Dr. Jennifer Chase Fielding – “To solve many of the complex challenges with 3D printing, we need mass collaboration”

With over 13 years of experience at the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), Dr. Jennifer Fielding has performed hands-on research and program management in diverse fields such as polymer matrix composites, nanomaterials, multi-functional materials and additive manufacturing.  Dr. Fielding is currently the Technical Advisor for the Structures, Propulsion and Manufacturing Enterprise Branch, Manufacturing and Industrial Technologies Division, Materials and Manufacturing Directorate, Air Force Research Laboratory, at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, in Dayton, Ohio. Dr. Fielding launched and managed America Makes, the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute, the first institute within the Manufacturing USA network on behalf of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Manufacturing and Industrial Base Policy (OSD/MIBP) using a $120M cooperative agreement. She also served for five years as the Deputy Program Manager for the Defense-wide Manufacturing Science and Technology Program, a portfolio of emerging manufacturing technologies with a total value of $350M (2010 – 2015). Dr. Fielding currently is the program manager of several America Makes programs and advises on the direction of approximately $35M of programs in additive manufacturing and other technical fields such as polymer matrix composites and robotics in the manufacturing environment. Dr. Fielding holds a PhD and MS in Materials Science and Engineering from the University of Cincinnati and a BS in Chemical Engineering from the University of Florida. Dr. Fielding has been the recipient of numerous awards including the Secretary of Defense Award for Excellence, the Materials and Manufacturing Directorate Program Management Award and has been named a Dayton Business Journal “40 Under Forty”.

Jennifer, could you let us know about your background and what brought you into 3D printing in the first place?

As a child I loved science and math and craved being able to understand and try to solve complex real world problems. I have worked for the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) for 13 years as a civilian Materials Research Engineer and I was introduced to 3D printing about seven years ago when I took on a new role managing two polymeric 3D printing projects. When I first started my career at AFRL, I performed research and development on composite materials and nanomaterials. These materials exhibit similar challenges as 3D printed materials because the properties of the resulting parts are very dependent on the processing conditions. These types of complex materials and processes are really interesting to work with.

What was your very first experience with 3D Printing?  

One of the first projects that I managed on 3D printing involved the creation of design software and the establishment of processing parameters for conformal lattice structures. The program was managed by AFRL and executed by Paramount Industries (acquired by 3D Systems) and Georgia Institute of Technology. The structures were made up of repetitive trusses, with or without face sheets, which were designed to conform to the overall shape of the structure, providing additional strength and stiffness at lower weight. The design software could also interface with a finite element model to predict the mechanical properties (strength, stiffness). The idea that we could design almost any structure we envisioned with relatively few processing constraints was very exciting. We demonstrated a benefit in using additive manufacturing with rapid production and reduced cost compared to the traditional polymer composite hand lay-up process. We designed and flight tested a handheld remotely piloted vehicle with the conformal lattice structure in the wings, tail, and fuselage. The vehicle had a very successful flight test and demonstrated that these structures were a viable technology for further development. 

AFRL-3D-printed-lattice-structure-and conformal-lattice-structure-nylon-chopped-carbon-fiber

3D printed lattice structure (nylon) (left), and conformal lattice structure inside the fuselage of a handheld remotely piloted vehicle (nylon with chopped carbon fiber) (right) (AFRL, Paramount Industries, Georgia Institute of Technology)

Could you explain furthermore what Air Force Research Laboratory is, and its mission?

