Natalie Rudolph is the Director of Material & Process development at AREVO, Inc. Natalie received her diploma (2004) in Textile Engineering from the University of Applied Sciences Hof, Germany, and her doctorate in Mechanical Engineering, specializing in Polymer Engineering, from the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg. Her dissertation on “Compression Induced Solidification (CIS) of Amorphous Thermoplastics” was awarded with the Brose Award, as the best PhD Thesis from the German Scientific Alliance of Polymer Technology. Her two-year Post-Doc was spent at the Polymer Engineering Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, followed by a position as Division Head at the Fraunhofer Institute of Chemical Technology in Augsburg, and lecturer at the Technical University Munich, Germany. Most recently she was an Assistant Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she also held the position as Associate Director of the Polymer Engineering Center.
For over 8 years, Rudolph’s research has focused on additive composite manufacturing for high volume/high precision applications. She co-authored three Hanser Publishers Books: “German Plastics Handbook” (2013), “Polymer Rheology” (2015), and “Understanding Plastic Recycling” (2017). She is one of the recipients of the 2015 Outstanding Young Manufacturing Engineers award.
Natalie, could you let us know about your background and what brought you to 3D printing in the first place?
I am a textile engineer as well as a plastics engineer by training. This seems to be a great combination for what I do now, but I have to admit that I didn’t really seek out 3D printing in the beginning; rather it found me. First, in 2006, my PhD advisor decided to add Additive Manufacturing as a key research area and I gained my first experience with Selective Laser Sintering of nylon powders. I was fascinated by the design freedom and the complexity of the producible geometries. We played around with the machines and added all kinds of fun parts to the builds – in addition to test specimens. I still have my tiny snowflakes and Christmas tree ornaments… together with the continued fascination for this process!
Later, at the Fraunhofer Institute, we had a composite additive manufacturing technology among our core processes, which I worked with extensively. It was and is very powerful, but I was always frustrated by the amount of manual pre-processing, adjustment of the process and post-processing was needed. Three years later, when I started my own research group as an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I focused my research exclusively on 3D printing of composites and I put all my ideas for improvements into my research questions. One and a half years ago, I realized that AREVO, Inc was working on a very similar technology with the same vision. However, AREVO made much faster progress due to their interdisciplinary focus on software, machine, material, and process development instead of just the one sided approach I was always frustrated by in my earlier career. Therefore, I decided to join their team to have a bigger and also faster impact on the industry… and I am still enjoying the start-up life!
Can you actually tell us a bit more about AREVO and the technology the company is working on?
At AREVO we focus on the high-volume production of carbon fiber reinforced composite parts using a 3D printing technology. In my perspective, we are working at the intersection of additive manufacturing (AM) and composite manufacturing (CM): we combine a high degree of design freedom from AM with the high material performance and lightweight otherwise only attainable with CM. However, we are taking it even further and use the intrinsic advantages of the process and machine capabilities for automated and large scale manufacturing of such parts. Together with the simulation software tools that are also developed in-house, this is a real game changer.
The Material & Process Development team, which has three women out of seven team members, focuses on the understanding and tailoring of the process as a function of material properties and process settings for given applications. As such, we are the internal customers for the machine and software developing teams and work closely with the numerical modeling group to provide material input and validate their models with structural tests. In general, we are a very hands-on team that spends most of their time in the characterization lab or at the robotic printers.
What are some of the challenges in developing composite materials for additive manufacturing?
We are using a lot of fundamental composite knowledge to design our materials. However, since both the materials and the process are unique in a lot of important features, we are constantly recalibrating our knowledge base and learning where our process differentiates from traditional composite manufacturing. This is a very gratifying experience for an engineer because we are literally breaking new ground with our technology. Another challenge is related to the additive nature of our process and the design freedom that is perceived by the community at large. I talked earlier about the design freedom that 3D printing offers. Most people have images of powder-based processes in mind which enable internal channels, holes and linked structures. However, when you are working with a continuous fiber, this fiber needs to stay intact for best performance. Therefore, our parts are better compared to a structure you would build using a ball of thread that forms out of sand. This is sometimes challenging to convey.
Are the materials developed only suitable for additive manufacturing?
