Associate Prof Wai Yee Yeong serves as Associate Chair (Students) at the School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Nanyang Technological University Singapore. She manages a student population of over 2500 students in the school. She is also the Programme Director (Aerospace and Defence) at Singapore Centre for 3D Printing (SC3DP) and at HP-NTU Digital Manufacturing Corporate Labs. Her main research interests are 3D printing and Bioprinting. She has been awarded research funding of more than $8million so far. She published widely in journals with more than 150 papers, and has published 2 textbooks. She is the Associate Editor of 2 international journals. Her works bring technical and social impact and have been featured on news and media. She was named the winner of inaugural TCT Women in 3D Printing Innovator Award 2019.
Wai Yee, could you let us know about your background and what brought you to 3D printing in the first place?
I studied my PhD in Nanyang Technological University, which is one of the few research groups in the world then that were researching on 3D Printing. It was called Rapid Prototyping then. My PhD topic was creating scaffold for tissue engineering using rapid prototyping technology to process implantable biomaterials. My background training is Mechanical Engineering.
Can you describe your very first experience with 3D Printing?
In the PhD research group that I was working at, we had a few 3D Printing systems. I was awed by the fact that we can simply imagine any part and after just a few hours of processing, the part can be realized in the physical world. This means that the design freedom in the physical world is not connected directly to the unlimited possibilities in the virtual world. My PhD topic was in the field of biomedical and biotechnology.
With 3D printing, I realized that within the chaos and unknown world of biology, we can now study the bio-design factors in a systematic manner due to the newfound ability of creating freeform implantable structures with ultra-precision.
For example, in designing a scaffold for bone, we can now change the design of the structure to study which level of pore size and pore shape that the bone cells would thrive in. With this systematic approach, we can create a lifecycle map to engineer how tissues are being designed in an organic way. This will leads us closer toward creating a biomimetic tissue or organ for the future of healthcare.
I also remember that the 3D printers of the first generation were still very big in size or footprint and occupied almost the entire lab space that we have. It was also very interesting to study the physical principles of different printing systems and discover the “magic trick” used by each system in creating a physical part from virtual data in no time.
You’ve led research on 3D bioprinting, flexible printed electronics, smart cellular systems hybrid metal printing… what do all these topics have in common that drives you?
All of these innovations are powered by 3D printing and fueled by limitless imaginations. All of these new ideas represent new solution with the potential to impact the individual industry. While designing the process and materials, it is a joy to tap into nature and physics, and then subsequently developed into engineered solutions via the power of 3D printing. I think it is the curiosity to see the limit of 3D printing that drives me and my team in working on the research.
What are some of the key findings you can share with us?
We have created various know-how and discoveries in the field of metal printing, electronics printing and bioprinting, namely creating new alloy, new materials, new process to direct cells movement and also creating new electronics function in existing structures.
My team and I publish around 13-16 research papers every year, we have also filed several patents. There is too much to explore and each of the patent and journal article represent new findings in the respective fields.
To date, what would you say is your greatest achievement in Additive Manufacturing?
My greatest achievement is creating various innovations and bringing the AM technology to different users or industry. From manufacturing companies of aerospace parts and biomedical parts, I always see the opportunities to work with them.
I am also glad the achievement in AM provided me with the spotlight to promote more women in engineering. I would be proud if my experience is able to inspire the girls to maximize their potential in engineering.
Do you have any (fun or not) story about the company or your career to share with us?
Not really… If there is one, I am now working as a faculty in my alma mater, where my professors during my university days are now my colleagues. I am greatly honored that I can now continue the traditional of my school in contributing to the society.
Have you run into any challenges from being a female researcher in 3D Printing?
I am lucky to have a supportive workplace. We have equal opportunities and I have not seen any set back that can be attributed to my gender. Perhaps this is also due to the inherent nature of 3D printing technology, where the complexity of the technology is able to blend the strengths of either gender. Having said so, I must also admit that we see more males than females in the engineering field, which means we have more work to do in attracting more female towards engineering and also creating more opportunities for females to lead in engineering.
Anything exciting coming up you’d like us to know about?
We continue to work on the research topics, with more projects going forward with translational stage.
What is the most impressive or impactful use of 3D printing you’ve seen so far?
The most impressive or disruptive applications of 3D printing are in the field of building and construction, and also 3D Bioprinting. In building and construction, on top of speed and productivity, a freeform structure is not impossible now. That will totally change our identity as a society when we see more organic-looking buildings being built in the future. Whereas for 3D Bioprinting, we may have new ways to make better tissues and organs for pharma testing and organ replacement, which ultimately will greatly enhance the quality of lives.
What makes the 3D printing industry particularly interesting for you:
- As a researcher?
The limitless potential and the speed of innovation enabled by the technology.
- As a woman?
The complexity of each innovation, where the idea is an entangled-web of engineering principles, human factor engineering, and also the level of elegance of the technology. I believe such level of difficulty and complexity is most interesting for me.
What do you think of the 3D printing industry today? And how would you like to see it evolve?
AM is liberating the field of engineering and empowering different groups to become newly merged functions. The AM technology essentially has removed the barrier between designer and manufacturer, between engineer and end user, and most significantly the barrier between first world and third world countries.
3D printing technology is gaining acceptance by different industries, with new applications and new trials being reported every day. However, if one dig into the research landscape, we can see the research organization is leading the way and ahead of industries in terms of technology and science.
I would like to see more participation from the industry in co-developing new solution with research institutes, to fully capitalize on the knowledge residing in the research world, so that we can turn the technology innovations into technology readiness at accelerated speed.
In your opinion, how could we encourage more women to become involved with 3D Printing?
To promote the potential of the technology through workshops, and lifelong learning courses, so that we can tap into the wonderful minds of women from all walks of life, and to empower women to be innovator. We also need to do more to eliminate the traditional societal image that engineering is only or the boys. This means we also need to promote engineering to the parents!
Favorite 3D tool? Each 3D tool is unique and there is no one universal 3D tool that can do all the job. As I am printing so many different things, the favorite tool is the one that can do the job best!
Favorite moment in your day job? My favorite moment in my day job is when I am exchanging idea with my colleague and students, learning from them and improving myself along the way.
What’s on your 3D Printing wishlist for the next 5 years? There are plenty! But if I must choose, I would like to print a fully functional skin and see my patented new 3D printable alloy to be made into a bone implant.