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Talking to the Dean

Kip Hanson
By Kip Hanson Contributing Editor, SME Media
Sheku Kamara stands at an open house before the 3D printers named Bart, Dave, and Marie, speaking with a visiting student about additive manufacturing.

Sheku Kamara came to the United States in 1996. Having studied mechanical engineering at Fourah Bay College, a constituent of the University of Sierra Leone, he’d left his troubled homeland several years earlier and moved to Germany with a scholarship through the German Academic Exchange Service, or Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst (DAAD). And when the chance came to attend the Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE) in Wisconsin as a graduate student, Kamara jumped at it. He’s been there ever since.

“They were one of the first schools to adopt additive manufacturing with funding from the NSF (National Science Foundation) and had a true rapid prototyping center,” Kamara said. “At that time, folks might have had experience with SLA (sereolithography) or FDM (fused depositon modeling), but they rarely knew multiple technologies. MSOE allowed students to work with all of the leading types of 3D-printing equipment and it still does. It was a great opportunity.”

It was so great that Kamara stayed on after earning his master’s degree. Within two years, he was responsible for the additive manufacturing lab, and today is MSOE’s Dean of Applied Research.

Kamara explained that MSOE is a private university whose focus is experiential learning. As a result, the school has more labs than classrooms, giving students ample time to work with their hands. MSOE also stays quite close to the AM industry and regional businesses, an attribute that is “pretty unique.” From the very beginning, Kamara said, “we were looking for ways to work with manufacturers and help them figure out how they can leverage additive in their operations. Many of the companies went on to buy their own systems.”

Sheku Kamara, SME Technical Advisor, Dean of Applied Research at the Milwaukee School of Engineering

No Experience Necessary

Aside from a drive to learn and a newly discovered love of 3D printing, Kamara had another important thing going for him in those early days. Ironically, it was a quality that few of us would brag about: no manufacturing experience. “I encountered people who knew all about machining or plastic injection molding who would tell me, ‘No, you can’t do that, or that will never work.’ But I had no preconceived notions, so it was only natural for me to put forth solutions they might never consider.”

Before his promotion to Dean, Kamara spent nearly two decades proposing such solutions, some unorthodox, others not. He supported dozens of companies and several hundred students during their additive manufacturing journeys, first as MSOE’s manager of operations and then as the director of its Rapid Prototyping Consortium.

Through it all, his greatest professional joy has been teaching others about AM, in many cases helping them to unlearn what they already knew about conventional manufacturing so they can more effectively leverage 3D printing’s unconventional capabilities.

Kamara noted that the aerospace and medical industries were early adopters of 3D printing because it makes customization easier and provides greater design flexibility than traditional manufacturing methods. But what manufacturers haven’t yet wrapped their collective heads around is all the untapped potential that AM brings to the table, if only users had the necessary tools and sufficient knowledge.

The Body of Knowledge

To meet this last need, Kamara and MSOE have worked with other industry leaders to develop the Additive Manufacturing Body of Knowledge (AMBOK), as well as the training materials needed to bring others up to speed more quickly, thereby expediting AM’s further development. The effort was (and remains) a collaboration between MSOE, America Makes, SME’s Tooling U-SME, the National Coalition of Advanced Technology Centers (NCATC), and Technician Education in Additive Manufacturing & Materials (TEAMM), which together form the Additive Manufacturing Leadership Initiative (AMLI).

The group released its first version of AMBOK in 2006 and, as noted, continues to build on its work. “AM is constantly evolving,” he said. “For example, there was no automated post-processing back then. 3D-printed parts were all finished by hand. Nor were there hybrid CNC machine tools, which combine additive and subtractive processes on a single platform.” He laughed: “Where does that fit into a book on 3D printing? That’s why we have to go back and revise it every few years, because, from a standards perspective, the constant state of flux can be quite challenging to keep up with.”

Despite these challenges, AMBOK is a vital tool. It has provided manufacturers with a technology roadmap and, just as importantly, given students a benchmark by which to measure themselves: Tooling U’s Fundamentals of Additive Manufacturing Certificate. “I taught the initial classes for that certificate and still teach the review course. It’s something I greatly enjoy doing,” Kamara said.

