Training next-gen engineers for the additive manufacturing revolution

11 Oct 2016

Over the past couple of years, additive manufacturing (AM), more commonly referred to as 3D printing, has been gaining prominence in a variety of industry sectors, from aerospace and automotive to defence, medical, fashion and food. AM is the process by which 3D design data is used to build a product layer by layer. Today, given that AM cannot exist without 3D printing, the terms are used interchangeably.


The AM industry is “transitioning from a prototyping past to a production future”, said Tim Caffrey, senior consultant at Wohlers Associates. The consulting firm also expects worldwide revenues from the industry to grow from US$3.1 billion in 2013 to more than US$21 billion in 2020.


A wide range of industries  stands to gain from the immense benefits that AM brings – ranging from lighter but equally strong components for airplanes to customised hip replacement and knee joints. AM is of especial benefit to those areas that use high-value and complex parts with small production volume. Previously, these would have been prohibitively costly to produce. With the application of AM, they can now be manufactured easily and at a comparatively lower cost. Material wastage and production time can also be significantly reduced.


What is worrying, however, is the deficit in AM-ready human capital across the world against a backdrop of growing demand for such resources.


A human resource shortfall


A research paper by Deloitte University Press indicates that the number of job advertisements calling for 3D printing skills increased 1,834 per cent 2010 and 2014, with industrial engineers, mechanical engineers, software developers and industrial designers being among the most sought-after professionals.


The good news in Singapore is that educational and research institutions have had the foresight to plan for the burgeoning demand for skills in this industry. Nanyang Polytechnic (NYP) set up the Additive Manufacturing Innovation Centre (AMIC), previously known as Rapid Prototyping Centre, more than a decade ago.


Head of AMIC, David Wong, said: “The key to unlocking the immense potential offered by additive manufacturing is the availability of qualified human resource, and Singapore – like other nations embarking on this path – currently faces a shortage of trained and experienced personnel.”


He added that the situation would become more critical in the near term as more companies around the world embrace this evolving technology. Depending on the adoption rate of AM, he estimates that Singapore will need 300 to 500 skilled engineers in the field over the next three to five years.


This is the problem that AMIC is attempting to address – it has been tasked with training both existing students and industry professionals in the core competencies of AM processes and Design for AM optimisation as well as innovative product development. AMIC also conducts applied research and development (R&D) work and co-creates and shares know-how and best practices in implementing AM production processes with the industry.


Technology partnerships with solution providers in the AM space have been instrumental in achieving this. Wong underscores the importance of partnerships, noting that collaboration gives rise to technology transfer, joint development, co-creation and secondment of experts.


Besides enriching the knowledge of students through seminars and workshops, such technology partners also open up new opportunities for overseas student attachments.  


Nurturing a 3D-ready generation


In order to build the workforce of the future, NYP is also working on other fronts.


While AMIC offers courses to students specialising in AM, NYP has incorporated AM modules and topics into the curriculum of various other engineering diploma courses related to Computer-Aided Design, Material and Quality Assurance (Metrology), and Advanced Manufacturing. These courses aim to equip engineering students with the tools and knowledge that they will need for the big innovations around the corner. To pursue these courses, students only need basic engineering knowledge, as the lessons progress in complexity from basic to advanced levels.


Recognising that it is not enough to only train young minds, NYP is also focused on updating the skills of those who are already in the field, bringing them up to speed on industry research and current innovations. It annually offers 50 to 100 engineers and designers a suite of formal single-module customised short courses known as Design for AM. NYP also offers 20 to 50 positions for part-time Specialist Diplomas in Precision Engineering (Additive Manufacturing). These courses allow participants to train on new technologies and learn new skills while continuing to work – a key feature of Singapore’s continued education push.


One such practitioner is Law Wan Zhen, a graduate from NYP’s three-year Diploma in Manufacturing Engineering course who worked in the aerospace industry for a few years. She is back at the polytechnic after enrolling in the 10-month specialist diploma.


“In the AM space, which finds application across industries today, there is a need for strong engineering skills, a deep knowledge of the machines that one works with and the ability to specifically design for AM. This is what I have come back to learn,” said Zhen, who now works for the Agency for Science, Technology and Research.


To be successful practitioners, Wong advises engineers to develop holistic AM process and design knowledge. “Next-generation engineers should be aware of the many and unprecedented rules to optimise design for AM,” he said.


He recommends that they should also pursue courses that give them strong insights into finite element analysis, which studies how applied stresses will affect the material or design of an object, as well as Topology Optimisation, which optimises material layout within a given design space and for a given set of loads and boundary conditions. “They should also have a firm grasp on material optimisation and post-processing,” explains Wong.


Preparing for a world beyond 3D


AM/3D printing’s three-decade journey is far from reaching its end. But even as it gathers momentum, the concept of 4D printing is already on the horizon. If 3D printing demands a shift in our mindset and skills, 4D printing challenges our current understanding of structures as static, with the promise of adaptable objects.  


In the midst of all this dynamism, one thing is certain – AM/3D printing and its sequels portend the third industrial revolution, and like the previous two revolutions will demand transformational skills and expertise.