From engineering professionals to CEOs and women in academia, female professionals in the additive manufacturing (AM) industry are building, promoting, and identifying innovative solutions to move 3D printing technology forward. The global organization Women in 3D Printing (Wi3DP) hosted the first-ever TIPE 3D Printing conference to share experiences and empower other women in the workforce. Built by and for a community of over 10,000 women, the two-day virtual event featured an inspirational, all-female speaker agenda.

From January 27 through 28, 2021, the TIPE conference became a disruptive platform, setting a pioneering precedent for future events by focusing on diverse workforces and how they can accelerate the growth and maturation of the 3D printing industry. Over 1,600 attendees heard from 147 participants discussing new devices, software, materials, processes, and advances shaping the industry. From women in big corporations and early-stage startups, executives in industry giants like GE Additive, Boeing, and EOS, to entrepreneurs behind successful AM-related brands, including The Digital Patisserie and Thinking Huts. More than 80 presentations in five expert-driven tracks: technology, industry, people, economics, and youth, proved enlightening.

Track leaders at the TIPE 3D Printing conference. Image courtesy of TIPE.

Business representatives from Xerox, Fabrisonic, and VELO3D described how their technologies could improve manufacturing processes. Xerox’s Head of 3D Printing, Tali Rosman, said the company’s novel liquid metal 3D printing solution uses cost-effective aluminum wire instead of powder, which translates to excellent material properties, quicker cycle time, and doesn’t need any special facility modifications. Still, one of the company’s major challenges is competing with powder-based technologies, which dominate over 80% of the market, said Rosman.

Likewise, Sarah Jordan, from innovative metal 3D printing firm Fabrisonic, discussed developing new technologies, like Ultrasonic AM (UAM), to embed electronics and sensors, join dissimilar metals, and create high-tolerance internal geometry. The Ohio-based company’s cutting-edge process is what Jordan calls a “dark horse”—a term used in racing for a pony that is unknown to gamblers but wins a race when no one expects it to. Like a dark horse in a race, Fabrisonic’s 3D printers compete against multiple established, “rivaling” technologies. But Jordan said she sees huge potential in the process, especially after working a lot with heat exchangers and waveguides, embedding sensors, digital twins, and working with technology protection applications.

Xerox’s liquid metal printing technology. Image courtesy of Xerox.

The event showcased innovative ways to use 3D printing for cement construction, architecture, industrial design, and panels on engineering materials and circular economies. An insightful presentation by U.S. Army Engineer Megan Kreiger demonstrated how her team uses 3D printing and locally available material to test the capabilities of different custom expeditionary structures used by soldiers in the field. Kreiger’s large-scale 3D printing technology has made different infrastructure types, like buildings and bridges, leading to cost reductions, better energy performance, and less hard labor requirements.

“We want to make it easier to construct in the field, have fewer logistics associated with that construction, as well as reduce the costs and the risk for our soldiers. We have gone from developing in-house printers all the way up through doing full-scale structures,” said Kreiger, who emphasized the industry should beware of inflated expectations with 3D printing in construction and that the overhype could kill a technology that is “superior” to other building methods. “It’s not just about printing houses worth less than $10,000. It’s about improving construction across the board – where construction is usually considered the field that is reluctant to change – and bringing modernization to the construction field.”

Marines from the 7th Engineer Support Battalion (ESB) and engineers from the U.S. Army Research Laboratory pose with a concrete bunker during a 3D concrete printing exercise. Image courtesy of U.S. Marines/Staff Sgt. Michael Smith, 7th ESB.

On several panels and presentations, a unique group of women entrepreneurs talked about creating and growing early-stage startups in the 3D printing industry. They addressed key questions, shared personal experiences, and offered insight into what goes on behind the scenes when creating a 3D printing startup and optimizing innovation. Trendsetters like Lisa Federici, CEO of 3D service provider Scansite, discussed how the company grew as 3D scanning and printing technology evolved. From the early days of SLA and fabricating the first largest 3D printed projects for cultural heritage institutions, all the way to working with clients like Tesla, NASA, and Boeing, her journey was outstanding.

Federici said one of the biggest challenges for entrepreneurs is access to capital. Having to educate banks and investors is very hard, especially when presenting a new way of thinking of an old problem. Scaling is a big issue as well. Startups need to decide whether to remain very small or very large because spending too much time in the middle will grind the company down, she reflected. “It is hard to do that for long,” said Federici, who oversaw the decision to scale Scansite internationally and is thrilled by the level of innovation from her international teams.

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Scansite Creates Replicas of Neil Armstrong’s Spacesuit for the Smithsonian Institution’s Air & Space Museum, using 3D printing and scanning technology. Images courtesy of Scansite.

Similarly, two startup founders, Jillian Northrup from 3D printed furniture company Model No. and Christina Perla from Brooklyn-based Makelab, participated in an instructive fireside chat dedicated to establishing new businesses. Both women come from a design background, which proved an advantage for their business growth. Perla said that understanding exactly what clients want is very important for an early-stage startup: “Being able to share your passion with your end-user is an incredible touchpoint as a brand.” The same goes for building a team. Small companies need to choose co-workers that are the right fit for small groups’ everyday dynamics.

Monetizing your passion without losing the spark is critical, revealed Northrup. But that takes a lot of work, especially for founders who become ingrained with every part of the business. Running a company is not for everyone, they emphasized. There is a lot of risk involved and many undefined aspects. More importantly, Northrup said entrepreneurs have to be okay with moving forward many “unproven concepts with the possibility to fail.”

3D printed furniture. Image courtesy of Model No.

As for women working in large corporations using AM technology, a panel discussion led by professionals from MakerGirl, SpaceX, Airbus, and Lego explained how to be creative with 3D printing. Although Morris could not disclose much of the work being done by her AM team at the space giant, we learned that SpaceX engineers are creating powder bed platforms to develop and build rocket engines. Innovative uses of 3D printing have led to some incredible rocket engine designs, and we have seen a fair share of those in 2020.

For Anna Chase, Design Engineer at Lego, keeping things creative means conducting experiments to understand the company’s AM capabilities further. For example, this includes working on an AM Lego element’s full lifecycle, from concept to final part, and all of the troubleshooting that goes through that process. Both Chase and Morris said they were looking forward to advances in multi-material 3D printing, which could mean flexible building blocks for Lego, and emerging hybrid crosses for SpaceX.

SuperDraco engine by SpaceX. Image courtesy of SpaceX.

Even though the TIPE event showcased and celebrated dozens of AM technology applications, engineering consultant Haleyanne Freedman spoke of the obstacles that are holding the industry back. “Misinformation harms wider adoption and discourages companies from researching additive applications, making it difficult to trust the technology as a true manufacturing method,” highlighted Freedman. She encouraged companies working in additive technology to report data so that businesses interested in investing in the technology can evaluate applications and find a true fit.

Freedman also spoke of more and better testing standards and educating for realistic expectations, instead of forcing applications to work for 3D printing when they shouldn’t. Her clear-cut view is that additive companies are very protective of their intellectual property – for a good reason – but that they should engage in collaborations and better communication. She hopes to see companies start sharing information.

Overall, empowering emerging female leaders and discussing the future direction of the 3D printing industry were the event’s main objectives. Through shared knowledge of success stories, case studies, and panel discussions, Speakers conveyed the experience of countless fields that have already benefited from AM adoption, like aerospace, defense, construction, automotive, and jewelry. We look forward to the second TIPE 3D printing event in 2022.