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Higher Education’s role in addressing the Additive Manufacturing Skills Gap
by Dr Candice Majewski
With all the talk about how additive manufacturing (AM) is going to change the world, it is becoming increasingly important for us all to do our bit to help it reach its full potential. We are clearly moving in the right direction in terms of R&D, with increasing levels of funding into improving the technical aspects of AM—for example, properties, repeatability and automation—and we are starting to see a lot more evidence of the importance of AM at a strategic/policy level. Having said that, one area we still need to catch up on is in making sure our workforce has the relevant skills and training. This is clearly an issue that cannot be addressed by a single individual, group or sector; we all have a part to play in making sure the workforce is equipped with relevant and up to date skills. So, what can Universities do? As AM researchers and educators, how can we use our experience and expertise to support the needs of industry?
Cutting through the hype
We all aware of the hype and that there are inaccuracies and in some cases outright untruths about AM in the public domain. While we cannot fix everything that is wrong on the internet, we do need to do more to tip the balance in favor of facts and substance.
Currently, most people are playing ‘catch-up’ with AM, and it is crucial that they can easily find accurate and useful information among a mountain of information. Universities come with an expectation of independence and lack of bias, which also gives us a responsibility to help get the truth out there. We shouldn’t be afraid to correct things, whether by responding to articles, writing to editors or simply saying ‘yes’ more often when asked to comment.
At degree level, it is essential to keep reinforcing the need to be critical when reading about AM. That might be recognizing that a technical-sounding article is actually a cleverly-worded sales pitch, wondering why certain data has not been presented (z-direction properties anyone?) or simply seeking out more information to back up or disprove what students are reading.
As part of an exercise I run with my undergraduate and master’s students, I ask them to discuss a selection of (in my opinion) badly written AM-related articles. I admit it can be fun seeing their irritation levels rise as they discuss the number of errors, misleading comments and lack of any form of factual detail, but it also fulfils a crucial purpose. As a student, it is easy to feel that external people (the ‘experts’) know more than you, but going through this process reminds them that they really do know more than they realize. Providing a safe space to discuss, debate and form opinions should help give our future graduates the confidence to question what they see when they get out into industry.
The need for an honest and straightforward approach applies just as much to our dissemination activities; as researchers, we are pretty good at presenting the ‘best’ results of our work, but we tend to forget the things we tried that didn’t go so well. Every time a build fails, we learn something. So why are we not sharing these things too and stopping others from making the same mistakes? Equally, a large amount of information is ‘common knowledge’ if you’ve been involved in AM for years, but where do you go to find that information if you’re just starting out in the industry? Much of this information exists throughout industry, but institutions often find it difficult to share information that might help their competition get ahead.
As University researchers, much of our work is publicly-funded and we are required to disseminate the results. We need to stop giving the impression that everything we try works perfectly first time and start getting really useful extra information out there.
Telling the whole story
We also need to talk more about the wider context of AM, rather than just the most interesting bits. We are all used to seeing some fancy in-process video or shiny images of the final product, but what our students need to understand are all the stages that led to the end result. It is highly possible that some of my current undergraduate and master’s students will be in a position to decide whether and how to use AM in their future company, which means my job is to provide them with the tools to make that decision.
Processes and systems change so rapidly that there is only limited use in covering more than the general process categories and their relative capabilities. Add to that the large number of ‘hands-on’ courses available through original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and other organizations, and it quickly becomes clear that we need to be complementing rather than duplicating these activities.
By all means we should be introducing our students to actual AM processes, otherwise it can all be a bit too abstract. All of our engineering undergraduates have access to 3D printers in the Diamond, our new multidisciplinary engineering building project space, and 3D printing vending machines have started to pop up in various universities including Virginia Tech and the University of Texas at Austin. Where we can really add value though, is in teaching the principles that underpin AM, rather than focusing too much on specifics.
