Holly is the co-founder and CEO of Stratonics. She is an engineer but also knows all about business and operations. I hope you’ll enjoy learning more about her experience, thoughts about the industry and her business. She has some really good points regarding the reality of the Additive Manufacturing industry.
Holly, could you let us know about your background and what brought you into 3D printing in the first place?
I excelled in math and science in high school and at 17 traveled from New England to California for college. I obtained a BS in Electrical Engineering and found my niche in system integrations of optics and lasers. It was rewarding to be immersed at a higher project level, rather than detailed work in one specific aspect. It allowed me to work with and learn from a variety of highly skilled people and be involved in the final system operation.
My initial years consisted of hands on technical work in a dynamic small company of scientists that developed state-of-the art sensor instrumentation for aero-optic experimentation and analysis. It was there that I met and worked with my future husband. I left the small technology company for several years to transition to a program management role in larger companies. It was a great experience however I found it less rewarding.
In 1992, my husband and I incorporated Stratonics as an off shoot of the group he had been leading. In the down turn of government spending in defense, we transitioned our technical capability to sensors for metal additive manufacturing (AM) systems under several DOD research programs. We have since focused in advancing and commercializing that technology.
How did you came with the idea of developing the sensors?
Our experience with thermal sensors in harsh environments for aerospace and thermal spray led to the request of developing a sensor to monitor and examine the melt pool in a laser metal deposition system. The “integration” was a simple mount allowing the sensor to view the scene, using a turkey cooking bag as a window. It was exciting to witness what was happening thermally during the melting and solidification of the metal. The components we work with are typically test coupons of various shapes in which we purposely induce flaws and defects in an attempt to detect those signatures.
Could you explain furthermore what Stratonics is and the services that you are offering?
Stratonics is a small business that is a widely recognized leader in sensor and control technology for AM. Extensive collaboration with technology leaders provides instrumental experience to understand the problems facing the industry and deliver pertinent solutions. We support our technology and customer’s goals through on-site training and technical consultation, thereby supplying necessary tools to researchers advancing AM and industrial clients achieving a competitive edge.
How do the sensors work and who are your customers?
Our sensors look at the thermal properties of the material as it is added to the part. The thermal dynamics that occur during the process drives the mechanical properties of the resultant component, which is critical in many applications. Our goal is to control the process to make repeatable, quality parts. We integrate our sensors into a wide variety of systems and work very closely with our customers to assist them in understanding the process and achieving their goals. Half of our business encompasses research and development programs that advances and validates our sensors. Those programs, Small Business Innovative Research, America Makes, DOD, etc. allow us to work closely with the leaders and scientists who are at the forefront of AM. The second half of our business is direct sensor sales to clients, many of which we assist with integration and provide technical support in their application.
Our customer base comprises three major segments of the industry and government: companies that develop and manufacture AM systems, companies that own AM systems to make parts, and research organizations that are advancing 3D technology. Customers include U.S. National Labs, universities, aerospace companies, and various segment of the Department of Defense. Our sensors are installed worldwide.
Do you have any (fun or not) story about the company to share with us?
Our technology and customer base places us in a very unique position to work with the leading scientists and state of the art equipment. We work with key research organizations throughout the U.S. and see first-hand the advancements that are being implemented. It is an exciting place to be and the involvement feeds the enthusiasm within our company. For me, I thrive on the interaction with the people we meet in this AM community who have such drive to take this industry to the next level and have the incredible talent to do so.
As a woman entrepreneur, what was/ is your biggest challenge? Any challenge specific to the 3D printing industry?
I went to college in the early eighties and was one of a handful of females in the Electrical Engineering Department. I was fortunate that several of my instructors, all male, supported the high level of effort I put into my studies and contributed to my success. Entering the work force as a young female engineer again brought the need to perform at a high level to be recognized as capable. The people I worked directly with understood the value I brought to the group after a period of time of working side by side. However, in situations where our group would work in the field, many men would only direct their initial interactions with their male counterparts. I found it best to simply work hard and they eventually realized and appreciated my place on the team. You prove yourself, you gain respect.
Is it “fair” for women to have to work harder? I don’t really consider that question because I know the situations I encountered did make me work harder, but as a result, I’m stronger and better for it. The women I meet in my profession are typically top notch since they have had to excel higher to achieve their position.
Today I still attend meetings where I may be the only female in the room. At this point in my career I have no hesitation to make my points. It is disappointing to hear younger women share that there are still men who cannot immediately accept women as capable. It is their loss. Women can teach their sons and other young men through example that women are a force to be reckoned with and bring different perspectives that are an asset to any industry.
What makes the 3D printing industry particularly interesting for you:
As a business person?
It is fascinating to be immersed in this rapidly changing, dynamic industry and to see the immense creativity and competition. Some refer to this period as the third industrial revolution which is transforming product development and the structure of careers. There is great potential for growth of our company as a result of the enormous focus on this technology and expanding applications. We continuously encounter new opportunities and I don’t see that slowing down anytime soon.
As a woman?
It’s exciting and impressive to meet young women who have taken the 3D printing arena by storm and in some cases, successfully created their own companies. AM is revolutionizing both manufacturing and the opportunity for women to be a significant contributor in a new technology.
What do you think of the 3D printing industry today? And how would you like to see it evolve?
We have been working in AM for the last 10 years and it has really exploded in all directions within a short time span. 3D printing technology is unlocking previous limitations in design and production, and unleashing tremendous creativity in both engineering and the arts. Customers must be allowed to access and manipulate the 3D systems as they see fit to obtain their full potential. The system manufacturers are going to have to institute a more open source approach in their machines for users to maximize their individual goals. It is the users that will continue to push the technology forward and this will result in the continued competition and new developments.
There is a great deal of enthusiasm and hype inside the industry. 3D printing has fantastic potential to advance manufacturing but it does have limitations. Maintaining a practical view and focusing on realistic methods to move the technology forward is important. In manufacturing critical parts, there is still a great deal to understand about the physics of the process to ensure repeatable quality components. Components created in a 3D process must produce advantages over traditional manufacturing methods.
The government is spending an enormous amount of money in this area and we are fortunate to be a part of several programs. However, a majority of the funds are directed to universities, research labs, and major OEM companies that already obtain either government funding or internal IR&D money. A significant portion of the money is absorbed by the administration within these large organizations and the ability to quickly achieve advancements is hindered by the internal bureaucracy. Small businesses can advance technology in an expedited time frame for a fraction of the cost that is awarded to the large organizations. If the government deems that it is their role to fund this technology, more opportunity should set aside for small businesses, for they are the engine of creativity. Am I biased? Absolutely.
In your opinion, how could we encourage more women to become involved with 3D Printing?
Both high schools and colleges should be exposing all students to 3D printing in any manner they can. It’s a fascinating technology that will grasp their interest since it can be incorporated in such a wide variety of applications, leading to so many different career paths. Coming from an engineering background, I’d like to see young women who show strength in math/physics be encouraged and guided to opportunities that exist. I think too many students enter college or the career force with limited understanding of the possibilities and their own capabilities. I stumbled into engineering in my early time at college. I took a random “interest test” at the career center and was told that I needed to go visit a woman who had a significant role in the engineering department. She encouraged and assisted me in enrolling in the program. I was fortunate but there is a better way to choose a career than stumbling into it.
If you are interested in learning more about Holly and Stratonics, I invite you to check their website or leave a comment below.
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Thank you for reading and for sharing!