Keri Wright is the CEO of Universal Asset Management (UAM), an aviation leader in disassembly, full recycling solutions, as well as component sales, warehousing and third-party logistics. UAM’s focus on innovation and mission to reimagine the aviation industry has led UAM to also be selected as a 2015 Inc. 5000 recipient and an Impact 50 recipient recognizing the top women-owned businesses from the prestigious Inc. 5000 list. Additionally, Memphis Business Journal selected UAM as a “Pacesetters” honoree, recognizing UAM as a top innovative business in the Mid-south. In 2014, Aviation Week acknowledged Keri as a “40 Under Forty” honoree and in the same year Keri was recognized by the Memphis Business Journal as a “Top 40 Under 40” and a “Super Women in Business” recipient. Additionally, Keri was also selected as an Inside Memphis Business “CEO of the Year” recipient in 2015.

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

I have always wanted to be a pilot when I was growing up in Illinois. In fact, I performed my first solo flight before I could legally drive a car! While I was at Purdue University, I also worked as a flight instructor. It is an understatement to say that aviation is my one true passion. After college, I joined Universal Asset Management (UAM) and was soon promoted to vice president of asset management, quickly followed by a promotion to Chief Operating Officer. In 2013, I acquired the company from its founder and became a CEO of an aviation company at 30 – unheard of for a female. I came upon 3D printing as a function of my passion for aviation. Additive manufacturing is seemingly the new messiah in our industry. Composite use is on the rise; that is undeniable. In the 1970’s, aircraft were made of ~1% composite materials; Today’s modern aircraft are made of up to 53% composite materials. The trend is not looking to change, given the durability, fuel and weight efficiency that carbon fiber-based elements deliver. Approximately 5 years ago, I was struck with the inevitability of a predominantly-composite aircraft, specifically Airbus’s A350 and Boeing’s B787 airliners. The full recycling of a formerly operational aircraft is a challenge that UAM undertook with vigor. Many are introducing carbon fiber into aerospace manufacturing, but not many have been successful in taking carbon fiber in aircraft and re-introducing it back to manufacturing. UAM is the first in the world to recycle carbon fiber directly from an end-of-life aircraft into a raw material fit for advanced additive manufacturing. 3D-printing was instrumental in illustrating this achievement, for the world to witness, via the 3D-printed engine stand.

Could you explain furthermore what UAM (Universal Asset Management) is and the services that you are providing?

Through 25 years of growth, UAM has become synonymous with innovation. Consistently pushing the envelope on emerging technologies, UAM remains an aviation leader in aircraft sourcing, trading, management and full lifecycle solutions, which includes recycling, disassembly, component sales, warehousing and third-party logistics. In March 2017, UAM was acquired by Aircraft Recycling International (ARI). As a wholly-owned subsidiary of ARI and a part of its global disassembly & distribution platform, UAM deploys cutting-edge proprietary software and recycling technologies to create investment-grade solutions for mid-to-end of life aircraft platforms. Together, ARI and UAM form global solutions for aging aircraft, further affirming CALC’s status as a full value-chain aircraft solutions provider. UAM has acquired, managed and disassembled over 300 aircraft including all Boeing platforms, as well as Airbus A300, A310, A320, A330 and A340 aircraft. Headquartered in Memphis, TN USA, UAM additionally has multiple sales offices located around the world including London, UK. The UAM aircraft disassembly center is located at the Tupelo Regional Airport in Tupelo, MS USA and the 450,000 square foot Global Distribution Center is located in Verona, MS USA.

This April (2018), UAM revealed a 3D-printed engine stand manufactured from carbon fiber reinforced polymer. Can you explain the challenges encountered during this process?

Of all the structural elements comprising an aircraft, carbon fiber is the most arduous to recycle. Efforts during the past fifteen (15) years have not yielded a viable solution that wholly completes the circular economy of carbon fiber back into manufacturing. Armed with a proprietary process that can harvest and recycle carbon fiber from formerly operational aircraft, UAM’s success blows open the possibilities even beyond aviation, paving the way to total aircraft recyclability.

What are the advantages of having a 3D printed engine stand using recycled carbon fiber from commercial aircraft?

