Additive manufacturing red grid geometric shapes

6 Essential Skills for Additive Manufacturing

In recent years, there has been a tremendous interest and growth in advanced manufacturing processes such as additive manufacturing (AM). This form of manufacturing — more commonly known as 3D printing — is the process of making solid objects from a digital file by laying down successive layers of material. AM has been steadily growing since its inception in the 1980s. Each year, there is a wave of new machines and materials introduced into the burgeoning and rapidly changing AM marketplace, which is estimated to reach $21 billion globally by the end of this decade.[1]

As with many disruptive technologies, the sector growth has happened much more quickly than the pace of learning for the workforce. There are many reasons for this lag, but one major culprit is a skills gap — AM is so different from traditional manufacturing that many workers simply don't have the right skills, or can't be trained fast enough to upskill into these new roles.[2]

To better address the unique skills that AM requires, you must first understand that it is not any single technology, but a whole integrated set of manufacturing technologies and processes. Therefore, a highly trained AM workforce will be need to be skilled in the following multidisciplinary methods.

Essential Additive Manufacturing Workforce Skills

1. Computer Aided Design (CAD)

Computer-aided design (CAD) is the backbone of AM, since you use the output from the 3D modeling software to create or reproduce your geometric form.

That's why spatial object design is one of the most critical skills in AM — designing, modifying or improving an existing 3D model. The creativity and knowledge of a skilled CAD designer is not something easily replicated.

While CAD design software has become more accessible and user-friendly, anyone using it still needs to be skilled in:

  • Design thinking

  • Computational modeling

  • Analysis

  • Engineering

Because of the sheer number of different competencies involved, CAD can often be the most difficult of the AM skill sets for prospective operators to master.

2. Design thinking (Design for Additive Manufacturing or DfAM)

AM builds (or prints) from CAD models by adding materials layer by layer. This process is a very different approach from most traditional forms of manufacturing, which remove or subtract material to form the desired shape — often with the desired shape modified for the best means of machine mass production in mind.

AM frees designers from this mass production mindset. The layer-based additive nature allows for higher degrees of customization and complex geometries. These provide you with the flexibility to integrate features into complex parts without the simplification needed for most conventional mass production methods.

This freedom and flexibility mean that designers can conceptually think much differently when working in AM, offering more of an opportunity to design from a "blank slate."

However, AM still has its own considerations, whether it is the materials selection, support or build strategy, or choice of which process to use for a given project. The most important aspect of design for AM is to identify and take full advantage of the tools (generative design, topology optimization, consolidation or lattice structures) that best leverage the benefits of the additive process.

3. Finishing

Additive manufacturing is not only about designing and preparing your project for 3D printing. A distinguishing professional feature is the level of post-processing skills needed to make realistic and accurate model representations:

  • Support removal

  • Grinding

  • Sanding

  • Cutting

  • Filling

  • Painting

  • Coating

  • Polishing

Finishing is especially important when creating 3D printed production parts, because they provide different challenges than conventionally machined parts. The layered 3D printing processes of some machines may not be as accurate as some traditional production methods. That's why you may still need to employ traditional computer numerical control (CNC) machining in the 3D finishing process, which can provide the high level of dimensional accuracy required for production parts.

Ultimately, the material and technique chosen for finishing 3D printed pieces depends on the application requirements (prototype, presentation model or functional parts). It's essential to understand and master the various post-processing finishing methods available to meet the desired outcome of the part design.

4. Safety

Understanding material properties and proper handling of material and operating equipment safely are fundamental skills for anyone working in AM. A comprehensive knowledge base that encompasses the safe operation and maintenance of your 3D printers, as well as downstream machines, is necessary.

Materials management, including any environmental waste disposal, is an often-overlooked aspect of AM production. This knowledge is especially necessary for the metal additive space, which has additional safety and environmental considerations, including specific training for:

  • Personal protective equipment (PPE)

  • Fire safety

  • Proper waste management procedures

5. Reverse engineering

An attractive feature propelling the adoption of AM for many companies is the prospect of utilizing 3D printing for their obsolete or replacement parts inventory. A high degree of reverse engineering may be required to both directly replicate legacy parts and incorporate any part improvements enabled by AM. Tight tolerances and high-resolution 3D laser scans capture difficult geometries, requiring quality control and testing before production.

And not every re-engineered part will be a good candidate for AM production. A well-versed designer is aware of the methods and limitations of AM, as well as other manufacturing processes, and can choose the most appropriate solution, or even a hybrid manufacturing solution combining traditional machining with the complex geometries of AM.

6. Critical thinking and soft skills

Finally, while there is always a focus on hands-on technical skills, the overall level of critical thinking and problem-solving skills involved in the entire manufacturing process should not be overlooked. Likewise, the value of interpersonal skills such as communication, collaboration, and leadership abilities are equally important factors for your AM workforce of today and tomorrow. Your workers are the best advocates for AM, but they need to be able to articulate its value to senior management to encourage its broader use and adoption in creative ways.

AM is poised to have a dramatic impact on manufacturing, but it is still in a relatively early stage and has yet to reach its full potential or complete industrial adoption. One significant hurdle AM faces is a qualified workforce to run it all, which is why this level of expertise is in high demand.

Whether you're an AM professional seeking advanced opportunities, or a business leader seeking new talent to help you take advantage of the technical advancements AM offers, you need to cultivate these skills for your workforce of the future.

  1. 1. Deloitte University Press. Vazquez, Passaretti and Valenzuela. “3D opportunity for the talent gap." Deloitte Insights. 2016.
  2. 2. Ibid.

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