If we help our students to understand the generic process chain, how it might affect their choices and the other implications of AM, they should be able to adapt to the ever-changing landscape. They need to understand that nesting and orientation of parts will affect both build time and mechanical properties, that supports take time and resources to remove and that this process can lead to a poor surface finish. The point is not to be able to quote numbers and values—anyone can look those up—but to be aware of these issues in the first place.
We need our graduates to look at a mechanical property value and immediately think ‘what orientation was that built in?’, or when quoted a cost per part to question whether that includes pre- and post-processing. By embedding that sense of inquiry, we end up in a situation whereby it doesn’t matter which process or system we are considering, our graduates know what questions to ask in order to reach an appropriate conclusion.
We also need to be sending out people who can clearly articulate the intricacies of AM and how it fits within the overall supply chain. In other words, we want graduates who can explain that there is no single answer to the question ‘how long would it take to manufacture that part if I wanted to switch to AM?’. Rather, we need people who can explain to a finance person that yes, the part itself may cost more to produce but that its other benefits—light-weighting, added value through personalization or a host of other potential considerations— make it the most appropriate and cost-effective method in the long run.
We must also be careful to teach them that AM does not exist in its own little bubble; it is essential that we teach them about traditional manufacturing techniques. How can I understand the benefits and limitations of AM if I don’t understand the benefits and limitations of the other processes at my disposal? What we certainly don’t want is a generation of graduates who think everything should be produced using AM. By showing how and where AM fits into the broader manufacturing context, we can do much more for its success in the longer-term than if we teach it in isolation.
Broadening our horizons
One other thing to keep in mind is that the first step towards sending out good graduates is to attract good students into relevant disciplines in the first place. While there are a large number of Science, Technology Engineering and Maths (STEM)-specific events across the country, one major thing we are lacking at the moment is follow-up. How do we capitalize on the excitement generated in a single event and maintain that enthusiasm all the way through to degree choices and beyond?
This is where we need to remember the key role of both teachers and parents in influencing the choices of the children in their care. If they don’t understand the subject, it can be difficult to engage in conversations about it, and we risk losing the momentum we’ve started to build up. But if we take the time to inform, enthuse and educate the adults too, they can play a vital role in maintaining that interest.
This should not be all that hard to achieve. All that’s really needed is for us to provide the relevant level of accurate information in an easy-to-use format. At its most basic, this might be simple fact sheets including basic information about AM and signposting to other sources of information.
We can take that further, in the form of online activities, games or apps to encourage parents and children to learn together or through lesson plans and case studies to make it easier for teachers to include in the classroom. Involving our degree-level students in these activities can provide an enhanced learning experience, whilst simultaneously helping to attract future cohorts.
Of course, outreach doesn’t stop there. In general, we could do much better at getting our work out to a broader audience. There is a danger of becoming so focused on our next big journal publication or conference presentation that we forget the potential impact of a well-placed article in a relevant magazine or adept use of social media. Often this falls way outside of our comfort zone. Working out how to explain something to a non-expert in a way that doesn’t make their eyes glaze over can be much more difficult than writing a technical paper, but it is also something we have to do if we are to reach the broader community.
The other researchers working directly in our field are likely to see our publications and presentations anyway, but what about the people in other sectors or disciplines who might also benefit from AM? Getting our work out there to the wider world should not only increase their understanding of AM but benefit all of us by bringing in an increasingly diverse range of expertise into the community.
I am happy to say we are already picking up momentum. Increasing numbers of universities are beginning to engage with AM, and we are starting to see more modules and courses in this area. UK National Strategy for Additive Manufacturing/3D printing has a specific working group focused around skills and is currently in the process of mapping current activities against industry needs. The next step will be to ‘plug the gaps’, which will mean all of us—universities, schools, industry, media and anyone else we can bring in—working together to make it happen. The good news is that the vast majority of us who work in AM research do so because we’re passionate and excited about it, and we love it in spite of any of its current flaws. So, while the journey is in many ways just beginning, it should be a fun ride.