SNV Story No. 9: Tinkering according to standards

Each year, around 2000 apprentices are trained in Switzerland as design engineers. Their everyday work is heavily shaped by standards, and would in fact be inconceivable without them. As a result, the provision of knowledge relating to standards is a constant feature of their training. We discussed standards in engineering design training with Thomas Wohlwend, a vocational trainer at libs.

What an engineering designer does
Engineering designers draw up documents relating to the production, assembly, operation and maintenance of machinery, equipment or devices. If they choose libs as a training partner, they spend the first two years in Baden, Heerbrugg, Rapperswil or Zurich, after which the third and fourth years are spent with a partner firm.

Engaging with standards from week two
The first week of training at libs is also the last week in the professional life of an engineering designer during which they do not engage with standards. Following an initial week of external seminars focusing on topics such as team building or methodological expertise, the timetable for the following week already brings them into contact with industry standards. “It’s about basic things such as: what’s important to know about line types? What do the different lines on a drawing mean? What’s the right way to sketch? From what perspective should I look at a workpiece? And so on”, Thomas Wohlwend explains. It is at this stage at the latest that trainees become aware of how closely their everyday work is linked to standards. This is familiar territory for young people who have already gained an insight into engineering design work within their family environment. However, in some cases, it may come as a surprise for newcomers who do not have any prior knowledge.

THE set of rules – the Standards Compendium
And here we find it once again – the Standards Compendium published by Swissmem and the Swiss Association for Standardization (SNV). These standard regulations are part of an apprentice’s toolbox from day one and will accompany them throughout their entire professional life. “The benefit is being able to rely on a set of rules and understand how to carry out one’s work. The newly revised version once again contains a large number of optimised illustrations”, explains Thomas Wohlwend. “The drawback, however, is that the book has become increasingly thick and more complex. A good example of this is the content relating to geometric tolerances.” Since the Standards Compendium is reviewed every four years, this also means that all apprentices have to bring their knowledge and training materials up to date at regular intervals.

When the apprentice knows more
The fact that apprentices are always trained according to the most recent Standards Compendium results not infrequently in paradoxical situations in which they are the best-trained staff in the workplace with regard to knowledge of standards. Existing hierarchies need to take account of this fact and accept that it will no longer be the boss but rather apprentices who are most up to date. “In order to enable young design engineers to hold their own against more experienced individuals, we also train them in conversational and persuasive skills. We teach them to present themselves with a self-confident demeanour, to be tenacious and to give a jolt to teams who have gotten complacent. Whilst the first attempts at walking might involve some stumbles, confidence grows with each successfully completed piece of work”, Thomas Wohlwend notes with satisfaction.

What’s more important: international standards or company standards?
“It is remarkable how broad the diversity of standards is that apprentices have to get to grips with over four years”, comments Thomas Wohlwend. “Alongside international and national standards, they also have to memorise large quantities of company standards. How these are dealt with depends significantly on the size of the company and the geographical focus of the training company. Companies with an international presence largely operate according to ISO standards, whereas smaller firms and those with a local focus work more with company standards. In line with the motto: the guy in the workshop knows what I mean.” The balancing act becomes apparent in particular where apprentices study according to the Standards Compendium, subsequently take their partial examination (foundations) and then have to complete their practical final dissertation according to company standards. This means that the very same practical application can quite easily be measured according to different benchmarks. Testing experts take account of and accept these discrepancies, provided that a seamless argument based on an understanding of the standard is used. “We would therefore like partner companies to be rigorous in providing ongoing advanced training themselves in relation to standards so that they can offer apprentices an optimal training platform”.

Trying not to nitpick too much
Although this may be difficult for those familiar with standards, sometimes a pragmatic compromise needs to be struck between theory and practice. This is also confirmed in our discussion. libs works strictly according to standards. However, in some cases. this is qualified by considering how a particular task can be dealt with more easily in everyday life. The proportionality principle applies here too. It is only once the entire value creation chain is considered that it is possible to assess where there is zero tolerance in a design drawing and where there is some freedom of action. Similarly, a purely in-house production should be assessed differently compared to a collective project. If other suppliers are involved in the process, only a drawing that is absolutely compliant with standards will guarantee error-free operation and seamless traceability in the event of a fault. This is precisely what can be achieved by applying the Standards Compendium. “I see it as being a positive aspect of the Standards Compendium that, when working with our apprentices, we very seldom have to refer to the ISO standard source document. In 99% of cases, it sums up the relevant issues in a concise and extremely professional manner.”

Draw on all of the senses
It is helpful that apprentices at vocational college learn a very solid foundation of basic standardisation knowledge. Thomas Wohlwend appreciates the constructive cooperation with vocational colleges. However, how can complex standards be most readily and intuitively taught? The magic word is: figuratively. Teaching draws on a hotchpotch of examples from workshops – which have sometimes even been incorrectly produced on purpose. This type of learning is not a purely theoretical exercise, but also involves finding out through practical experience how something might look good but still be wrong. Read, listen, feel … all aspects should be used in teaching, resulting in a different sense of achievement for each type of learning. Moreover, practice makes perfect. “One luxury that we have in practical training is that we can flexibly adjust the speed at which each theory block is addressed in line with progress in learning. This ensures that even complicated content can be explored in sufficient detail”, stresses Thomas Wohlwend. “In addition, we also use practical projects as an opportunity for teaching theoretical content where relevant. Thanks to all of these measures, we can rightly say that, after the first two years, trainees have heard about all relevant professional standards at least once, and have thus been optimally equipped to deal with everyday work.”

An apprentice design engineer at work at libs.

How does “libs Industrial apprenticeships Switzerland” operate?

The goal of libs is to train young talent in 16 vocational fields. The leading training firm in the Swiss engineering, electrical and metal industry is organised as an association. Core members include ABB Switzerland Ltd, Accelleron Industries Ltd, ALSTOM Switzerland Ltd, General Electric, Hitachi Energy Ltd and Hexagon Leica Geosystem AG, alongside more than 140 member firms. libs recruits and manages apprentices for the affiliated partner firms, and also provides guidance to apprentices throughout the entire period of their apprenticeships. Apprentices spend the first two years of the apprenticeship in one of the four libs training businesses. There, they receive theoretical and practical knowledge, which they start to apply straight away by working on specific customer orders. During years 3 and 4 of the apprenticeship, trainees are transferred within the network to specific firms, where they complete their practical training. In parallel, they continue attending the official vocational training school throughout all four years, leading up to the award of a Federal Certificate. Thanks to this model, apprentices receive modern training in a broad-based working environment. Average grades of libs alumni have been consistently higher than the national average over the years, with the result that its trained professionals are in particularly high demand on the market.

Thomas Wohlwend

He started his career by training as a multi-discipline engineer, specialising in design, at Weidmann AG. This was followed by stints working in toolmaking for injection moulding tools as well as high-voltage engineering technology. He belongs to the seven-member vocational training team at libs, which trains around 15-20% of design engineers in the Canton of Zurich. In parallel, he also works as an expert for final apprenticeship examinations. He loves working with young people and particularly enjoys finding out about their fresh and sometimes unconventional ideas.

He belongs to the seven-member vocational training team at libs, which trains around 15-20% of design engineers in the Canton of Zurich. In parallel, he also works as an expert for final apprenticeship examinations.

Thomas Wohlwend

He belongs to the seven-member vocational training team at libs, which trains around 15-20% of design engineers in the Canton of Zurich. In parallel, he also works as an expert for final apprenticeship examinations.

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