He apparently enjoys writing, also. Together with consultant and former MSOE professor Kathy S. Faggiani., Kamara recently published the Fundamentals of Additive Manufacturing for the Practitioner, part of the Additive Manufacturing Skills in Practice series, “Additive manufacturing is my passion.”

Impossible Possibilities

This manifold is just one of many parts that Sheku Kamara has 3D printed during his decades at MSOE, first as a student and now as dean.

Passionate or not, Kamara suggested that we’re just getting started with 3D printing. “People often ask me, ‘What are the limitations of this technology?’ My response is that we simply don’t know. Not only are the materials and equipment constantly evolving, but we can’t yet design for its many possibilities.”

He held up his cell phone to illustrate this last point. “If I were to print this or any other object, it would have fairly consistent material properties throughout. That’s a good thing. But what would happen if I changed the properties in this section here by adjusting the laser speed or power? I don’t know, because there’s currently no software that allows me to design for this, even though the machine could physically do it.”

But why would someone want to do such a thing? After all, one of the central tenets of product design is consistency and predictability—won’t capabilities like these lead to a Wild West-like world in which nothing is certain?

Not so fast. As a counter example, Kamara cited a Boeing 787, an aircraft he flies in frequently. Its wings are composed of an aluminum structure covered with carbon fiber and epoxy resin. None of these materials is terribly strong on its own, but when laid down in alternating, precisely oriented sheets and fastened in a strategic manner, they’re able to carry an aircraft weighing more than half a million pounds. By mastering 3D printing’s innate ability to alter material properties on the fly, he predicts, manufacturers will one day be able to “program” their wares with specific desirable characteristics.

“Take the Nylon feedstock used in powder bed fusion printers. If I lower the laser energy during the build process, I can make a part that’s porous, almost like a sieve. But by putting a lot of energy into the Nylon, I can seal it up tight. Combining these two sintering techniques with the right polymer might produce a composite-like material that is both exceedingly strong yet porous and lightweight.”

It also creates other opportunities. For instance, Kamara continued, “automotive engineers struggle to devise failure points in their vehicle designs—in other words, if my car crashes, I want it to crumble in a certain way. If you can precisely control and adjust your material properties throughout different regions of a 3D-printed part, functionality like this might become very easy to deliver.”

A Helping Hand

When not writing books or dreaming up lofty goals for additive manufacturing, Kamara donates his time to other manufacturing-related causes. Most recently, he served on the boards of the Wisconsin Center for Manufacturing and Productivity (WCMP), a manufacturing extension partnership (MEP) center sponsored by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and the Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership (WMEP) for a total of nine years.

Again, the goal was to promote AM’s successful adoption, this time with small to medium enterprises. In one notable case, Kamara helped a medical device company develop a pre-surgical planning process to aid surgeons in hip replacement surgery. For more than 18 years, the process has helped thousands of patients with custom implants recuperate faster. “This is a great example of what companies can do with a little guidance and the time to investigate alternative technologies,” he said. “There are just so many opportunities like this out there.”

Kamara has also served as a RAPID + TCT Event Advisor since 2004 and was selected to join SME’s Additive Manufacturing Technical Community Leadership Committee last year. And with funding from the NSF, he and MSOE colleague Subha Kumpaty provided an opportunity for several U.S. students to conduct research focused on rapid prototyping for biomedical applications and the linking of materials science with cutting-edge bioengineering for practical applications at the Non-Ferrous Materials Technology Development Center (NFTDC) in Hyderabad, India.

He also keeps an eye on his homeland. He’s donated several 3D printers to the Directorate of Science, Technology and Innovation and the Milton Margai College of Education and Technology (MMCET) for them “to wrap their heads around” and was involved in starting an additive manufacturing group in Nigeria.

“Life in Sierra Leone has gotten better since I left but it remains a very difficult place,” Kamara said. “A few years ago, some friends and I helped put together a dialysis clinic there. The country did not have one, and people would have to travel to other countries for treatment, which at that time meant moving away. Now, some of them have a chance to stay home. So it’s a struggle, but I’m old enough to know that what’s most important in life is to do your best, always tell the truth, and try to help others. That’s all you can do.”

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