Additive manufacturing skills in demand, supply is lagging

The skills gap has been an issue and a topic of debate for a decade or more within the general context of manufacturing. It is often talked about in the future tense—as a problem on the horizon that will become critical if more is not done to meet it head on. This has increased the visibility of efforts to meet the challenge, with governments, education boards, companies and industry bodies placing greater emphasis on STEM education, graduate degrees and apprenticeships with vocational training to encourage young people into STEM careers.

However, the additive manufacturing (AM) industry is facing, right now, a critical demand for skills around the AM ecosystem, at the front end with specific design for AM skills, for production operations and materials handling, as well as for post-processing and quality assurance/metrology disciplines.

It is not a straightforward, linear problem. Trying to visualize it is more like a matrix. The front end can be (and often is) simplified as ‘design for AM’ (DfAM), but this does not address the different process capabilities—and limitations—to which designers must be sensitive.

Similarly, at the machine operations level, different applications demand skills that are sensitive to whether the parts off the machine are intended for prototyping or production. Once again, the process is also relevant in terms of the material and material state being used—plastic (resin/powder/filament) or metal (powders/suspension). In this respect, it is also pertinent to remember that plastic processes are 10+ years more advanced than their metal counterparts in terms of operator development/experience.

The critical demand currently, is for skills in managing and maximizing the metal powder processes. At the recent International conference for AM and 3D Printing in Nottingham, UK, this issue came up time and time again as one of the biggest challenges to scaling up and a direct barrier to adoption, as the demand for skilled personnel for metal AM is outstripping supply.

Dave Brackett, AM technology manager at the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC) in Coventry, UK, cited the ‘limited resource pool’ for trained personnel as one of five major AM challenges. He also differentiated between the different types of skills required for both high-level academic research into AM capabilities and the realities of operating AM systems as a production tool on the shop floor.

Rob Scudamore, who is prominent on the AM National Strategy Committee in the UK, said the industry must lead this drive. This is not to denigrate the talented cohort of academics leading critical AM R&D, rather it is about the real progress that AM is making as a production tool, where additive systems have to fit into an existing manufacturing environment.

A conversation with Phil Kilburn of UK-based LPW Technology provided further insight. Kilburn has been around metal machines day in, day out for years. He said: ‘We’re in a transition period with the metal machines. They’re just starting to truly move from R&D systems to real production capabilities. The problem is, until recently, to work them properly typically required post-grads working full time to ensure the machine is set with the correct parameters and maintained during build. It has required specific, high level expertise and understanding. We still need that high level of R&D for industry progress, but as companies achieve process validation and in-process quality control, it becomes less skilled, more ‘black box’ operations.’

This is real sign of progress. Kilburn explained: ‘You don’t have people with PhDs running CNC machines, you have skilled machine operators who understand the systems they work with every day, but where the machine parameters are locked down. This is where we need to expand skills and training—right on the shop floor, where experience goes a long way.’

A conversation with an automotive source who wishes to remain anonymous reinforces these points. This is someone who throughout a 30-year career has worked their way around the current manufacturing environment and now manages an impressive suite of plastic AM machines that are used for prototyping and production applications, training people in-house to meet the increasing demand for skilled AM personnel. In this case, the importance of ‘factory-wide’ experience could not be overstated: ‘Upskilling to AM needs a common sense approach and as far as possible through the shop floor. Real manufacturing demands a different thought process to research. You learn all the options, which means you are most likely to use the best tool for the application at hand, not try and force a solution that is not optimal.’

In-house training for AM is a developing theme. Sophie Jones, general manager at AM consulting firm Added Scientific, cited examples of companies she has visited developing their own, in-house training programs. One of these, HiETA Technologies, was also on the Nottingham conference program and Jones described the company’s in-house training program. HiETA’s Ben Farmer provided an overview of the 25-strong, five-year-old company and nodded to the skills shortage.

In-house training is a common response to the skilled personnel supply shortage. Another company at the conference that supplied anecdotal evidence of this was Johnson Matthey.

However, training personnel in-house is only going to work if a company has the internal knowledge and experience to share in the first place. With specific skills in AM being so much in demand, hiring-in is currently not an easy option.

An alternative solution is to look externally for dedicated training programs. AM vendor companies as well as specialist suppliers and universities are increasingly offering solid training resources for up-skilling with AM technologies. Organizations looking to adopt AM will generally establish a working relationship with their hardware supplier and invariably sales of hardware will come with operational training. That said, learning how to operate a given system does not necessarily equate to achieving optimum outcomes, particularly for production applications that demand reliability and repeatability. Many hardware vendors, however, particularly of metal systems, are investing heavily in this regard, moving beyond working relationships to full collaboration.

One standout example here is Renishaw (they’re not alone, though), which has established a number of strategically located Solution Centres. I visited one of these recently, at the company’s HQ in Stoke, UK. The Solution Centre provides an option to investigate, optimize and qualify an application before committing to buying the ecosystem required to bring production in-house, with all of the necessary support and training from dedicated Renishaw personnel. However, at the end of the day, vendor companies are vendor companies, their priority will ultimately be sales.

Alternatives include dedicated training programs from experienced consultancies, third-party suppliers and academic institutions. These include LPW Technology, UL, Added Scientific, AT 3D Squared, the MTC, ORNL and, most recently, Star Rapid in China. This is not an exhaustive list, but the point is, there are options for learning and up-skilling right now and transferring these skills back to the factory floor.

However, the demand remains great and the long-term resolution must remain a priority. Frank Cooper, who is heading up the Skills group within the context of the UK AM Strategy, has a good handle on this. He also presented at the conference in Nottingham. While the focus is within the UK, and there are some regional-specific challenges, the over-arching narrative is universal.

Cooper highlighted three specific levels of education required to bridge the AM skills gap:

  • schools (8–18 years);
  • higher education (under-graduate and post-graduate); and
  • outreach beyond formal education; through vocational and professional learning/apprenticeships.

Cooper was adamant that the third category requires particularly serious attention.

In terms of traditional education, Cooper said the curriculum around STEM in general and AM in particular, has to meet the needs of industry. Teachers and professors need to be up to speed on the rapidly evolving AM ecosystem. He acknowledged the challenges involved in forming a cohesive strategy taking account of the broad range of AM processes and their differences, meaning a one size fits all (linear) approach will not work. For the skills strategy to succeed there needs to be a matrix approach, with government backing (and funding), at least in the short to medium term.

Another presentation dedicated to skills was given by Tim Minshall of Cambridge University, noting that skills and education ‘Is not a big thing. It’s THE big thing’.

Minshall again differentiated between the skills required for R&D and the skills required for a production process in a commercial manufacturing environment. He reminded the audience that we have been here before, building new skills among the manufacturing workforce around robotics and CNC machines: ‘It is just another production technology...Any production engineering environment [today] has people using robots and CNC machines. We successfully developed skills around these technologies and the world did not collapse. It’s not impossible [with AM].’

On that positive note, I’m going to wind this up. With one caveat: the skills gap is not a black and white issue and overcoming it won’t happen quickly or easily. It has many angles to it, but keeping the debate at the forefront of press coverage, industry events and at any other opportunity is useful. Moreover, everyone with a stake in the industry—vendors, industrial users, service providers, research institutions, press, universities and government—needs to consider their part and what they can and should do to contribute to the solutions. 

About Rachel Park

Rachel is a passionate advocate of additive manufacturing/3D printing technologies and the industry that has sprung up around it. However, as the hype and hyperbole has gathered momentum, her aim is always to offer a reasoned voice in the midst of inflated expectations and to cut through the noise in order to provide a realistic outlook of how things are.