3 Reasons the U.S. Additive Manufacturing Skills Gap Is Growing

North American manufacturing needs engineers who can think differently than previous generations. So why is the U.S. struggling with skills for additive manufacturing?

Corey Dickman (left), a research and development engineer in CIMP-3D, demonstrates how to prepare a powder bed fusion system for additive manufacturing to graduate students at Penn State University. (Image souce: Penn State University)

Five years ago, the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) published a report that addressed skilled worker shortages in U.S. manufacturing. The report noted that American companies were not doing enough to cultivate a new generation of skilled manufacturing workers and that they’ve actually scaled back their in-house training over the years. Another BCG study conducted last year found that the problem is particularly acute for additive manufacturing (AM), where the skills gap is growing and not shrinking. The newer study revealed that only 34 percent of U.S. manufacturing executives have implemented additive manufacturing initiatives in their companies.

The skills gap may not be the only reason companies are lagging. AM does, after all, require significant capital investment. Still, it’s a real problem. Evolving AM techniques are increasing the demand for an industrial workforce that is capable of applying 3D printing to real-world production, according to an article published last year in Additive Manufacturing.

Three major factors are contributing to the ever-widening skills gap for AM in North America:

1.) Unfamiliarity and Offshoring

“While enthusiasm for AM has grown substantially recently, widespread use and industrial adoption of AM for production of end-use products has been tempered,” the article’s authors wrote. “In addition to the technical challenges (e.g., lack of metrology and production standards, limited working materials, and uncertainties in part qualification), one acknowledged barrier to AM adoption is the workforce’s unfamiliarity with the technologies’ capabilities, their working materials, and techniques for designing products to take full advantage of the potential offered by AM.”

Professor Timothy W. Simpson, director of the Additive Manufacturing & Design Graduate Program at Penn State University and lead author of the article, told Design News that the gap can be partially explained by offshoring.

“We’ve seen more and more of our manufacturing go overseas. So companies—and universities—have not invested heavily in manufacturing or the education necessary to train more workers to go into manufacturing,” he said. “Worse, many universities completely divested of their manufacturing activities because they were too expensive to maintain and sustain. As a result, it’s taking a long time to ramp back up.”

2.) The Education Dilemma

The new wave of additive manufacturing requires graduates who have knowledge of not only the processes themselves, but also the materials used in AM and the best ways to use them in the design process. Current engineering graduates may have been exposed to one of these aspects, but it’s unusual to find potential employees who understand all of the factors. AM specialists also need to be able to recognize the costs and economics of AM so they can successfully make a business case for it. In short, North American manufacturing needs engineers who can think differently than previous generations.

On the flip side, manufacturing companies need to be properly prepared to employ these AM-savvy workers, according to Simpson, who leads the “Scaling and Diffusion” subcommittee for the Workforce and Education Outreach Working Group of America Makes.

“Companies have either bought an AM system and are trying to figure out how to make money on it, or they are struggling to make the business case to their senior managers to get the capital to buy a machine (and then start trying to figure out how to make money with it),” he told Design News. “Meanwhile, new hires want to jump right in and start 3D printing parts, but managers and senior engineers are too risk-averse and want to operate at a different pace. That’s partly why start-ups are so critical to AM adoption—they don’t have the corporate inertia to hold them back. And you see it in the parts they design and are bringing to market.”

The education programs that do exist to train engineers in AM receive regular requests from employers, and there’s a significant amount of “poaching” of trained graduates.

“Our graduates get three to four offers from top-name companies,” said Simpson. “I get calls weekly from companies looking to hire students, and we can’t graduate them fast enough.”

While many colleges have made at least some effort to train engineers in AM techniques (offering one or two courses on the subject), few of them offer robust AM education programs that are multidisciplinary and integrated. The result is that the workforce is still falling far short of what’s required for AM to thrive in American manufacturing. Even outside of engineering, there is increasing demand for AM training for skilled machine operators and technicians. And community colleges are craving mechanisms for credentialing workers.

3.) Slow-moving OEMs

Large AM equipment manufacturers have been slow to get involved in helping to further education, which hasn’t helped. While many of them invest in a small way by providing free filament or discounted equipment, for example, none of them are putting serious cash into efforts to train an AM-literate workforce.

“They [the AM equipment manufacturers] are all trying to sell machines and avoid falling stock prices when sales don’t live up to the hype,” Simpson told Design News. “Efforts within companies are still too small and trying to gain traction for them to make significant investments (with the exception of say, GE).”

While different AM equipment and platforms may have different methodologies and demands, schools don’t have the luxury of offering every system imaginable, which would be too expensive. So they’re having to pick one. Simpson said Penn State tries to be as hardware- and software-agnostic as possible to prepare graduates to work with a variety of different vendor systems.

“Progress is being made, but the gap is widening as the field matures and more companies realize that they need to get into the game—or get left behind,” Simpson said. “We need to take what is already out there and find ways to efficiently and effectively scale it nationally and diffuse it into organizations (companies, universities, etc.) at all levels. We have to work together and partner—the demand is too great and no one can do it alone.”

Tracey Schelmetic graduated from Fairfield University in Fairfield, Conn. and began her long career as a technology and science writer and editor at Appleton & Lange, the now-defunct medical publishing arm of Simon & Schuster. Later, as the editorial director of telecom trade journal Customer Interaction Solutions (today Customer magazine) she became a well-recognized voice in the contact center industry. Today, she is a freelance writer specializing in manufacturing and technology, telecommunications, and enterprise software.

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