The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) leads the research, development and implementation of advanced technologies for the U.S. Air Force. We are focused on providing our airmen with the best technology to successfully complete the mission of the U. S. Air Force. AFRL has approximately 10,000 employees working in nine technology directorates located around the United States at major Air Force bases. The headquarters of AFRL and many of the technology directorates are located at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, OH. The Materials and Manufacturing Directorate employs approximately 1,000 employees, and we work as a team to develop new materials and processes and transition them into the industrial base for Air Force applications. This directorate has a rich history in the development of military airpower. In fact, 2017 marks the directorate’s 100th year anniversary when back in 1917 the laboratories that grew into AFRL were involved with some of the Wright Brothers’ earliest flying machine experiments and led the development of materials for airframe structures and engines. The entire region was a hotbed for innovation in the aerospace industry and that legacy continues to this day. To get an inside view of some of the projects that we lead, take a look at the AFRL YouTube channel where we host a series of TED-like talks given by AFRL scientists and engineers called “AFRL Inspire”.   

How is the Air Force Research Laboratory involved in 3D Printing?

The Air Force Research Laboratory is very involved in developing and demonstrating 3D printing technologies for a wide variety of Air Force applications. For aircraft structures and propulsion systems, 3D printing can enable the production of parts with geometries that were unable to be produced before. A great benefit of these new designs can be for advanced performance and for lightweight structures. Lightweighting of systems enables greater fuel efficiency, longer range, and the ability to carry a larger payload for improved mission capabilities.

The Air Force is also interested in exploiting 3D printing to produce spare parts that are no longer available within the supply base. The Air Force must maintain many legacy aircraft and many parts are obsolete or have long lead times to replace. A company that originally made a part may no longer be in business or will no longer support the production of spare parts for that system. 3D printing may be part of the solution to these problems. Finally, 3D printing can support caring for legacy aircraft with the production of repair and re-manufacturing aides used in conventional manufacturing processes.  Examples include 3D printed sand tools for metal casting, polymeric tooling for composite manufacturing, jigs, fixtures, and masks for surface treatment and painting.  

You have been working in research for 13 years now, could you tell us more about the projects and programs you worked on?

Many of our 3D printing technology development programs have been managed through the America Makes public-private partnership and have many defense and commercial applications. America Makes, The National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute, was established in 2012 as the first of now fourteen public-private partnerships within Manufacturing USA (rebranded from the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation). I have been involved in approximately 60 different projects here at AFRL in 3D printing. Here are a few examples of some of the projects within America Makes that I’ve been involved in:

  • A team lead by Northrop Grumman, in partnership with small business and part manufacturer Oxford Performance Materials (OPM), demonstrated a high performance polymer as a viable material choice for air and space vehicle applications. OPM’s material also became the first polymeric AM material to receive FDA approval for cranial, facial and spinal implants.
  • Optomec, along with Mach-Motion and TechSolve, developed a modular kit to retrofit any computer numerical control (CNC) machine to create a hybrid machine with additive and subtractive manufacturing capabilities. This achievement enabled manufacturers and machine shops to adopt AM technologies at a fraction of the cost – for a 60% savings compared to purchasing a new AM machine with equivalent capabilities. This product is available commercially and has also been purchased by DoD suppliers. The equipment can be used to repair complex parts that are worn or damaged.
  • Youngstown Business Incubator, in partnership with Youngstown State University and major industrial partners, developed a methodology for 3D printing of complex sand-cast molds. Adoption of this technology is enabling small casting companies to become competitive with the manufacturing of complex metal castings. This technology supported the Air Force manufacturing of sand cast tooling for a C-130 aerial spray system, where a major component was produced within one week and with a unitized structure (compared to the conventional 10 week lead time for obtaining and welding three parts together).

In your opinion, what are the main challenges 3D Printing needs to overcome within the next 10 years for the aerospace industry?

One of the major goals of the America Makes public-private partnership has been to develop technology that will enable widespread adoption of 3D printing. In order to develop technology that is broadly relevant to many industries, the institute brought members together to do a technology roadmap which highlights the major challenges and investment areas needed to overcome these challenges. This roadmap is updated annually through input from America Makes members. This roadmap focuses on identifying the “wicked” problems in additive manufacturing – those that cannot be solved by one organization and require a large team of diverse skillsets and backgrounds.