UAM’s proprietary engineering in the use of CFRP from retired aircraft is a harbinger of future products under development by UAM’s Innovation Technology Team. The increasing availability of composites in younger retiring aircraft is an opportunity that is leveraged with UAM’s proprietary techniques. In this case, it is less about the engine stand, but the possibilities that the technology presents. 3D printing allows for increased flexibility in part production, utilizing the recycled carbon fiber from commercial aircraft. The material produced can be applied to big, small and medium area additive manufacturing. The possibilities of our technology’s applications are only limited by one’s own imagination, especially with the ever-increasing options presented by 3D printing.

Is this process scalable?

Yes, the next step is to commercialize the project. Immediate plans include creating aircraft ground support tooling using recycled carbon fiber and using additive manufacturing for application and distribution into automotive manufacturing. UAM is currently in discussions with several companies in the automotive industry.

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

UAM is celebrating our 25th anniversary this September! What a wonderful time, as we continue to grow.

Have you run into any challenges from being a female CEO in 3D Printing and aerospace – 2 male-dominant industries?

Inherent in being a pioneer is the opportunity it presents to overcome challenges, regardless of whether you are innovating, foraying into a new industry or breaking gender norms. While there has been many challenges, my philosophy which I share with my whole team (regardless of gender) is to acknowledge the resistance then forge right through it. That being said, it has been a net positive experience for me. I have had wonderful experiences working in 3D printing, specifically with the Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation. My gender has not been a factor in my dealings. I believe that may be a function of 3D printing being a growing innovative industry, viewing new entrants as equal partners in its growth. Aviation is a male-dominated industry if for no other reason than there aren’t a lot of women fascinated by airplanes. One of my goals is to be an example of why neither age nor gender is a limiting factor. To be successful, you just have to make the most of any opportunity that sits in front of you.

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

My husband and I are actually undertaking our biggest adventure to date as we had our first child in July! We are excited about this new phase in our life and look forward to all the memories and challenges our new co-pilot is bringing!

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

3D printing is most impressive in its flexibility, both in end-user applications, its speed versus traditional processes and the on-site manufacturing capabilities. This is impactful for logistically-dependent industries such as aviation, which require nimble and high-quality support for various operational and fleet requirements. Most notably, aviation is currently heavily impacted by its quick adoption of 3D printing for on-aircraft components (aircraft and engines alike).

What do you consider game-changing technologies in Additive Manufacturing?

There are three specific game-changers in additive manufacturing, as we see it. One would be the ability to vet the quality standards of raw materials that are used in heavy industrial additive manufacturing. If one can trace, qualify and categorize different raw materials as fit for varying industries, there will be a natural calibration, in terms of pricing and quality to ensure full adoption. Another would be metal 3D printing. The ability to utilize metal in commercialized 3D printing opens up the industry to a wider audience. Finally, being able to 3D print in color would be advantageous in heavily-regulated industries where color codes are required for use in operations.

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

  • As a business person?

3D printing is the cutting-edge of manufacturing for multiple industries. As UAM ushers aviation into being leaders in full recyclability, we pride ourselves in being armed with the most advanced technologies that can benefit our staff, clients, and industry.

  • As a woman?

The creativity that is required by 3D printing seems to be conducive to the integrated and multi-tasking way that women process and think. It is an equal playing field, and the best minds and ideas truly prevail.

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

The 3D printing industry today is at a turning point. While widely-available, the commercialization of its products, especially in heavy industry, is now reliant on changing or improving regulation and quality standards. This evolution is much-needed to ensure continued growth and adoption.

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

As with any STEM-related innovation, it starts with an education system that fully supports equal opportunity, regardless of gender. Continually encouraging girls and young women to explore the opportunities provided by science, technology, engineering and math fields of study will resonate in the 3D printing industry, in coming years.

Favorite 3D tool (could be a software, machine, material…you name it)? Our imagination

Favorite moment in your day job? When seemingly separate ideas converge into a “connect the dots” moment.

What’s on your 3D Printing wishlist for the next 5 years? For aviation to be the leader not just in its use of 3D printing materials but in its full recyclability, as well. Established quality standards that can be adopted by various manufacturing industries.

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