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Workforce Readiness

3D Printing for Workplace Skills

Penn State University's graduate-level Additive Manufacturing and Design program is giving students the technical and professional skills they need to succeed in the industry.  

3d printer

Additive manufacturing, or the use of 3d printing in industrial production, is changing the game across a variety of industries. To help prepare students for 3d printing in the workplace, Penn State University's Additive Manufacturing and Design program offers both resident and online master's degrees and certificates in the "analytical and practical skills required to digitally design, develop, analyze, numerically model, optimize, fabricate and inspect new components and subassemblies using appropriate additive manufacturing technologies," according to the program website

Here, program director Timothy Simpson talks about the technical and professional skills students need for the future of work in additive.

Campus Technology: Can you give an overview of Penn State's additive manufacturing program?

Timothy Simpson: It's actually an additive manufacturing and design graduate program. We were intentional about adding the design piece there, to differentiate ourselves as well as stress the importance of design for additive manufacturing.

We officially started in Fall 2017. That first year, we only had online students because of [the timing of] when we actually got permission to launch and got everybody enrolled. So this is our third year doing that, and we've been admitting resident students into the program for two years now.

Campus Technology: In this field, are there soft skills, technology skills — what are the important things for students to learn?

Simpson: It's really a combination of technical skills — you need to understand the processes, the implications on the material, the design side. You also need to know some of the business aspects of additive; understanding the economics is important when you're trying to design for additive and bring parts to market. And then also the soft skills, professional skills — critical thinking, problem solving and quite a bit of creativity are needed within additive, on the design side, on the manufacturing side, really in all aspects. We're also trying to instill in students a leadership role, thinking strategically and ethically about where and how additive is going and disrupting industries. Certainly we want them to also be aware of the latest research and advancements of the technology, so that if they are in an R&D function, they know where to push to continue and develop the technology. And then the end of the day is, how are you designing, developing and delivering innovative solutions that really leverage additive manufacturing to the fullest?

Campus Technology: You emphasized that adding "design" to the program was very intentional. What is the design part of the process?

Simpson: Anybody can go out and buy a machine, fill it with material and hit go. So to really differentiate yourself or your products, you have to know how to harness the power of the technology, or what we call "design for additive." In additive manufacturing, you're making parts layer by layer by layer — versus a subtractive process like machining, where you are removing material. Every process has some limitations inherent in it. But with additive, you actually have some design freedoms that you don't have with a traditional subtractive process. That allows you design parts differently, create lightweight structures and really optimize your designs.

Campus Technology: When you procure equipment and technology for students to use, is that something that you work with the IT department to do? How does your institution manage the technologies needed for the program?

Simpson: It's a tricky thing to do, because the program actually spans five different departments and two different colleges. Each one of the core courses is taught by a different department and one of those is in a different college — a different business unit, in a sense. And then we've added others like architecture and business, which are completely different entities from engineering.

One of my roles as director is understanding, what are the [equipment and software] needs of the industry? We have a lot of online students who are working in companies, but taking one or more of our courses during the semester. What are they seeing, what are they hearing? At trade shows and conferences, what are the newest, latest software tools and hardware? Then we find ways to bring those back into the classroom.

Campus Technology: So you're actively going out and talking to the industry and figuring out what skills students are going to need to prepare for the workforce?

Simpson: Yes. We actually run some workshops on the skills and capabilities that students need — both students that are graduating plus students currently working in industry. What are the knowledge, skills and abilities that they need to be successful with additive? We also survey companies and look at what are the latest software tools to help design and simulate and model the processes for additive. At the same time, we go to trade shows — Rapid and Formnext, for instance — to look at what is the latest hardware, the newest printers that are out there, and which of those we want to acquire or purchase and make them available in the lab and in the classroom.

Campus Technology: You mentioned workshops — are those workshops for students, or something that you're putting on to talk to companies?

Simpson: Mainly with companies, as well as other educators and instructors. We've invited folks nationally to get a good mix [of industries]: What does aerospace need, versus oil and gas, versus the automotive industry? We try to hear from speakers in the different additive groups on their needs, wish list, etc. And then we also have educators in the room who are sharing what they're doing, but at the same time they're there to hear what industry's needs and wants are, so that we can start tailoring our curriculum and our program to make sure that our graduates are prepared and ready to go when they go out in the workforce.

Campus Technology: Are there certain skills that are common across the board in all these different industries?

Simpson: At a fairly high level, there is a [common] understanding of the different processes. A key thing is the workflow: From idea to CAD model to your actual build and getting a part, what does that workflow look like? And it's certainly critical for everybody to understand the basic economics of different processes and different materials for additive, and then depending on if you are in design or in materials or on the production floor, you can go into more depth.

Campus Technology: How does the career handoff work when students graduate? What resources are available to them?

Simpson: That's something we're having to build out now. A lot of it ends up being the conferences and events and trade shows, which become a great networking opportunity for our students. We try to send them to one of those at least once during their final year. Many of them are involved in projects and end up presenting at conferences anyway.

We're also sharing résumés and videotaping presentations of resident students who are doing research, and then making that available to our online students so they can see the cool things that people are doing. [We tell them,] "Hey, your classmate is getting ready to graduate. If you guys need a new additive engineer or somebody on your team, here's a résumé — please help circulate it."

The majority of the online students are already at a company working in an additive group [and looking to skill up]. Or they have been tasked with bringing additive into their company and they're trying to figure out, how do I do this? We hear quite often, particularly on the software side, that people are using those tools [at work] within a day or two of them learning about it in the classroom. It becomes a nice way of transitioning from the classroom directly into the industry by having all those online students engaged in the program.

We're even seeing some poaching starting to go on: Online students offering the resident students internships and job opportunities. So in addition to learning from each other, there's definitely some good networking effects, for career advancement and promotion opportunities.

Campus Technology: You talked a little about the multidisciplinary nature of Penn State's program, and how that brings some challenges organizationally. Are there any other challenges that you've learned from along the way?

Simpson: I think you're right, the multidisciplinary aspect is key. That's something I appreciate more and more by working with my colleagues in material science, industrial engineering, mechanical engineering — everybody brings a different perspective and a different expertise to the table. With additive, everything is so tightly coupled right now that you need to have all those different perspectives at the table in order to be able to do this well. Along those same lines, there are communication issues across those disciplines, across the tool chain: With the different software tools, how do you piece those together to hand off [a project] from design to production, or whatever the case may be? So understanding where and when my models, my simulation, my design tools come together is certainly a key aspect as well.

Online Resources

Simpson recommended these resources for more information on the 3D printing and additive manufacturing industry:

  • A recent Modern Machine Shop blog post gives a rundown of additive manufacturing standards and documentation.
  • Vendor webinars (for instance, from 3D Systems) can provide information about various additive manufacturing tools and their capabilities.
  • 3D Hubs curates a knowledgebase of digital manufacturing articles.
  • Industry publications such as Additive Manufacturing, 3D Printing Industry and All3DP offer newsletters, videos, articles and more.
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