Is Additive Manufacturing a Workforce Development Strategy?

By Kirk Rogers

Recently, a potential client asked if we could give a presentation to their stakeholders. Requests like these are common and topics typically include, “Industrial Additive Manufacturing” or “The Future of Additive Manufacturing.” This request, however, was a bit different. “Kirk, do you think Additive Manufacturing is a Workforce Development strategy?”

In brief, yes, I think it could be. But first, a short story.

This instantly reminded me how I found myself working with materials. I was a typical pre-engineer in high school, working on things like a balsa wood bridge building competition and making mix tapes for friends. (Who remembers mix tapes?) I was also seriously into racing bicycles.

There was an article in Bicycling Magazine at the time discussing the different materials used in bike frames (aluminum, steel, carbon fiber composites) and some next-generation computerized analysis tools, now commonly known as finite element analysis (FEA). I found it all really interesting, and it led me to write my college entrance essays on my interest in materials in sporting goods. At the time, I knew very little about materials, but a college selection interview with the late Jack Wallace of CWRU sealed the deal, and convinced me to attend CWRU for undergrad.

Fast forward 30 years, and my love affair for materials still remains strong. I’ve also managed to spend a significant majority of my career working with metal powders, which is a good basis for understanding many AM modalities.

Now, to tie my story into Workforce Development. Industrial AM machines are designed to run unattended, and the best AM designs require a re-thinking and re-design of conventional components. AM design requires creativity, and usually several pieces of software to accomplish end goals of design, build layout, and slicing. A majority of AM designs also require post-processing, but in a slightly different form than that of conventional manufacturing. For example, instead of setting up a mill for many roughing passes to do bulk material removal, just one finishing pass may be sufficient. There’s something new to learn about the process.

If you’re a manufacturer that is new to AM, there are plenty of avenues to engage your workforce in learning new skills or up-cycling current skills with AM content. Learning new skills at your expense helps your workforce feel more valued and leads to increased employee retention. An added bonus? AM is still manufacturing, but cooler! The fact that your team is working with AM now turns into a recruitment tactic, during a time when it’s almost impossible to hire people excited about manufacturing.

So yes, I think AM is a form of Workforce Development. It is away to up-skill your workforce, get them doing something different, and get them more excited about manufacturing.

Kirk, for TBGA

Kirk has used additive technologies to solve manufacturing, repair & supply chain problems for the last 10 years. He recently was the technical leader on the startup of a $40M Additive Manufacturing R&D center, the culmination of a nearly 20-year career at GE. Kirk has 25 years of experience in materials processing and business strategy including metal powder production, novel joining methods, metal additive manufacturing, novel refractory alloys, sustainable manufacturing, carbon composite materials, powder metallurgy, technology portfolio management, identification and application of new process methodologies, and development of patent and technology strategy. 

Kirk obtained his B.S. Materials Engineering from Case Western Reserve University, and Ph.D in Materials Science and Engineering from Purdue University. He completed postdoctoral work at The Ohio State University and is a certified Six Sigma Blackbelt.