Rachel is a polymer scientist with five years of work experience formulating resins for stereolithographic 3D printing. She has a B.S. in Materials Science & Engineering and a B.S. in Writing from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Rachel has spoken on panels about emerging materials and applications in photopolymer additive manufacturing. After working for Formlabs as a materials scientist and specialist, she now works as a Senior Chemist at Azul 3D in Chicago, Illinois. In her free time, Rachel writes, paints, and volunteers with a cat rescue organization.
Rachel, could you let us know about your background and your journey to Additive Manufacturing?
My interest in 3D printing started with a love for polymer science as a high school student growing up on Long Island, New York. I was a firefighter at age 16, and this led to research in biodegradable flame retardant plastics. When I started looking for internships in my junior year at MIT, I met a materials scientist at Formlabs, Alex McCarthy, who was so excited about his work and just as enthusiastic about polymers and materials science as I was. I immediately applied for a materials engineering intern position at Formlabs.
I started as an intern at Formlabs in January of 2015. After graduating with a dual-degree in Materials Science & Engineering and Writing, I accepted a full-time Materials Scientist position at Formlabs. I moved to Berlin in late 2017 to work at the Formlabs Berlin office while taking graduate courses in polymer science. At Formlabs Berlin, I helped in various departments, including business development and marketing. I helped develop and implement training programs for over 50 employees on customer-facing teams. I also assisted in teaching about photopolymer materials selection to customers who came to the office for extra training.
In 2019, I joined a start-up out of Northwestern, Azul 3D, as a Senior Chemist to work on the development of 3D printing resins for high-throughput additive manufacturing. As typical of working at a small company, I wear many hats at Azul 3D. My responsibilities outside of the lab include managing several social media accounts and assisting in writing technical papers and grant applications. Last year, I was a panelist at a Photopolymer Additive Manufacturing Workshop at NIST in Boulder, CO, on an “Emerging Materials” panel. This past March, I was a panelist at RadTech’s UV+EB 2020 Conference in Florida on an “Applications in 3D Printing” panel.
To date, what would you say is your greatest achievement in Additive Manufacturing?
The launch of the first product I led the development of – Formlabs first Dental Model Resin – was really exciting for me.
What led you to launch the creation of a new resin? How is this resin used today?
As a materials engineering intern at Formlabs while studying at MIT, I assisted in many different resin formulation projects and stability testing. I learned a lot from my coworkers about the process of developing a new resin formulation. I was excited to be able to lead the development for the Dental Model resin and work hard with different teams to get the best product to our customers.
Due to the high accuracy of the resin, it is possible to print a full or partial arch of teeth that precisely represents the actual mouth of a patient. This allows for a fit test for a crown or bridge without the presence of a patient. This decreases time in the office for a patient and reduces the chances that the crown or bridge would not fit properly when the patient does come to the office.
Do you have any (fun or not) story your career to share with us?
During my first trip to Germany for the 2017 International Dental Symposium in Cologne, I was responsible for answering technical questions. There was an older woman from Eastern Europe who had come to the booth, and a sales representative directed her to me to answer her questions. She was exceedingly astonished that I, a woman, was an engineer and scientist and that the sales representatives were pointing people to me as the expert on the materials. Later on in the show, the woman came back and handed me a box of chocolates from her home country.
Have you run into any challenges from being a woman in 3D Printing?
I find it extremely challenging to be both young and a woman in science and engineering. The good thing about having five years of experience in 3D printing is that it not a common field to have five years of experience in. I am young and a woman, but I have found a niche in 3D printing where five years of experience can actually be a lot relative to many others seeking positions in the field.
A specific challenge is facing skepticism as a young woman at trade shows and conferences over the past five years. Often, I was the only person with an engineering or scientific background at an exhibit space. People with many more years of experience would come to our booth with technical questions, and sales or customer service representatives would rely on me for helping answer challenging questions about products or the technology. I often felt judged and nervous and was sometimes silenced by others who did not necessarily trust what I had to say or wanted to talk to someone else. This could have to do with my age, gender, or lack of a graduate degree. No matter the reason, it was disheartening, especially when I knew my responses were accurate.
