A new chapter in manufacturing

Waterloo lab helps fill industry demand for experts in additive manufacturing

By University Relations

In recent years, factories have been steadily modernizing their facilities with more automation and manufacturing capabilities. With faster and better additive manufacturing solutions that can custom-make durable parts in one piece without the expense of the tooling, a new and exciting chapter in digital manufacturing has begun. This shift has attracted a new generation of engineers back to the shop floor.

"Additive manufacturing is reshaping the way manufacturing looks," says Mihaela Vlasea, a professor in mechanical and mechatronics engineering and associate director at the Multi-Scale Additive Manufacturing (MSAM) lab at the University of Waterloo. "It’s bringing more excitement back into manufacturing, especially for this young generation of students who live in the digital space."

The MSAM lab is Canada’s largest academic-based research and development facility in metal additive manufacturing. It has state-of-the-art machinery and custom 3D printers that work with composites such as graphene, polymers and ceramics. The lab offers research programs and courses in support of graduate programs and runs regular workshops benefiting professionals working across industry sectors.

"There is a huge need for people with skills in additive manufacturing processes, material science, design for additive manufacturing, data science and process optimization," Vlasea says. "We are finding that we can barely hold on to our students as they finish their degrees. Sometimes they leave for industry and come back to finish their degrees part-time."

Filling a talent gap

Additive manufacturing is a high-tech skill. But as more companies are scaling up production to fabricate parts and services for their customer base, finding experts with this skillset is not easy. People tend to think of metal additive manufacturing as a simple matter of pushing a button to have a perfect part pop out, but setting up a successful print requires multidisciplinary skillsets. "It takes a lot of effort to be able to define all of the little levers in the process to generate quality parts, but once you have your designs and process parameters optimized, which is where skilled workforce comes in, production is good to go," Vlasea says.

Additive manufacturing requires multidisciplinary skills and integrates everything from materials science and product design to robotics and computational data analytics, she says. Even areas such as machine learning and computer vision are part of it.

Vlasea is part of the MSAM team that includes research director Ehsan Toyserkani. The lab has a complement of more than 65 people including faculty, postdoctoral fellows and research associates, technicians, graduate and undergraduate students. The lab has graduated more than 57 MASc and PhD students from their programs and has employed 66 co-op students.

One of Vlasea’s current students, Roman Boychuk (’BASc), is pursuing his master’s in mechanical engineering with a focus on simulating and predicting sintering behavior in binder-jet additive manufacturing. It isa cost-effective method of 3D printing that allows for fabricating parts out of powder media. Boychuk was drawn to this field in high school when he acquired a plastic 3D printer and began making protypes and parts for his drone. His hobby developed into a realistic career path through his undergrad experiences at Waterloo.

"My co-op terms in manufacturing and the courses I took in materials, solid mechanics and automation furthered my interest in metal additive manufacturing, and perfectly coincided with learning about the MSAM Lab at Waterloo," Boychuk says. "My interest in additive manufacturing as a powerful enabling tool still remains and is one of my continuing motivations for helping to make additive manufacturing more accurate and affordable."

Boychuk says that additive manufacturing is an exciting space to work in right now because it is such a powerful tool with potential to solve existing problems and opportunity for new discoveries. "I hope to follow up my academic work with experience in industry, helping to develop these tools and apply them to solve engineering challenges in a fast-paced environment."

Looking to remain competitive in a rapidly shifting talent economy? Join Vlasea at the Waterloo Innovation Summit on April 14, 2022 from 9 a.m. to noon. A global list of thought leaders and innovators will explore how organizations can successfully build a sustainable talent pipeline.