An additive manufacturing problem shared …

Whenever I think about where I am now in my career, I always laugh at how much luck played a part at every stage! From a career advisor sending me down the route of a Mechanical Engineering degree, a guest lecture on ‘Rapid Prototyping’ towards the end of that degree, and a new Master’s course starting in that area just as I was finishing, everything just kind of fell into place. Somehow, 20ish years (where did that time go?) after first hearing about it, I’ve ended up here in Sheffield as an academic, leading a team of technical and research staff and students focused mainly around powdered-polymer additive manufacturing (AM).

But what’s the big draw? It’s not ‘being an academic’ (although it’s a pretty cool job anyway), it’s much more about being an academic specialising in AM. The thing that first inspired me about this whole field was the way it had so many applications across different areas, and being an academic lets me explore those areas and take my team’s research in pretty much whatever direction we think seems interesting. I’m lucky enough to have a team of technical staff, researchers and PhD students who are all as excited by AM as I am, which makes a really good environment for throwing ideas around and trying new things.

I also get to teach our Undergraduate and Masters students all about AM. I think most educators would agree there’s a great pleasure in getting to introduce people to something you’re really passionate about and seeing them start to develop that same passion. It’s a genuine source of joy to me that a decent number of my ex-students have gone on into careers in AM, and of course they’re an excellent source of advice for any of our current students who might be considering doing the same!

In general, I really think this is an exciting time for people wanting to move into this area, and not just the ‘usual suspects’. Because here’s the thing … although the AM industry is getting bigger, it still feels quite small and friendly. Many of the people who’ve been around for a while genuinely care about sharing their experience and expertise, and about welcoming new people into the area. And slowly but surely, we’re starting to draw in more people from a whole host of complementary areas, who are bringing with them a great diversity of ideas and techniques. Just within my own circle of collaborators we have microbiologists, tribologists, material scientists, machine learning folk, statisticians, archaeologists, human interaction specialists and plenty more. In her column last September, Alex Kingsbury talked about the importance of the team in bringing together an event, and I think the same is true at a broader scale for us as an industry.

Bringing together people from different backgrounds and different application sectors can only help us develop more quickly and effectively. Perhaps they can offer solutions to some of the problems we need to overcome in AM or help us make sure we’re not missing anything obvious and trying to fix things that have already been fixed elsewhere. In some cases, it’s even more simple, and we just need a different viewpoint. I doubt she’d even remember it, but I have a vivid memory of telling Professor Eileen Harkin-Jones that we needed better temperature control on polymer sintering systems because thermal variations affect our mechanical properties. Her response of ‘or we just need materials that don’t care about thermal variations’ stuck with me ever since; another perspective that really helped me consider different alternatives.

Whichever way you look at it I think the bigger the variety of people we can attract into AM, the better and stronger we can become. So, I hope that, as the industry continues to evolve, we hold onto that ‘small-town feel’ and keep on welcoming new people from across different sectors and backgrounds.

Outside of that, what’s my personal wish for the future? Enough research questions left unanswered to keep me going until I can retire to a big old house in the countryside with my husband and our dog!

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