What makes the 3D printing industry particularly interesting for you?
3D printing is exciting. So many problems can be quickly addressed by printing a complicated part with sophisticated features on a 3D printer. If you need one custom item, even the slowest 3D printer can speed up the time and reduce the number of materials it would take to receive thousands of that part through a service or mold it from clay or create a mold to cast it or machine the part. 3D printing allows us to solve complex issues quickly and many times in a cost-effective way.
I find the potential for 3D printing to save lives the most exciting part of the 3D printing industry. In my volunteer work, I spend a lot of time with rescued animals and trying to find them healthy, happy forever homes. In many places, animals who have any disability and cost too much to keep alive are euthanized. It would take me less than an hour to print a little working “wheelchair” for a small cat.
3D printing can also be used to save countless human lives in healthcare. I’ve seen medical models used before surgeries to help surgeons get a better idea of what they are going into based on scans. As a result, they are more ready for the operation, which can undoubtedly lead to higher success rates. And this does not even count the prospect for 3D printing custom medical devices, or even organs themselves, in the future.
What do you consider game-changing technologies in Additive Manufacturing?
I focus most of my time and effort on Photopolymer Additive Manufacturing (PAM), which includes Stereolithography (SLA) and Digital Light Processing (DLP). Within PAM, game-changing technologies come with increasing the speed and build volume of the printer. I am excited to work at Azul 3D, where we are addressing these traditional limitations in PAM with groundbreaking technologies. The technology we work with is called High Area Rapid Printing, or HARP, where a mobile liquid interface is at the bottom of the print vat instead of a traditional nonstick surface that requires a time-intensive peel process. The interface can be cooled, which helps with managing the heat generated during a fast print process – especially over large areas.
Where do you think the industry will move to in the next 10 years?
Many of the original patents in the key additive manufacturing technology categories have expired in the past decade. This has led to an explosion of new companies and developments in the industry that are looking to expand into the consumer market and get more people interested and using additive manufacturing. I expect in the next 10 years, there will be an explosion in the industrial/commercial market.
I think that in the next 10 years, we will see this industry continue to grow in value and general interest. I hope there will be more collaboration in technological advances in additive manufacturing, or at the very least healthy competition that pushes innovation and the industry forward.
What advice do you have for women looking to get started in 3D Printing?
Developing a passion for 3D Printing is an excellent start to getting involved in 3D Printing. Researching the different types of 3D Printing (I recommend Hub’s “3D Printing Handbook” and online guide to 3D Printing) is a great start to developing that passion. Although there are clusters of 3D printing companies and start-ups in major cities like Boston, there are many others scattered around the world. All it takes is research, and it never hurts to poke around on LinkedIn (or through organizations like Women in 3D Printing!) or search at the local career fair. Joining a makerspace or an extracurricular group on campus (we had MITERS at MIT) would be a great way to find like-minded peers as well.
In your opinion, how could we encourage more women to become involved with Additive Manufacturing?
I think that a good start is to try to encourage more women to become involved with STEM fields in general. I found my passion for polymer science in high school before I ever heard about 3D Printing outside of Star Trek’s “Replicator.” A good way to encourage more women to get involved with additive manufacturing is to target college students. This could include a talk at a local university, or free/discounted tickets for students to conferences like Rapid + TCT or the Women in 3D Printing annual conference. Educational videos and interviews to inspire young women are always helpful in the digital age we live in.
Favorite 3D tool? Thingiverse
Favorite moment in your day job? Anytime a print finishes (especially if it’s something tiny and/or a cat)
What’s on your 3D Printing wishlist for the next 5 years? This may be a weird one, but at the NIST/RadTech Photopolymer Additive Manufacturing Workshop last October (2019), someone said that every person should get a full scan and 3D file of their mouth because “one day you’ll need it.” Not something everyone wants to talk about, but it’s so true! When I lose my teeth, I will want that intraoral scan. It’s on my “wishlist” to get a 3D scan and file of my mouth 😬