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Women in 3D Printing: Meet Sarah Wolff


July, 2021

Paul Cesak

Sarah Wolff

I recently got to sit down with Sarah Wolff at Texas A and M and we discussed her career and her involvement with 3D Printing. She is an Assistant Professor. I really had a great time and enjoyed getting to know her better.

What do you like the most about 3D Printing and what has been your favorite project or achievement?

What I like the most is the creativity and the flexibility in 3D Printing. We are building a custom-made metal printing machine so there is a lot of creativity and flexibility in that. But I think the material side is super exciting because you can modify so many parameters for metal 3D printing.

You can modify laser power, and the travel speed but you could also change up the materials that you are depositing; so, for this nozzle, which is kind of like the spray, you don’t just have, say, titanium. We can also mix the titanium with the same molybdenum powders and have a stronger material. So, you have a lot of flexibility trying to build new types of materials and just see what works in the process.

We just submitted a paper on trying to mix molybdenum, titanium, vanadium, and niobium. We were mixing all this in a Ti64 for substrate. And if you use an X-ray you can see all these elements mixed together and melt. And of course, Molybdenum is very difficult to melt. Such a high melting point is…high thermal connectivity, but you can see this melt pool, and how everything can mix together, and how well they can mix together.

So that is one cool project that we just worked on. But when I was in Graduate School my professors at Northwestern, were all about building your own machine because that is the best way to really learn the 3D printing/additive manufacturing process. So, I almost knew nothing about 3D printing, but one of my first tasks was to build a metal additive manufacturing machine. And it took several years. It took a lot of calling many different people and asking them how this or that works…but, eventually, we made a machine.

We called it the RP, which stood for additive rapid prototyping instrument. It was kind of a Frankenstein open architecture machine. We had to get a nozzle, a laser, we designed the gantry, and I think when I graduated it was still in development. It was running and it was able to build parts. They have made it a lot more sophisticated and high production. It was also a hybrid machine, so there are two lasers. One laser would do all the melting of the metal, and the second pulse laser would polish the part or do some surface treatments.

Do you have a favorite additive technology and why?

I am biased because I spent all my graduate experience working with metal and the specific name of the process is Laser Directed Energy Deposition or Laser Powder Blown Directed Energy Deposition. This is for metals, but we are also looking into ceramics or refractory materials like molybdenum.

The way it works is that you have a nozzle that is aligned with the laser, and it is blowing or depositing powder where the laser focus is, or where the melt pool is. The reason why I like it is because of that flexibility. We can mix different materials. You can make something called a functionally graded material where the first layer…let us say you want to make steel molybdenum.

The first layer is just steel…maybe a little molybdenum and the second layer has a little more molybdenum and less steel. The third layer would have even more molybdenum and in the last layers, maybe fully molybdenum. This would be great for something like a nuclear reactor wall where you know the inside needs to be very resistant to corrosion or harsh environments. So, I really like this process and it’s not as well understood as the powder bed processes. So, there is so much more to explore.

What challenges have you run into being a woman in 3D Printing?

I will say that there are two parts to it. One is the self-imposed challenge of self-confidence or impostor syndrome, and, of course, it has been getting a lot better over the years now that I am actually a professor. And it is like… “oh, I’m a professor”. I am teaching people, but those things still come up and there are studies that show that women suffer from impostor syndrome at way higher rates than men.

One definition is…even If you are very well qualified or know your stuff, you still have this syndrome, or this weird psychological feeling that you are an impostor and that you do not belong. There have been psychology studies that show women and people of color go through this way more, but it is a self-imposed kind of thing. But the second is finding good mentors. I think this is another challenge and it’s also been getting a lot better and it’s also something that I’m taking more initiative in.

But sometimes, just going out to lunch or having a casual conversation is helpful. I think it could be a little more difficult as a woman to navigate that kind of casual culture and then finding a good mentor who could give you good advice. But I have been really lucky, and I have had amazing mentors, both men and women, throughout my whole career, and everywhere I have been. So, I think that makes a huge difference and feeling like you belong, feeling like you know your stuff. I think having good mentorship is great.

Can mentorship roll back into your service?

Yes, because I want to be that good mentor as well.

When you have a brand-new class and kids are just coming in, I can see a girl saying, “Oh my gosh I have a lady teacher”. But I can also see a guy saying” Can I trade classes because I don’t want a lady teacher”.

