The technology behind 3-D printing is progressing rapidly, with companies around the world investing billions of dollars into R&D to improve hardware, software, and printable plastics and other materials.
Meanwhile, the use of 3-D printing has gone mainstream. As a result, knowing how to use a 3-D printer has become an in-demand job skill. A recent report from data company Wanted Analytics found that in one month 35 percent of engineering job listings from a variety of fields, including biomedical, software, and transportation industries, required applicants familiar with 3-D printing and its additive manufacturing processes. The same report found that companies are having a difficult time finding candidates with the right skills.
“The entire field is diverging, branching, and evolving as fast as any evolutionary technology you can possibly imagine,” says IEEE Associate Member Terry S. Yoo, head of the 3-D Informatics Group at the U.S. National Library of Medicine, in Bethesda, Md.
Here is how to land jobs that require 3-D printing skills.
The first step is to learn how to use a 3-D printer, but getting started is fairly easy and can be self-taught. Relatively inexpensive 3-D printers can be bought online or at an office supply store. On the low end, the daVinci from XYZprinting can build objects up to 20 cubic centimeters and retails for about US $499. The Makerbot Replicator Mini can build an object 10 by 10 by 12.5 cm at $1,375. (More sophisticated devices can cost upward of $10,000.)
Other opportunities to learn on larger, more expensive machines may exist within your community, including in some libraries or local clubs. “The maker community is driving a lot of the innovation in 3-D printing,” Yoo says.
Once you have access to a printer, the first challenge is to visualize what you want to print, says IEEE Member Michael Gouzman. He holds 15 patents related to the printing technology and manages the Sensors and Systems Laboratory at Stony Brook University, in New York. “People can use simple design tools, even Microsoft Word, to create primitive figures,” he points out. More complex designs can be created through common 3-D modeling programs such as CorelDraw. “It all depends on your imagination,” he says.
Actually translating your designs into physical objects takes more work and a broader skill set that requires a combination of math, programming, art or design, materials science, and mechanical engineering. 3-D printers create objects made of one paper-thin layer of molten material deposited at a time. As a result, the printed materials will behave differently than if they were produced in a mold or carved out of a solid object.
“You’ve got thermal dynamics, fluid mechanics, and mechanicals, all coming together to build an object layer by layer,” says Matt Fiedler, founder of the Houston-based company re:3D and creator of the Gigabot 3-D printer, a device that starts at $5,950 and can build objects up to 60 by 76 by 60 cm. He adds that many people getting started in 3-D printing experience a large number of “failed prints” and must correct their builds by adjusting their designs, printing speeds, layer thicknesses, and other factors.
Sometimes designs simply fail once they are taken out of the printer. “Just because I can design something beautiful doesn’t mean it will actually hold together,” says Yoo.
WHY 3-D PRINTING SKILLS ARE VALUABLE
Fiedler says that 3-D printing can help engineers rapidly test their designs and make adjustments, which could otherwise take months if manufacturing were left to another, perhaps distant, party. “Engineers need to fail and recover quickly,” he says. “They need to go through iterations before they come up with designs that work optimally.”
Physical objects can help get projects to the approval stage faster, he says: “If a picture is worth a thousand words, a model is worth a thousand pictures.”
Engineers can also use 3-D printers to build parts that would otherwise be impossible or time-consuming to make. “General Electric is using an additive manufacturing technique to make hollow brackets out of metal powders that couldn’t have been made with an injected molding process,” says Yoo. “The parts are far lighter and often far stronger than their standard counterparts.”
FINDING YOUR NICHE
Software developers in particular are in high demand, says Fiedler. “We don’t yet have a seamless user interface for 3-D printing devices,” he admits, meaning the software isn’t always simple to figure out. “Wide-scale adoption of 3-D printing relies on an interface that allows those without a technical background to easily use the machine.”
Fiedler’s company is also looking for people with cloud-computing experience to connect their printers to the Internet. Through the cloud, users will be able to print their parts from anywhere. The cloud will also allow the company to troubleshoot printers remotely, which will greatly increase the printers’ life span, he says.
Companies around the world are also employing materials scientists to develop new substances to be used by the printers, he adds. “We’re seeing new materials such as engineering-grade and recycled plastics, and natural fibers, come out almost every month. And with every new material, you have a whole new array of applications and new things to learn about printing.” Materials come in a variety of textures and properties that can be used in a wide variety of applications. Some of the latest materials, for example, have electrical conducting properties, which can be used in circuits or can even be implanted into the human body to replace lost mandibles or portions of the spine or skull. (The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs was an early adopter of these techniques). Some devices are even printing with gold and other metals.
Much of the new hardware development seems to be taking place in small startups. Fiedler points to a “huge explosion of bootstrapped startups running out of people’s garages in the past couple of years,” but these may have saturated the marketplace. He now sees larger companies entering the market, such as HP.
“It’s absolutely amazing what we can do when we apply a little bit of training, education, and imagination to technology,” Fiedler says.