Rachel leads the research into 3D Printing and Additive Manufacturing at IDTechEx, including writing market research reports, interviewing key players, consulting, curating conferences, and speaking at events around the world. She has a BA in Natural Sciences and first-class MSci in Materials Science and Metallurgy from Cambridge University. She has worked at the Cambridge University Engineering Department, the University of Goettingen, and the University of Technology in Hamburg.
Rachel, could you let us know about your background and what brought you into 3D printing in the first place?
I’ve worked in a few academic research labs, and found early stage research very frustrating, so knew I wanted to get out of the lab. During my Bachelor’s degree, I majored in Materials Science and Metallurgy, and for my Master’s project, I tested novel photovoltaic cells. When I first joined IDTechEx, I wanted to work on Energy Harvesting, but they needed someone to rewrite the 3D Printing Materials report. The 3D printing industry is fascinating because it brings together people from so many disciplines. It is constantly evolving so I am always busy keeping up with the latest news.
What was your very first experience with 3D Printing?
Just after I’d started researching 3D printing, I went to the TCT Show in Birmingham, UK. That was the first time I got to see all the different machines working, examples of objects that could be produced and meet people from industry. That was really my starting point and gave me context for everything I have written since.
In practical terms, we have an Ultimaker 2 in the office. I tried to 3D print out a model frog in bright blue PLA but got bored and ripped it off the print-bed before it had a head. I keep the headless frog on my desk as a reminder, that despite the hype, 3D printing is not ready for average consumers.
Could you explain furthermore what IDTechEx is and the services or products that you are providing?
IDTechEx is a market research and business intelligence company. We advise companies about how emerging technologies will impact their businesses. Sometimes they are developing the technology, sometimes they are worried about new competitors, sometimes they are scouting for new opportunities. We sell market research reports, carry out bespoke consultancy projects, and run conferences in California and Berlin each year. For more information, we have a company introductory video
How does research in Advanced Materials work? Do you work on finding new materials or improving existing materials?
“Advanced Materials” is another one of our twelve topic areas. I’ve already mentioned 3D Printing and Energy Harvesting, but we also cover Printed Electronics, Wearable Technologies, IoT, Robotics, Sensors… Advanced Materials includes materials like graphene, carbon nanotubes, new thermal interface materials and electrically conductive adhesives. We research how these new materials can enable new products and change supply chains.
As a woman in a Tech industry, what was/ is your biggest challenge?
IDTechEx has always been very supportive. The 3D printing industry have also been very welcoming. Because it is a fairly new industry, it is more diverse than some engineering disciplines. I think lack of self-belief and self-confidence is often what holds women back.
I have had a couple of eyebrow-raising moments. I had one conversation where a man asked me how much I knew about steel. I explained I had a Master’s degree in Metallurgy. He launched into a monologue about how steel was a mixture of iron and carbon. He clearly didn’t believe I was knowledgeable about metals.
The first time I gave a conference presentation, I was one of very few women and wearing a dress without pockets. They had nowhere to clip the power pack of the microphone, so they made me shout at an audience of 100 people in the corner of the tradeshow. In retrospect, I should have just held the microphone, but I was naïve and obedient.
I was in a panel discussion, where a female journalist asked, “You are interested in building things now. Did you play with Lego as a child, or were you interested in Barbies like a normal girl?” I was speechless for a while, because it seemed so personal and irrelevant. Several people told me afterwards they were offended on my behalf. These have all been minor, isolated incidences, but clearly gender is still occasionally an issue.
What was the most impressive or impactful use of 3D printing you’ve seen so far?
It’s always the surgical uses that impress me most. I know a few surgeons that have implanted little pieces of plastic to save lives. The 3D printing is fairly simple, but they have special requirements around certification, clearance, sterilisation, lifetime, a challenging environment, allowing for growth. 3D printing allows complete customization of these parts and it’s incredible that people have pushed through all these challenges.
What makes the 3D printing industry particularly interesting for you?
“3D printing” encompasses so many technologies, and there are so many ways to use them, that it touches on so many industries. There is always a new machine or a new application for me to learn about. It’s been changing so quickly just in the two years that I’ve been tracking it.
What do you think of the 3D printing industry today? And how would you like to see it evolve?
Personally, I’m glad the hype has all calmed down a bit. I’m naturally conservative, and my job is to question marketing pitches, so all the “third industrial revolution” and “3D printer in every home” chat annoys me. 3D printing is another tool, amongst a wide range of manufacturing technologies. It has serious advantages in terms of design freedom, mass customization and less materials wastage, but it doesn’t make sense to 3D print everything. It is starting to become an industrial manufacturing technique and become truly productive. I think more materials, multi-material, better reliability, better consistency, and better testing are the most important developments.
In your opinion, how could we encourage more women to become involved with 3D Printing?
I know many highly talented women in the industry. There is no easy solution to encouraging better gender balance.
I think 3D printing needs demystifying. All desktop 3D printers still require a certain amount of hacking. Despite what they claim, very few are “plug-and-play”, most requiring file fixing, recalibration, broken prints… Amongst the people I know, women tend to be less confident fiddling around with machinery and get put off quicker.
There are fewer female engineers, so we need to retain them. Sometimes women struggle to network in male-dominated industries. At the IDTechEx Show! in Santa Clara on November 16-17, we are running a networking breakfast to discuss some of the issues faced by women in the tech industry.
If you are interested in learning more about Rachel and IDTechEx, I invite you to check the company’s website!
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Thank you for reading and for sharing!