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Abaris, UNR join forces for advanced-composite training

John Seelmeyer

Hundreds of photos of small groups six, a dozen, maybe 20 people in each line the walls of Abaris Training’s facilities along Longley Lane in southeast Reno.

The students who have come from locations around the world to learn skills in manufacturing of advanced-composite materials from Abaris instructors represent a direct link to the days four decades ago when Bill Lear made Reno a much-watched center of aviation development.

And while Abaris has been little-known in its hometown even as it’s widely recognized throughout the world of aviation manufacturing, the company this year joined forces with the University of Nevada, Reno, to begin training a highly skilled manufacturing workforce for the region.

To understand Abaris, you need to start with an understanding of “advanced-composite materials,” says Mike Hoke, a one-time corporate pilot who owns the company.

All of us are familiar with composite materials in the form of fiberglass, the glass-fiber reinforced plastic that’s ubiquitous in the manufacturing of spas, hot tubs and boats.

Advanced composites are sort of the same thing, using expensive high-performance resins along with high-strength fibers such as carbon to make materials most commonly used in aerospace applications.

“If it’s really expensive, it’s probably an advanced composite,” jokes Hoke.

Lear pulled together a team in Reno in the late 1970s to build a breakthrough small jet that made extensive use of advanced composites to reduce weight.

Even after Lear’s death in 1978, engineers pushed to develop the craft known as the Lear Fan, and three prototype aircraft were built before the efforts were abandoned in the early 1980s.

Bill Murphy, a retired Navy fighter pilot who worked for Lear, had seen the future in advanced materials during his stint with the company. He bought the rights to the LearAvia training materials out of bankruptcy and used them to create the first class offered by Abaris.

(Murphy developed the company’s name from the mythological Abaris the Hyperborean, who was said to travel the world on an arrow.)

Under the leadership of Hoke, who joined the company in 1988 and became sole owner after the death of Murphy in 1991, Abaris has expanded into a schedule of 26 classes.

Along with sessions at its Reno headquarters, the company’s instructors teach classes at a company-owned facility near Atlanta as well as part-time locations in Great Britain and Brazil.

During peak weeks, the 14-employee company is training two or three classes. As many as 1,200 students a year complete Abaris training, paying $1,995 for a week-long course.

Students, who come from the military as well as aerospace manufacturers such as Boeing, range from advance-degreed engineers to newcomers in advanced-composites manufacturing, Hoke says.

That means Abaris’ cadre of nine teachers six full-time, three part-time contractors need to stay abreast of the quickly developing field. And they need to teach it to a wide range of students in a way that keeps them engaged.

“When we need to hire new instructor, it’s a real challenge for me,” Hoke says.

A second big challenge: Buying the expensive materials that students use in the hands-on exercises in which they fabricate and repair advanced-composite materials. A roll of carbon-fiber material, for instance, easily can run $10,000.

Hoke scavenges all he can. A sailboat mast that’s worthless to sailors after it snapped, for instance, is a treasure to Abaris.

While most students have come from military and aerospace backgrounds (a few all-black photos on the company’s walls document classes from top-secret organizations), Hoke says the use of advanced-composite materials in products such as performance bicycles is widening the company’s pool of students.

Abaris is growing, too, as the economic recovery leads to increased travel and training budgets for corporate clients. The company attends aerospace trade shows, advertises in industry journals and relies heavily on word-of-mouth referrals from formers students to keep its classrooms filled.

The company is strengthening its presence close to home this spring with its partnership with the Extended Studies program at UNR.

Students who finish a three-course sequence at Abaris will earn a certificate in advanced-composite manufacturing from UNR.

Steve Hill, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, says the partnership will strengthen the state’s job-creation efforts.

“This course will play a pivotal role in helping to strengthen Nevada’s workforce capabilities in aviation and aerospace manufacturing and repair,” Hill says.

He notes that the American Composite Manufacturer’s Association reports that the $25 billion industry employs 236,000 people nationwide at more than 5,000 manufacturing and distribution companies.