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AM Community Conversation with Michelle Bockman, 3D Control Systems

My name is Adam Penna, and I am here to talk a little bit more about 3D Printing and Additive Manufacturing and how it ties into all of manufacturing.  I'm here with Michelle Bockman, Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder of 3D Control Systems. 3D Control Systems is an additive manufacturing workflow software that is powered by artificial intelligence.

What was your first experience with Additive Manufacturing?

Probably most of our audience wasn't even alive when I first experienced additive manufacturing. Back in the late nineties, I worked in automotive for Dana Corporation as an Applications Engineer in downtown Detroit at Jeep Truck Engineering, and we were doing tolerance stacks where you're putting parts together. We had 3D printed our first part and I was amazed with it - it was a controller in the axle.

It was interesting because the normal component was really heavy because it was for a Dodge Ram truck. We had the equipment in place to be able to jack up the part to get it on, and here was this part that was super light and it worked perfectly. It helped us through our process and the product development of that axle.

The Women in 3D Printing organization is doing really well! Tell us about your own journey and experience as a woman inside of the industry.

When I was at GE I co-led an organization called GE Girls and we focused on fifth and sixth grade girls; we built a curriculum to make it cool and fun. We made lip gloss. We made 3D printed bracelets. It was about those girls not losing their confidence in math and science.

Our mission at GE Girls was to get them exposed to other things than what they might think engineering is or what they think science is. We expanded the summer camps and then we followed them through college to see the success of it. And it was very successful and I'm very proud of that.

So that was my first start into helping younger girls get into to STEM or STEAM. Fast forward, I made it a point to have very diverse teams and I never thought of teams as being gender or your background. It was more diversity of thought. I found that we had better outcomes when we had a diverse team. My goal was always to have 50% of my team as females. I'm still on that mission to make sure that there's a presence of women in the workplace and their voices are being heard.

Women in 3D Printing is very near and dear to my heart. I love the mission there and I love being part of it.

What advice would you give to any manufacturer that are wanting to learn about implementing, adopting additive manufacturing? 

I think there's a learning phase and you need to understand what it takes to 3D print. Learning how to design for additive is important, get adoption at the leadership level so it's throughout the organization, and also know that 3D printing is complementary or can be complemented to other technologies. It doesn't have to be the sole device that you're using.

If you come in with an open mind and looking for the application, really understanding how a 3D printer works, and you get the design adoption, you have classes that you're teaching at an organization - I think all of that is important for adopting 3D printing.

What’s special today with the workflow software?

Last year I joined 3D Control Systems as an advisor and investor, and then as I learned more and more about the software – called 3D Printer OS - it's desktop management workflow. It’s an end-to-end, in the desktop area and we have customers like MIT, universities including Duke. John Deere and Google. Any of these maker spaces want to allow students or individuals to innovate, and they need some sort of software to do that. That's where it started. But then when I saw it, I was realized this is exactly what's needed in the industrial market. There's this huge gap of manual labor, manual steps in 3D printing. And if we can take out that latency between the steps or take out the clicks, then that could be huge.

We launched our new platform called ZAP a few months back and we're seeing adoption from customers. We're doing pilots, we have full on customers, so it's starting to really scale. And I think we're even surprising ourselves at how many problems we're solving that we didn't realize that we could solve with our software.

What are common workflows that software solves?

The software connects the design through build packing for 3D printing specifically, and then it'll automatically takes the drawing or the STL file into the 3D printer, and then from there you can track all of those next station. For example, with HP there's the the cooling period and then there's the deep powdering. A lot of that's still manual because it's up to the technology provider, the OEM. But now we're able to track all of those steps in an automated way and signal to the folks that are on the floor. What I've done is I've incorporated the lean six Sigma into the workflow. When we come in and look at a solution, we will record the current state and then we will go through and figure out all of the friction points and how we can automate those. That's what we do - post-processing, QA, we're that digital thread and we are as automated as the equipment will let us be automated, meaning that we're integrating and automating into the hardware or other software.

What do you think impact of Additive Manufacturing to the broad manufacturing industry looks like?