The Department of Defense also issued a roadmap for Additive Manufacturing, targeting defense applications of 3D printing. Many of the issues that we currently see with additive manufacturing are pervasive to a number of high value industries, such as aerospace and medical. These industries need to be able to predict manufacturing variability and have confidence in the quality of the parts that are being produced. For example, many 3D printing processes can result in defects such as porosity, unfused powder, delamination and distorted geometries. We need to be able to understand and control the processing parameters that may produce these defects so that we can have confidence that the parts are of the quality that we need for each unique application. For example, regions of a part that exhibit clusters of small pores (possibly undetected with nondestructive evaluation techniques) could lead to fatigue crack growth. In flight-critical applications, this situation would be unacceptable. Better computer models of processing effects to predict manufacturing variability and the effect of defects on the mechanical properties of the parts are highly needed.  

What role universities, companies and institutions should play in this evolution?

To solve many of the complex challenges with 3D printing, we need “mass collaboration”. We need the best and brightest innovative ideas from our universities, and we need the product requirements and commercialization pathways with industry. In a successful public private partnership, such as America Makes, we can all work together to achieve common goals and overcome these challenges.  

Do you have any (fun or not) story about your career to share with us?  

Launching America Makes with other government, industry, and academic partners was very satisfying. When I was managing the conformal lattice structure project, I was also the Deputy Program Manager for a portfolio of defense manufacturing projects with funding from the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Manufacturing and Industrial Base policy. It was through this office, directed by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (under President Obama), that the idea was born to do a “pilot” institute for the concept of the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation. I raised my hand and said that this was something that I definitely wanted to be involved in. It was such an exciting opportunity to be able to create a program unlike anything that had been created before.

To launch America Makes, I quickly focused on scoping the technology development work to be done within the institute and I also researched the importance of regional technology collaborations and the essential elements of successful public-private partnerships. I was able to incorporate many findings on how to create the right conditions for innovation and collaboration within a successful regional collaboration, while reaching out nationally for maximum impact. Some of these important aspects included creating an “Innovation Factory” headquarters – an open collaborative space where people of diverse viewpoints can come together and build collaborative projects, try out new 3D printing technologies, and experience hands-on immersive training.

With America Makes, we had to think differently about how we could collaborate, develop intellectual property policies that could work for all organizations, accomplish technology roadmapping with diverse stakeholders, and launch R&D projects of greatest impact to tackling those “wicked problems”. Creating trust, a sense of community, and a culture of shared risk were some of the other essential elements to a successful public private partnership. America Makes has enabled AFRL and other government partners to convene the 3D printing industry and create a shared vision for the future.

Being able to shape the vision for the subsequent manufacturing innovation institutes through my interaction with the network was also very fulfilling. These institutes are truly leading the way for advanced manufacturing technology development for our nation and are a critical part of ensuring that the U.S. remains globally economically competitive. For more information on Manufacturing USA: Manufacturing USA program design and impact.

To ensure the initiative would remain a national resource, we were able to establish mechanisms for continued collaboration between the government, industry and academia. Any researcher or program manager in the government can partner with America Makes through the AFRL cooperative agreement to do research and workforce development activities. Almost five years later, America Makes continues to be a thriving public-private partnership.

Have you run into any challenges from being a woman researcher in 3D Printing?

Being a female engineer in any engineering discipline comes with challenges, and 3D printing is not a unique field that is better or worse for women. I have found a few excellent books that highlight some of the challenges and biases that women may face, and how those challenges and biases can be mitigated. These are: “What Works for Women at Work: Four Patterns Working Women Need to Know”, “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead” and “Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office: 101 Unconscious Mistakes Women Make that Sabotage Their Careers”.

Learning about how to recognize biases in the workplace is easy. Having the confidence to call them out and doing that in a manner that is beneficial to the situation can be difficult, but gets easier with practice. Speaking up is very important. Assertiveness and confidence are things that some women need extra help on, and some of this can be built with experience.

