Giving the next generation of engineers the tools they need to thrive with the Kirkstall Precision Engineering Apprenticeship Academy

Kirkstall Precision Engineering believe they’re only as good as the people they employ. They aren’t content with simply filling vacant positions – every member of the team embarks on a journey of progression and professional development when they arrive at work every day. As the company operates in such a fast-paced environment across a spectrum of sectors, bolstering their team with new blood and ensuring the existing team are being constantly challenged is pivotal to achieving lasting success.

 All of this hard work begins in their Apprenticeship Academy.

 Due to their record of success with hiring apprentices since the 1990s, KPE have invested in a new premise and purpose-built infrastructure solely for the development of apprentice engineers. The motives behind its opening were twofold. Firstly, training up the next generation of industry talent would give them instant access to a talent pool that was not only promising and hungry to learn, but also proven. Secondly, it was their way of giving back to the engineering community. From first-hand experience, they know that great engineers thrive off working with other engineers and it also ensures traditional craftsmanship stays at a high level and doesn’t die out.

 It’s something that makes them unique among their competition, as Managing Director, Adam Thornton, is keen to point out. “A lot of manufacturers choose to neglect person-to-person training and instead focus solely on machinery upgrades. We’re one of the very few companies that actually run and operate an apprenticeship scheme with a purpose-built facility, and the reason for that is simple. While it’s important to stay up to date on the latest technology, we believe there’s no substitute for traditional, hands-on training.”

 The Academy itself covers anything from nine-week T Level qualifications to four-year advanced apprenticeship programmes, consisting of one day a week theory at a local college, then four days of practical training at the academy. Once an apprentice has proven themselves competent, they will then be promoted to work in manufacturing workshops, where they will spend 12 months in each department, learning and developing the necessary skills to thrive as an engineer. Managing Director, Adam Thornton, firmly believes it’s this extensive programme which guarantees graduates from the academy are ready for life beyond the classroom. 

 “We have a 95% retention rate among graduates. In fact, 75% our current workforce is made up of academy graduates, with some 50% of our supervisor or manager roles filled by a graduate too.” added Adam.

 The academy is obviously something that instils a great sense of pride among the employees here, which should come as no surprise seeing as many of them directly benefitted from the scheme in the past. However, it’s clear that the academy isn’t just as a box ticking exercise, it’s a real, functioning part of Kirkstall Precision’s business model and it would be a lot poorer without it. 

 In the majority of cases, once an apprentice has finished their training, they are offered a full-time position. Kirkstall Precision believe they are best placed to oversee the transition from apprentice to fully-fledged engineer, as they have been monitoring their progression over the past four years. Throughout their training, they will have made notes and earmarked specific candidates for specific career progression routes based on their strengths, weaknesses and areas of interest.

 The Apprenticeship Academy is an invaluable resource. It puts KPE in contact with the best and brightest upcoming talent, enabling them to refresh and enhance their workforce, but also places the apprentice in an environment that is centred solely around their professional development and progression.

 The employees here at KPE don’t need to be convinced of the Academy’s benefits – they’re living success stories – but they do believe it has its merits over a university education. “Our curriculum is a perfect balance between the practical and the theoretical. Every apprentice will have to effectively execute what they’ve learnt in the classroom in a real-life setting before progressing, which isn’t always the case when studying engineering at degree level.” – Craig Dowling, Manufacturing Manager.

 Adam is buoyed by the success of the scheme so far, but has his eyes set on how it can be improved even further. “We not only want to encourage young people to consider a career in engineering, but we want to increase our duty to helping other, less represented groups discover the joys of working in engineering. We currently have one female second year apprentice on our books, who is progressing well, but we’d like to see this evolve into more of a normal thing and less of an anomaly in years to come.

ISO13485: A licence to practise in the medical engineering sector

Kirkstall Precision Engineering is where surgical
instruments come to life. Over the past 30 years, they have been operating at
the forefront of global precision engineering for the medical sector and are
highly regarded as specialists in this field. They provide a diverse range of
global clients with bespoke turnkey solutions that meet their specific business

 “Whether we’re dealing with a multinational conglomerate
like Johnson & Johnson who have a budget of millions, or a new start-up
orthopaedic surgery who rely on R & D grants, our approach remains the same.
In principle, we work with the exact same stakeholders: designers,
manufacturers, quality assurance teams to ensure compliance, then liaising with
procurement and supply chain teams to meet stocking and delivery requirements.”
states Operations Director, Iqbal Bahia.

 So, how did a modest set-up in Kirkstall become a trusted
global partner? Let’s explore this meteoric rise.

