Chelsea Cummings – “3D printing encourages me not to fill someone else’s shoes, but instead, walk in my own. Parts that I am helping develop will one day fly people around the world and into deep space”

Chelsea Cummings is an Additive Manufacturing Engineer focused on new product introduction of metal 3D printed aerospace parts at Arconic, in Austin, Texas. Chelsea grew up in a household of design and analytics, with an artist and a research analyst as parents. Having a lifelong love for math, science and creative thinking, she earned her engineering degree from Arizona State University. After a few years of aerospace manufacturing experience that led her to 3D Printing, she has been able to hone her creative side in her engineering career through this technology.

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

I’m an Arizona State University graduate of Industrial Engineering, with four years of industry experience engineering aerospace products. I was first introduced to metal 3D printing, or additive manufacturing (AM), at my previous employer when I toured their Phoenix metals AM lab. I was fascinated by the technology’s capacity to take a concept in the form of a 3D model and build it from nothing, layer by layer, using lasers and powdered metal. I then worked with the director to establish an AM position in their rotational development program so I could get involved with the technology. I was excited to be part of what appears to be our generation’s industrial revolution.

What was your very first experience with 3D Printing?

My first hands-on experience in AM was with my previous employer. I redesigned heat exchangers, formerly produced with sheet metal and brazing, in a way that leveraged the benefits of additive technology. I designed two successful prototypes and saw them through the printing process while overcoming hurdles specific to the geometrical requirements. The project opened my eyes to the innovative possibilities the technology had to offer. Building the heat exchangers with AM greatly reduced touch time per part, as well as overall cost.

You are an AM Engineer, New Product Development at Arconic. Could you let us know a little bit more about your job?

Arconic’s primary Additive Manufacturing market is aerospace. My job is to work with our customers to adapt their metal products for AM production. Typically, these parts have been designed for traditional manufacturing methods, and require development to capitalize on the benefits of AM. It’s up to me to recognize and reconcile advantages and challenges the product may have on its way to becoming a 3D printed part. The finish line is to produce fully certified AM parts that will someday fly on commercial and military aircraft, and spacecraft.

What are the challenges you can face when going all the way from taking a new product into the certification step?

There are many challenges along the way to achieving a fully certified AM part, especially in aerospace, but those challenges are also what makes my job interesting. Aerospace is a highly regulated market—we have to be able to certify the powder, the process and the part so every component performs as required. Development is critical for AM parts intended to fly on commercial aircraft. Development challenges revolve largely around machine capability, material properties, and the geometry of the part. In development, we gather data and evaluate trends, but sometimes new geometry behaves differently than expected. We have to work to understand machine specific characteristics to better anticipate and mitigate build risks.  We must also manage variability amongst material type. Different metals behave differently in the build process, so we have to account for that variability in order to build a part that meets form, fit, and function. Additionally, different materials have unique metallurgy requirements. Good metallurgical properties are achieved through parameter development (i.e. laser settings) and thermal post-processing.

Do you have a wishlist for a new piece of equipment, material or software?

My wish is for software that streamlines build programming by allowing me to process jobs for the machines straight from CAD. I am currently testing such a program that I hope is robust enough for rapid paced development. The current workflow takes models through a series of file translations. I would love to implement a product that I can do all my CAD redesign work and build the setup in.

As a woman engineer, what was/ is your biggest challenge? Any challenge specific to the 3D printing industry?

As a woman engineer, I think inclusion has been the biggest challenge. Company culture is a large factor, and at Arconic I’ve found diversity and inclusion are priorities. Early in my career, I noticed that in order to participate in projects I was most interested in, it was up to me to assert myself in relevant conversations and activities. This required me to adjust my communication style.

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

One of the most impressive implementations of AM I have seen is on parts that have been topologically optimized. Topology optimization algorithmically isolates a model’s stress critical areas to reformulate a shape that allocates material only where it is needed. This significantly reduces the material required to build an AM part with the same strength as a traditionally manufactured part. Topology optimization often results in web-shaped geometry that is organic-looking in structure. AM is a great application for building topology optimized parts because it can grow unconventional structures layer-by-layer; whereas it would be impossible to machine these types of shapes through traditional subtractive manufacturing. Topology optimization is particularly beneficial to the aerospace industry where weight reduction is highly desirable.

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

  • As an engineer?

This industry interests me as an engineer because it provides the latitude to innovate beyond what is expected or what has been seen before in manufacturing. I like the idea of pushing the boundaries of innovation with new technology. At Arconic, I have been afforded the opportunity to own parts through their entire technical development cycle as well as have hands on experience with state of the art technology every day. I also enjoy that the AM community is global, and I have had the opportunity to travel overseas to meet with international technical professionals.

  • As a woman?

As a woman, I am drawn to the industry because 3D printing is still so new commercially. There are no stereotypes about the type of engineer working with this technology. There are fewer expectations about the type of person who will be successful in this industry, which I feel gives rise to the opportunity for women to excel. It encourages me not to fill someone else’s shoes, but instead, walk in my own.

What do you think of the 3D printing industry today? And how would you like to see it evolve?

Additive manufacturing has matured substantially since its days of prototyping, and I would like to see the rest of the industry recognize AM as a legitimate form of certified aerospace production. There is tremendous growth potential for additive manufacturing in aerospace, and we are on the cusp of it. I would like to see the process evolve and mature so it is truly leveraging all of AM’s benefits, such as design freedom and material efficiency. Much of my daily work pursues this goal.

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

I think encouraging girls and young women to get involved with STEM and telling them they are capable is the best place to start. I remember my high school physics teacher telling me he thought I had an aptitude and was capable of pursuing such subject matter. His words made an impression on me because it was not something I necessarily realized about myself. We need to involve girls and young women in hands-on 3D printing and STEM activities and connect them with mentors who share the same passion.

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

Parts that I am helping develop and build will one day fly people around the world and into deep space. Arconic manufactures metal 3D printed parts for the NASA Orion spacecraft, which will one day help humans travel to Mars, and we have three agreements to produce metal AM parts for Airbus aircraft. This is exciting for me personally—and drives momentum in the AM industry as a whole.

What is your favorite moment in your day job? 

My favorite moment in my day job is when I get to see a finished build hot off the machine. The return satisfaction of a successful build is immediate, and there is always something new to be learned and propel each product’s innovation forward.

What’s on your 3D Printing wish list for the next 5 years? 

Bigger machines, more lasers with refined crossover capability, better in process inspection tools, defect predictability and streamlining of engineering AM workflow from a software side.


Thank you for reading and for sharing! 

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