Our high-performance materials and especially the combinations we are using, e.g. PEEK matrix resin and carbon fiber can be used in other processes. However, the preimpregnated filament we use as the raw material in our process is tailored to our process and cannot be used in any other process today to the best of my knowledge. I would rather say that at the rate our technology evolves, we will be able to process a multitude of different materials in the future. This means that we will be able to use other materials commonly used in traditional composite technologies in our process instead of the other way around.
Do you have any (fun or not) story about the company or your career to share with us?
I always liked how 3D printing catches the attention of the public and especially of kids of all ages. So, during a public event at UW Madison, the graduate students and I would open our lab to invite kids to learn about our research. We always tried to find simple ways to explain our work and put a lot of thought into the exhibits. One year, we were ready to show our robot – Otto – printing in True3D (similar to what we are now doing at AREVO, but without fiber reinforcement). We were really proud and expected everyone to understand the importance of this work. While I was explaining the motion of the robot to a 7-year old (I think her eyes glazed over), she turned around and screamed in delight “Pikachu!!!” as she realized we were printing Pokemon figurines on the regular desktop printers. Guess what, I myself had the biggest realization that day; to spark someone’s interest and excitement for 3D printing (and science), it doesn’t have to be fancy and it definitely shouldn’t be technical, it should just be fun. And that is what 3D printing delivers…with Pikachu figurines or Christmas ornaments.
Anything exciting coming up you’d like us to know about?
We are currently ramping up our manufacturing capabilities and will have 5-8 cells coming online in the next few weeks. This means we will be printing lots of bikes and other parts in the first quarter of 2019 and stress-test our technology. This will help us detect any remaining problems fast and find solutions for them to move the technology to the next level.
What is the most impressive or impactful use of 3D printing you’ve seen so far?
I am very impressed by the use of 3D printing in hospitals and for medical applications. I had no idea how expensive time in the operating room was and realizing that 3D printing enhanced surgical planning could reduce surgery time by up to 50% was eye-opening. Not only is it accelerating the recovery time for the patient due to shorter procedures, but it also reduces the cost of the procedure or allows more patients to be treated. I can’t wait to learn about all the other things, I don’t know of yet.
What do you consider game-changing technologies in Additive Manufacturing?
I am most impressed when the “manufacturing” aspect in AM is being addressed. When Joe DeSimone presented the Carbon technology a couple of years ago in a TED talk, I was thinking “Finally someone, who delivers on the speed promise!” and I have been following them ever since. We have seen great ideas in mass-production from them and although I don’t think thermosets can be the solution for every application, I hope they are able to establish the technology as another large-scale manufacturing technology.
For similar reasons, the binder jetting technologies from Desktop Metal and HP are other examples of processes I am intrigued by. They have huge potential for low-cost metal part manufacturing and I wish them the best of luck in establishing their technologies. In the end, every successful technology moves 3D printing one step closer to our common goals of changing the manufacturing industry. And I anticipate that AREVO will be a game changer in this, too.
What makes the 3D printing industry particularly interesting for you:
- As an engineer?
Both the composite and the 3D printing industry have huge potential to transform manufacturing today…and I hope they will move us toward a more sustainable future with lighter products of higher quality that can be developed and produced faster… and only on demand.
- As a woman?
As a still relatively new industry, it isn’t as established as other industries and attracts more out-of-the-box thinkers and innovators. This created a more open and inclusive environment from the start, where women and other minorities, in general, are welcomed and don’t have to fight their way from the lower ranks, which is still the case in more traditional industries or engineering at large.
In your opinion, how could we encourage more women to become involved with 3D Printing?
In my opinion, we have girls and women at all ages interested in 3D printing, but they don’t know how to start and create a 3D models. Today, you either need to be able to use CAD software or some kind of artistic tool with 3D functionality. I am hoping that tools like TinkerCAD will continue to improve and become better known because they are so easy to use that kids in elementary school could start to work on 3D projects. Then the next step would be that many of these technology-savvy girls (and boys) become engineering rock stars one day!
Favorite 3D tool (could be a software, machine, material…you name it)? TinkerCAD, because it allows even kids to generate 3D models as I could see for myself in a class for elementary school kids
Favorite moment in your day job? Lunchtime, because I love good food and energetic conversation
What’s on your 3D Printing wishlist for the next 5 years? More manufacturing systems and case studies to entice decision makers from all fields to give it a try
Another inspiring woman you’d like us to interview? Miriam Haerst, CEO of Kumovis