 To drive a car, you need a licence. To supply instruments
to the medical sector, you need to be approved to ISO13485, which Kirkstall
Precision Engineering are. ISO13485 has become the worldwide accepted standard
in the medical manufacturing industry and certifies that your practices conform
to the necessary regulatory requirements. This certification guarantees that
every medical device KPE produce conforms to international standards, from
design right through to distribution.

 However, obtaining this certification was not the end of
the road, but rather the beginning of the journey. “For us, ISO13485 is not
just a standard or system, it’s a working philosophy, it is a culture – a
company-wide ethos. Because we are assessed on an annual basis, a lot of hard
work goes on behind the scenes to maintain this gold standard, but the benefits
to us as a business cannot be overstated.” says Iqbal.

 As the internationally recognised standard within the
medical industry, client and patient concerns are immediately alleviated when
they know they’re dealing with experts. In the same way that a valid MOT
guarantees a car is safe to drive, KPE’s conformity to these standards ensure
the products they manufacture are safe, reliable and fully functioning. This in
turn contributes to enhanced customer satisfaction, as patients are reassured
that their medical needs will be met by the medical instruments designed for
manufacture and manufactured by KPE.

 In addition to enhancing their perception externally,
being certified to ISO13485 standards also helps the business grow internally. The
process approach outlined in ISO13485 has facilitated greater efficiency and
cost savings –
  identifying and eliminating
waste, reducing errors and avoiding rework. This has empowered Kirkstall
Precision to embrace an evidence-based decision-making system, decisions which they
now say tend to be better aligned with their strategic goals as a business.

 These benefits have also had a massive impact on the
morale and output of the team at Kirkstall Precision Engineering. It has
fostered a culture of continual improvement and enhanced engagement. Staff now
spend less time on non-value-added tasks and more time searching for ways to
improve their output. This means not only are they more invested in the
strategic business goals, but they also better understand their roles and how
they can be more productive.

 To maintain these high standards, continual investment in
people, building and infrastructure is essential. After all, the technology used
is only as good as the people behind it. And this is what Iqbal believes
differentiates Kirkstall Precision Engineering from their competitors.

 “As all our major competitors will also be certified to
ISO13485 standards, it’s critical that our people make the difference.” – Iqbal
asserts. He continues: “Recruiting a new member of the team is only the first
stage of that process. We make sure all of our team attend regular training
courses to hone their current skillset and develop new skills. As well as
fantastic people driving our success, we follow a strict set of processes and
procedures which keep up on track and aligned with our targets; it’s something hasn’t
escaped the attention of external auditors, who have ranked our Business
Management System (BMS) ‘best in class’.”

 Ultimately, KPE are adamant that it’s their people that
will drive them forward and ensure that they are adequately prepared for future
challenges that the medical sector will bring. In the past 30 years the world
has changed drastically and so has the medical industry. From a client
perspective, there’s been a gradual shift and increased demand for effective
risk management and risk decision management in relation to product lifecycle.
From a customer perspective, there has undoubtedly been a greater emphasis on
documentation, traceability and software validation to minimise the risk of a
device failing in a medical theatre. To meet these demands and reduce any
customer concerns around safety, KPE have expanded their quality assurance team
to meet further scrutiny and increased customer expectation.

 In the world of medicine where advancements and
breakthroughs can change the landscape in an instant, KPE must be vigilant to
ensure their processes do not become obsolete. Today, a bespoke knee
replacement can be done in just a 24 hour stay in hospital – something relatively
unheard of even a few years ago. Some of their key clients are projecting 200%
growth in the next three years in implant sales alone.

 There will also be growing demand for the design and
manufacture of new robotic surgical instruments as surgical procedures become
more automated. So, the need to stay ahead of trends and ensure they’re
compliant is more prevalent than ever – especially as the medical industry represents
an area of considerable projected growth for Kirkstall Precision as a business.

 The medical industry is always changing, and this brings
about its own certain set of unique challenges that working in other sectors wouldn’t,
as Iqbal admits. “We have to think about ethical considerations as we are
dealing with patients’ health and their recovery. Naturally, it’s absolutely
critical that any risk is managed and mitigated. However, the fact that we play
such an integral role in getting people back to full health is fulfilling and
incredibly satisfying, both from a personal and business perspective.”

 Kirkstall Precision Engineering started as a relative
unknown and have grown into a full-fledged specialist within the medical
sector. Their immediate future will focus on consolidating the hard work they’ve
achieved so far and building on the reputation they’ve established, looking
toward areas for growth in the future.