Crazy for Composites Interviews – Malte Scherner, Executive Manager: Programs at AAT Composites

About Plataine

Crazy for Composites is a series of interviews with Industry Leaders, shaping the advanced composites industry. These interview are tie-free – casual, nothing formal and yet – pretty insightful.

Please tell us a bit about yourself

My name is Malte Scherner. I am AAT Composites’ Executive Manager Programs here in Somerset West, South Africa. To tell a little bit about myself, I was born in Germany and together with my parents and the whole family, we emigrated to South Africa in the early 80s. I grew up in Cape Town and went to school here and then I decided after school to study aeronautical engineering back in Germany. My first exposure to the composite aviation industry started during my studies. I had always planned to come back to South Africa at some point in time, but my career started off in Germany as a Design Engineer. I think that is kind of typical for having studied something in the Engineering field. I was involved in Aviation, Automotive, Medical industry projects also, kind of all over the show. But the one thing that was always connected and that I always worked with, was the development of composite parts and products. That is really what I love, and what I enjoy. I think that started off with being a scholar in South Africa in Cape Town and being close to the ocean: you start surfing, you start repairing your epoxy surfboard. So, you start working with glass fibers and epoxies and it just carries on from there. I stayed in Germany a lot longer than originally anticipated; I got back to South Africa at the end of 2015 when I joined AAT Composites. In hindsight, I have to admit, I wish I had done that step a lot earlier. But, in hindsight you are always more clever.

There is a lot of advantages of living and working in South Africa, for sure, especially here on the southern tip. We’ve got the Winelands literally 6 minutes away, we’ve got the ocean 6 minutes away. So, you can really enjoy life here at the tip of Africa.

What do you love the most about your job, about your position at AAT?

At AAT we manufacture composite parts for the commercial aviation industry, and that is what I have been doing throughout my professional career. It is going back to what I love doing: we develop composite parts, we manufacture them, and we deliver them into the world. We are focusing on low volume production, of products with a high amount of variants and complexity, so that makes it very labor intensive. What I really love about working at AAT is not only the product portfolio we are supplying, but also being reliant on working with people.
Being a very labor-intensive process which we manufacture our products in, having the right skilled employees, having the right people in the right places is key to a successful business.

What I really enjoy about AAT and working here: you are part of a team which delivers great products into the world. In South Africa, we like to say: “proudly South African, handmade in the Cape”.

What is the top challenge that you face today?

It is the same thing of what I love doing: we are working with people. That can be a blessing, but it’s also a challenge. People don’t put out the same quality, the same speed as a machine does, which is great and that is, for me, the salt in the soup. It makes life much better at the end of the day. It is also acknowledging that humans make mistakes, and the challenge we have is finding ways to support them with the best tools, with the best measures, with the best software, whatever the case might be, for people to deliver continuously, sustainably, good quality products in time to our customers. That is the top challenge for us.

What are the best tips for digital transformation?

We are in a kind of third world country. You know we are not a first world country, and I do not consider South Africa a third world country either, but digital transformation is often misunderstood as automation. For me that’s really falling short, especially in an African / South African context. Digital transformation is about a journey which you have to embark on in order to improve your current state. What you always have to do, and that would my tip, is to investigate what makes your life difficult – and come up with ideas how to improve it. To make whatever is so difficult, easier in the workplace.

Just sharing a little project we embarked on during COVID times: we teamed up with the local university and we put a camera system on the shop floor with a software package on, which analyzed the human motions and also picked up on how the person, who is laying up a composite part, is moving, measuring the distance the person had to move. Also, the arm movement was measured, and we gave the employee a computer tablet where he could quickly, just by a click of a button, share with us what is currently stopping him from being faster. That was things like ‘material is missing’ or ‘cannot get the material in the corner like it should be’ or ‘tool is not correct, needs to be refurbished’, things like that.

This was done with a camera and a tablet computer. Then you get a lot of data which you can analyze and based on this data, we were able to come up with ideas on how to make all those movements the person was doing, all those things that he was missing, better – to find ways to improve it. We had a huge success in that project in the sense that we improved efficiency by over 30%.  For me digital transformation is a journey for improvement, not the kind that automates. It is not “let’s replace a human with a machine”. In our business, with the complexity and the small volume – for some part numbers we manufacture maybe just a dozen parts – creating all the effort into automation is just falling short. It is much better to understand what is stopping the employee from being more efficient, and then supporting him by using new technologies. Using new technology to support the individual.

Does it help you in the ramp up now?

It was in a phase where we were ramping down, as I said, it was during COVID times. It’s helping us, of course, in the ramp up, that’s correct.

Sustainability and circular manufacturing – part of company agenda?

Yes, clearly! We have sustainability on our road map and it is part of our company agenda. But, frankly speaking, we could do a lot more – it is not the highest of priorities on our side.

We differentiate between ecological sustainability, we look at social sustainability, economical sustainability and also corporate sustainability and we’ve defined single projects for those four areas. We understand sustainability to be a lot more than “just kind of going green” and “carbon footprint”.
We also take our employees into the focus. What can we do on the social side to be more sustainable? There is no business without profit, so we need to look at economical sustainability and also at our development as a company and all of that.
We understand sustainability as being something which you do in the long term, and it needs to be something positive in the sense that it is really improving us on a global scale. But you must break it down into smaller packages, so that our employees are embarking on it and are supporting.

What we have experienced is that if you come along and say: “we want to reduce our carbon footprint by X percent”, typically the person on the shop floor who is building a part does not really buy into that. You need to break it down into smaller packages in order for the employee to be motivated and drive sustainability.

On a personal note, if you wouldn’t have been doing what you do here at AAT Composites, what would you be doing?

I am really blessed and fortunate to be living here. If I would not be doing what I am currently doing, I think I would still be developing products. That is a passion I always had and likely will always have. If I would not be developing cool products at AAT, I would likely be developing parts in my own garage. That is just something I am really passionate about.

And I have now reached an age, I am 52 years old, where I also see value in sharing my experience with younger engineers. That is a lot of fun, and it is what I am doing outside of AAT as well: being a person who mentors others.

I would then also have more time to spend with my wife and travel. We have not seen a lot of Africa yet. Living at the tip of Africa, there is still a lot of traveling to do.

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