In the very first class, I lay down my credentials, and then just lay down the law…you must call me Doctor Wolff or professor. I wish it were not like this because I am really casual… but I just talk about my background in a way where I talk about how I got so excited and kind of obsessed over manufacturing, and I think that that helps the student. That usually wins them over.

What do you think has been the biggest change in the 3D printing industry?

I officially started in 2013, so not even 10 years, but on the research side, the materials are a huge change because what a lot of us see in research and development, is that these conventional materials that we have been working with forever like stainless steels; even your traditional type of titanium alloys. They have very different problems in additive manufacturing, on the metal side at least, than with conventional casting, or forging, even machining.

Now we find that we have this flexibility and this creativity to just change the material as we go along with the process. I think the material side is going to blow up…even feedstock materials or the type of materials we can process, and then even with polymers, I am starting to see how people want to embed, or at least join, polymers with ceramics, or polymers and metals, and there are a lot of challenges with that because you need good interfacial materials; good interfacial layers.

So especially if you are making something for the human body…. mixing of materials if you will. I think materials is an exciting part. I also think another side of the changes is workforce development. I think we are losing a lot of these highly skilled people like machinists or welders, and we still need that. And then at the same time, we need people from all kinds of backgrounds, and I think we all need to work together. Sometimes, they are so separate. Like academics or like people in the machine shop, but we could really move forward if we all work together. But also, still have these super highly skilled people in the shop. Because I feel it is hard to train people and we are losing a lot of those skills. A lot of them are getting retired or retiring. I remember that was a huge problem at GE and even now, we do not really teach students in-depth anymore. We will do some labs where they learn how.

What advice do you have for other women wanting to get into this field?

I think it goes back to one of the previous questions. Find a good mentor and find friends who you can talk to about what you are working on. I have some friends who…we just talk to each other. Just geeking out on what we are working on in manufacturing. But the big one is finding good mentors.

Then for me, what helped the most was finding something that I really liked, and I just woke up every day obsessively doing it. And now here I am, and I am very edified in… and I have a lot of gratitude for being able to do this continuously. I think really finding something that you like and do not feel like you are going through drudgery, but I would say the number one is good mentorship. And then LinkedIn is super helpful also and joining 3D Printing Today was great…but having a good network, in general, is good. It could be friends, or colleagues, or good mentors.

What do you think are the remaining challenges for the global adoption of 3D Printing?

In my class, I talk about the industrial revolution and with each Industrial Revolution there is a huge mindset shift in how we see technology, how we see the workforce; how we see society, how we see each other, and how we can advance. There is all this talk about Industry 4.0. Some people think that we are going through it now. Some people think that we have not even gone through it yet, but I think we are going through it. Industry 4.0 is more cyber-physical systems, and additive manufacturing/3D Printing is part of that.

It is this mindset shift which is a huge challenge because we are really stuck in the third industrial revolution mindset of just conventional machining and certain supply chains. I think it’s tough because there is probably a huge cost and time effort, like the effort in time and cost, but also, I think the remaining challenge is the mindset shift where if things were cyber-physical if we have a lot of flexibility and creativity in building things, Why not have…and I think this came out with the pandemic too; why not have many little micro-factories all over the world, maybe at hospitals, if you want to build an implant, maybe at people’s homes or garages, or maker spaces where everyone can be skilled in a certain way and we can have these little factories.

But also, if we have cyber-physical systems, all these machines can talk to each other, and all these systems can talk to each other. It is, how can we advance with this new mindset shift? How can we really change the whole infrastructure around it? I think that is a huge challenge and to get that on the global level. And for all of us to work together on this.

It is so easy to just keep the momentum of the third industrial revolution going. With each revolution, you really need to change everything you know…and now that we have everyone talking to each other and learning news and updates on social media, that’s also part of it. We have LinkedIn, which is how I met you, and that is also a huge part of it. I think it is not just the technology side, but it is also the social side. We must adapt.

What can we do at to further help yours and/or other women’s careers in 3D printing?

I think this is already helping. Highlighting, showcasing other women, and when we see other women in the field…we are “Oh yeah we can do it too”. And I think it is just a huge encouragement to see that. And I was looking at the website, earlier, and I saw some articles that are showcasing some women…so that is awesome. I think that is really a great way to do that and then that is also giving us some natural, possible mentors and mentors can come in all different flavors. It could be someone who we talked to at least once a week and ask all kinds of advice, but it could also be someone you look up to, or you know someone you want to emulate.

I think that kind of wraps it up. Thanks so much for bearing with me.

That was fun…. Thanks.


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