continue to do so, actively looking for new challenges.

HRH The Duke of Kent KG’s visit

We were delighted to welcome HRH The Duke of Kent KG as special guest of our passive safety testing division, to mark the end of our 30th Anniversary year celebrations.

The Duke’s visit follows the division’s Queen’s Awards for Enterprise: International Trade in celebration of Her Majesty The Queen’s 91st birthday, in 2017. The Queen’s Awards for Enterprise are one of the most prestigious business awards in the country, with winning businesses able to use the esteemed Queen’s Awards emblem for the next 5 years.

The Duke was greeted by a group of local dignitaries, including the Lord Lieutenant of Cambridgeshire, Mrs Julie Spence, Lord Lieutenant’s Cadet, Warrant Officer James Smalley, Mayor of Huntingdon, Cllr Steve McAdam and Encocam’s Managing Director, Paul Cope.

The Duke met staff from across the business and was showed around displays from the Cellbond division and had a tour around the Crash Test Dummy Laboratory.

Stonehill Engineering staff and apprentices were on hand to explain their role in the design, engineering, moulding and manufacture of innovative products used by Cellbond’s customers, who are automotive manufacturers and organisations who test vehicle and pedestrian safety world-wide. The Duke was very interested in the manufacturing and testing process and was able to witness a live impact test.

Stonehill Engineering staff and apprentices were on hand to explain their role in the design, engineering, moulding and manufacture of innovative products used by Cellbond’s customers, who are automotive manufacturers and organisations who test vehicle and pedestrian safety world-wide. The Duke was very interested in the manufacturing and testing process and was able to witness a live impact test.

Stonehill EngineerinFollowing lunch the Duke unveiled a commemorative plaque to celebrate his visit and then departed , waved off by a crowd of staff.

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