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Much more than sheet metal

Kip Hanson
By Kip Hanson Contributing Editor, SME Media

TRUMPF North America is embracing 3D printing, smart manufacturing and a vibrant workforce.

A conversation with TRUMPF A&D and medical industry manager (and RAPID + TCT event advisor) Eliana Fu.

This feature is a part of Voices AMplified, a cross-platform initiative with content across print and digital, including features in SME magazines, podcasts, and webinars. Voices AMplified showcases the individuals and knowledge within SME’s AM ecosystem, including SME’s AM Community leaders and advisors.

KIP HANSON, SM: Eliana, you graduated from Imperial College, University of London, with a Ph.D. in materials science. What first interested you in this field? Was the manufacturing industry your goal back then?

ELIANA FU: In high school, I had no idea what “materials science” was, but when someone sent me a pamphlet showing a tennis racket, a fan blade and a fighter jet, I realized that it’s “what stuff is made out of.” Finding out what stuff is made out of became an interesting topic for me and yes, ultimately became my career.

HANSON: TRUMPF is known for its expertise in sheet metal processing equipment such as laser cutters and press brakes. Why has the company decided to push into metal additive manufacturing (AM)?

FU: It was natural, having lasers for cutting and welding, to develop that expertise into 3D printing and additive manufacturing. You could even think of metal AM as the offspring of welding and casting, which again is where a background in materials science is super handy. As to why push into additive, well, obviously for a company that is a world leader in laser technology, that is an easy transition to make. AM is clearly an advanced manufacturing tool that is not a gimmick but is real and here to stay. It’s the future, and who doesn’t want to embrace the future?

HANSON: You are very active in the Women in 3D Printing program and serve as the co-chair for the Los Angeles chapter. Why is this organization important, and why should women pursue a career in AM over any other engineering or manufacturing field?

FU: In fact, in the last few months, I’ve moved from California to Nevada, so we have a new co-ambassador for the Los Angeles chapter of WI3DP, whereas I now have the ambassadorship for Las Vegas. As you can imagine, it’s pretty difficult being in a place where there is very little real manufacturing, but I’m roving all over, helping other chapters like Detroit and Chicago. Additive manufacturing is a route for women and girls to become designers, engineers, leaders, and business owners. It’s far easier to set up your own company with a 3D printer than buying your own 500T forging press and trying to make forged fan disks right off the bat. Though, of course, that is still a possibility if you choose to do so.

Eliana Fu, industry manager for aerospace and medical at TRUMPF North America and event advisor for RAPID + TCT. Provided by TRUMPF.

HANSON: Similarly, you also volunteer in the USC Viterbi School’s K12 STEM program. Given that STEM was established nearly 30 years ago and there remains a chronic labor shortage throughout the manufacturing industry, what else should we be doing to get young people interested in the trades?

FU: When I was at Relativity Space, we hosted an event for the Viterbi School’s Girls in STEM program, where two other female engineers of color and I gave a talk to the girls in the program and engaged with the parents. I thought this was an incredible opportunity because the parents saw people who looked like them, working in different disciplines in the space launch industry. I saw the look of inspiration on the parents’ faces and realized we need to engage entire families so that girls, particularly middle-school girls of color, understand that these opportunities are open to them, and if they set their minds to it, they can achieve whatever they want. Family support is so important and incredible. The education process does not just include school but also includes informal learning. Clubs and extra-curricular activities that promote critical thinking, innovation, and team-working are other tools we can use to inspire youth. Finally, as employers, we need to make sure we are really giving opportunities and not just paying lip service but putting real action plans into practice and show people how they can have rewarding careers in industry, regardless of what they look like or how they identify their gender.

HANSON: TRUMPF’s Smart Factory in Chicago is said to represent the future of advanced manufacturing. What should manufacturers be doing now to embrace this future?

FU: That Smart Factory really is just a template for the Factory of the Future, except that the Factory of the Future will have even fewer humans in it, with more AR interfaces, more autonomous features and cloud-based tools. The manufacturing processes extend way beyond the simplistic methods used on sheet metal (as demonstrated in the current setup of the Smart Factory) and could include 3D printing and other related advanced processes. I think the days in which shop travelers written on a piece of paper and enclosed in a plastic folder are definitely over. One thing the manufacturing industry overlooks is the need for improvement in existing software, machine learning and AI. In metal AM, for example, building large and complex structures on a design basis is all very well, but without the software to drive robots, the complexity won’t be accomplished. That’s very clear to me. Like a true partnership, software needs to complement the hardware. 

HANSON: Taking that last question one step further, where does metal AM fit into Industry 4.0? What obstacles stand in the way of more widespread adoption, and how should we as manufacturers conquer them?

Given TRUMPF’s extensive experience in laser technology, its decision to move into the metal AM market is hardly surprising. Provided by TRUMPF.

FU: Let’s take an example of a steel mill, or from my point of view, a titanium mill. Fewer young people want to work in such a facility because the perception is that it’s dirty, nasty work only suitable for big strong men. I would argue that the perception, methods of manufacturing, and equipment and know-how needed to make these products are all going to change. Future aircraft parts will be made by advanced manufacturing processes that can give properties equal to or better than those currently accepted by traditional methods. Right now, we do not have enough data or confidence in fracture-critical aircraft parts made by AM, but one day, that will change. Distributed manufacturing will also change the way we make things in a variety of industry sectors, including medical and consumer products.

HANSON: Thank you for your ongoing work with The Shade Tree, a relief and assistance organization dedicated to homeless and abused women and children in southern Nevada. What can manufacturers do to support this and other important initiatives?

FU: I chose this particular charity because they are local to the city of Las Vegas, but honestly, there are hundreds of good causes that need support. In this time of pandemic where people are very paranoid—or not—about their health, I think it is still important to try to spare a thought for those who are facing way more difficult situations than ourselves. To me, women and children who are homeless, abused or victims of human trafficking have very little agency in these situations. Organizations like The Shade Tree provide practical means for these vulnerable groups to get back on their feet. For instance, I sewed Baby Yoda and Marvel Comics facemasks and sold them to people who wanted more fun yet washable cotton facemasks. But it doesn’t matter the dollar amount you raised or the forms your fundraising took; the point is that you did something to help someone else. It could be something as simple as stuffing leftover toiletries into plastic bags for the homeless. Doesn’t that feel good to help a fellow human being?

HANSON: Much of your LinkedIn page discusses your love of titanium. Do you really carry a bar of it in your handbag, why do you call it the most important metal ever, and have you had the opportunity yet to tell someone, “It’s titanium, you idiot!”?

FU: I no longer carry a lump of titanium in my purse. It was a 1.5” thick piece of machined Ti-6Al-4V bar; I used it to prop up a leaking air-conditioner drip tray in the attic of my townhome in Torrance, California. After selling the house this spring, I realized that I’d left the lump of titanium there in the attic. The good news is that piece of titanium will never corrode, so the new owner can rest easy knowing it’s doing the job it was never intended to do.

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