Another challenge to overcome is to be ready and willing to take on increasingly challenging leadership roles. Some women can hold themselves back with the erroneous thinking that they are not ready for a new assignment because they may not meet 100% of the qualifications. Combined with unconscious bias and not being considered for opportunities, these can stifle a career and result in the woman taking a backseat role. A good mentor can help assess when you are ready for a new role or an advanced role. You are probably ready sooner than you think!

I am involved in a resource group here at AFRL called “Air Force Women in Science and Engineering (AFWiSE)” and I am active in the Society of Women Engineers (SWE). These activities have been very helpful for learning through others’ shared experiences and learning strategies that have worked for others in similar situations. I encourage others in their own organization to start a similar affinity group and to also encourage training on how to recognize unconscious bias within their own organization.

Overall, I am very thankful to be an engineer in the U.S. in 2017 and I am very grateful for the resources available and for the many male and female mentors that have helped me with my career. There has been much progress made, but still more to do both within the U.S. and globally.

Anything exciting coming up you’d like us to know about?  

For the AM industry to move forward, the community needs to develop technical specifications and standards. Standards are needed for process parameters, nondestructive evaluation procedures, mechanical testing, and feedstock materials. America Makes and the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) collaborated to develop a roadmap for standards development last February, which highlights standards that are currently in development, those that need to be developed, and provides a prioritization as well as recommendations on which standards development organizations should write the standard. Most standard development organizations collaborate with industry partners to actually write the standards. The roadmap identified 89 different standards that need to be developed, with 58 of those needing additional research and development. I am excited to see that this roadmap will be updated annually and will be a great resource that can rally industry to partner with the standards organizations to write the standards needed. This activity will enable the industry to move forward.

What is the most impressive or impactful use of 3D printing you’ve seen so far?

This is not specifically an Air Force application, but I am fascinated by many of the mass customization medical applications that are appearing as the medical community is adopting 3D printing. When I was fifteen, I had a spinal fusion to correct idiopathic scoliosis (curvature of the spine with no known cause). At the time, this was an invasive surgery and although bracing was a possible choice, surgery was the preferred option. One factor in that decision – remember I was a teenager – was the lack of aesthetics of the corrective braces. They were bulky, hot, and uncomfortable. Currently, multiple companies are 3D printing braces that are breathable and stylish. If those technologies were available 30 years ago, I may have chosen to wear a “cool” brace like these available now and could have potentially avoided the pain and lifelong restrictions that came with the surgical option. My hope is that more children and adults can benefit from these types of applications.

What makes the 3D printing industry particularly interesting for you?

I’m drawn to technologies that are very interdisciplinary. With 3D printing, we often work in teams with people from many different backgrounds and disciplines. I am also drawn to technologies that can have a wide impact – with 3D printing, the applications are literally endless. Improving a process or modeling technique may help countless industries and people.

What do you think of the 3D printing industry in general today? How would you like to see it evolve?

I have closely followed the 3D printing industry for the last seven years and during that time period it has been very dynamic and is still developing. It seems like every month or so there is a new company emerging with a new machine, a merger of companies, or an acquisition of a supply chain partner. If you compare it to the polymer composites or metal casting industry, you can see how much the supply base can grow and where it needs to get to in order to really take off.  Some trends that I see are the hype surrounding desktop 3D printing waning, and industrial-grade 3D printing really taking off, especially in the aerospace and medical industries.

In your opinion, how could we encourage more women to become involved with 3D Printing?

One way is to start young through STEM outreach targeted to girls and young women and have those programs staffed with female role models that can showcase their careers and provide mentoring. Children are naturally curious and driven towards creative endeavors, which makes 3D printing an exciting topic to explore in the classroom.  Kids are also interested in things that involve digital design. Support for project-based learning in STEM as well as educating guidance counselors about the various levels of educational opportunities is important.  


Thank you for reading and for sharing! 

We invite you to join Women in 3D Printing on LinkedIn and to like our Facebook page for further discussion.

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