I go back to what I mentioned earlier about being a complementary technology. When you look at manufacturing in general, there are applications that you can use just for additive, and those are great, especially if you can hone in or tune the equipment along the line to get the highest quality, high speed, product off of it. You can also see it as being complementary technology – for example with CNC. You can 3D print a part, send the part over to a CNC machine, and then you're able to get the accuracy that maybe you require in a regulated environment. You can use both.

Keeping that open mind and being creative and innovative when you're thinking about how to implement 3D printing or additive manufacturing is important. Not only to have a manufacturing background to understand how things work but to use creativity and an open mind to assess how to take this new technology and complement that.

What are some of the barriers of scaling additive?

I mentioned speed, cost, and quality. That's why choosing the application is important and then being able to tune your systems for that application. You can get very frustrated if you don't do that. Also, if you don't design for additive or even designed for the technology, you might get frustrated. I go back to being innovative and having this mindset that's very open and willing to try new things. The quality level as well - machine-to-machine variability, batch by batch variability - being able to tune that system is important. You tune systems in traditional manufacturing - just like you change over your production line, you got to change over your your 3D printing in line to fit the type of part.

Is additive manufacturing a key for improving the supply chain?

I lived this real time in my first job at GE Healthcare. I was responsible for spare parts and the medical industry at a global level and had to ask, ‘are we working with suppliers that are sole source?’ and ‘are we working with suppliers that are financially stable?’ Additive can play a spot to be backup manufacturing. It can be that redundant manufacturing that you need if your supply chain is down. Everybody should have that business contingency plan to make sure that it's all laid out prior to you going into any kind of manufacturing or supply chain.

We saw how 3D printing came to the forefront when this pandemic hit in. With 3D printing we were able to make masks, swabs, and ventilators. It's a great story that we could pull it together that quickly. Our software was being used by quite a few suppliers out there making products for patients.

What has been your experience been with the RAPID + TCT event?

I've been to RAPID + TCT for all the years I've been in 3D printing and it's always been a wonderful show. What I like about this show is that there's more than 3D printing. You get to see other technologies and it's in person. The RAPID + TCT event is special - it's one of my favorites. I enjoy seeing all the new technologies and I love what SME is doing with the show. I'm so glad that it is in person this year.

What role do you see is SME playing in the additive manufacturing space?

First of all, I love the fact that they are manufacturing. I'm a mechanical engineer. My emphasis was manufacturing. I love the fact that they're pushing forward that agenda. I love the fact that they see Additive Manufacturing as part of it. They see it as an important technology. I think that for future, we're all looking for standards and getting all of the OEMs and companies on the same page when it comes to standards. I know we're still a fairly new industry, but I think that's somewhere SME could play.

What do you think defines the AM community?

Creativity and innovation. I think this community is definitely technical, “gear heads” like we are, but I see people in Additive Manufacturing having that more creative approach. I love the community; people are open to share. You look at LinkedIn and there's like videos people designing the coolest part or showing how they're producing the part. Of course, there's competition, but there's a sharing in the community to help progress the whole like additive manufacturing journey. We need that because we're still on the cusp of greatness in 3D printing.

What would be your advice for attracting that younger generation into the workforce at additive manufacturing?

If someone's truly curious and wants to revolutionize or wants to be part of a disruptive industry, think differently, and really push the boundaries of design manufacturing, I think this is the place to be.

It's not an easy industry to really make an application go into or part go into series production. It takes hard work. You must go in with full transparency: it’s going to be hard work, but the reward is tremendous. I just see so many younger people proud of the designs that they come up with. There’s a pride across the additive community and if new folks coming in feels the culture of it, and they have that technology and creative mindset and curiosity, it's a great play. We need to continue to put the word out there on social media about what we're doing and grab their interests.

How do you see additive manufacturing evolving over the next few years?

I think that we have quite a leap to get into full on series production across the board, a technology leap, and I think people are ready for it. A lot of companies are putting a lot of funding in research and development. I see the technology leaps happening in the next few years and wide adoption. Big corporations will have multiple types of equipment, just trying to figure out what one's going to work for us best. I think that's going to narrow it down a little bit more especially based on which applications really take off. There are thousands of applications right now, and some are incredible, and you can go into serious production, while some are more unique. I think that’s where we need to go.

Leading up to RAPID + TCT (September 13 - 15), Adam will be sharing AM Community Conversations – watch for new releases weekly!

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