British-owned rapid prototyping company Star Rapid, headquartered in China since 2005, was an early adopter of 3D printing technology, and underwent a rebranding campaign in January, changing its name from Star Prototype. The company is still focused on rapid prototyping, but is also offering all low-volume manufacturing as well. Star Rapid expanded its facility space and invested in new equipment, including plastic injection molding machines, CNC machining centers, and metals and plastics spectrometers.
All of this new equipment is right up Chloe Kow’s alley – she’s been the company’s Direct Metal Laser Melting (DMLM) manager since July of 2015. Kow, born in Malaysia, is one of four women on Star Rapid’s international management team, and has spent years studying and researching manufacturing engineering, materials, and metal 3D printing; she’s also the latest interviewee for our Spotlight on Women series.
I recently enjoyed the opportunity to ask Kow some questions about how she got into the complex world of metal 3D printing, and where she thinks the industry is headed. Before working at Star Rapid, Kow collaborated with well-known aerospace and automotive companies during additive manufacturing-related research and development projects, which she also managed. During her day-to-day responsibilities, Kow ensures the integrity of the design and build process in order to maximize the benefits of the technology for its demanding applications in multiple fields, such as aerospace, automotive, and medical. She also played a vital role in helping Star Rapid obtain a total of eight utility model patents over the past year for plastic injection molding and CNC processes, and is passionate about the need to educate the industry as a whole on design for 3D metal printing – according to Kow, it’s not always the savior that some people make it out to be.
“Since I was a young girl growing up in Malaysia, I have always been intrigued by how things are made and how they work. This desire to learn the technical aspect of design led me to move to the United Kingdom and study manufacturing and engineering at Sheffield Hallam University. I graduated with honors with a bachelor’s in materials and manufacturing engineering as well as a master’s in in advanced engineering.”
As to your professional background, what led you to a career in the 3D printing world?
“3D metal printing captured my attention while I was pursuing my master’s degree. Specifically, there was an advanced manufacturing module as part of the coursework that delved into the technology. It was amazing to me how 3D printing technology works.
After graduating, I had the opportunity to work with world-leading aerospace and automotive companies at The Welding Institute (TWI) in Cambridge, the world’s foremost research and development organization specializing in materials joining and engineering processes. During my time at TWI, I helped fabricate 3D-printed engine parts and developed process parameters for the Renishaw AM250 that helped improve the manufacturer’s machine capability and stability. I continued my research career at The Manufacturing Technology Centre, where I also worked on aerospace and automotive-related projects. After five years researching, I decided to move to China, just outside of Hong Kong, and started working for Star Rapid managing their metal 3D printing.”
“My typical day starts off with a short management meeting with my team early in the morning, where we arrange and assign tasks out for the day. Throughout the day I help provide guidance on solving any technical issues that may arise during the 3D metal printing process and provide corrective action that needs to be implemented. The lack of design-for-manufacturing knowledge often leads to a good amount of trial-and-error, as well as technical issues arising during the build process.
Part of my role at Star Rapid is also to generate quotes for incoming enquiries, which involves teaching customers how to design their parts for the additive manufacturing process so they can receive the best quality part at an affordable price. In addition to counseling our customers, I’m always training our internal staff and keeping them up-to-date on new information related to 3D printing.”
Metal 3D printing is one of the fastest growing areas in the industry, becoming competitive with more traditional production processes. How important is it to educate the industry on 3D metal printing design, and how would you propose to do so?
“As mentioned, it is extremely important to educate customers on how to design their parts to suit the 3D printing process. There’s a misconception within the industry that 3D metal printing is a rescue process or safety net for complex product designs. Most of the time we receive designs that have been rejected elsewhere or are not viable to be done by other technologies.
Any designs that are created for CNC machining, or other technologies, have no advantages to be done by 3D printing. If the design is not made for additive manufacturing, it will need to have a lot of structural supports added to achieve the desired geometry. To remove the support requires manual work and a great deal of time. In some cases, the supports cannot be removed and impact the functionality of the part. At the very least, removal of the supports impacts the surface finish of the part and this all leads to increases in process time and costs. Furthermore, the longer time it takes to 3D print a part, the higher the chances of failure. The repeated heating and cooling process creates internal stress. The longer it takes to build a part the more chance it will distort during the printing process, especially when the part has a big volume.
At Star Rapid, we work closely with our customers on how to design their parts and provide design guidelines to assist them in designing their parts. Once the customer is able to understand the fundamentals of the design guidelines, they will be better equipped to fully utilize 3D metal printing, without sacrificing creativity. To further support our customers, we are now in the process of creating free online videos focused on how to design for additive manufacturing and pitfalls to avoid so that they can better understand the process.”
It says in your Star Rapid bio that you’ve helped the company “obtain 8 utility model patents over the past year for CNC and plastic injection molding processes.” Could you tell us a little more about this?
“To be classified as a High and New Technology Enterprise in China, Star Rapid needed to obtain at least six patents. I have led this initiative and have successfully obtained eight utility model patents, four each from CNC machining and plastic injection molding. All of our patents have open licenses so that other individuals or companies can modify and build upon them to further in the industry. It was important to us to have open patents to continue to encourage innovation in the industry.
During the development of our existing patents and in our continued effort to develop new patents, I have been working very closely with the CNC and injection molding departments to figure out what are the most challenging projects in the past few years and how they used their creative and innovative minds to improve the entire process in terms of lead time reduction and cost savings in comparison to conventional methods.”
You obviously have a wealth of experience in the tech field. What changes have you observed over the last few years in the 3D printing industry, both in terms of metal 3D printing and in terms of diversity in the field?
“Over the last few decades, plastic 3D printing has been widely embraced and utilized within the industry, while 3D metal printing is still not very common. Although a few metal machines have been in the market, they have, until recently, been mainly for research purposes. In the past two years, I have observed that there are a lot of metal machine manufacturers and metal powder manufacturers emerging in the market – a trend I expect to continue into the near future. With increased adoption and competition, the machines and materials costs will gradually become more affordable to the public in the future.
There are a lot of universities that have started to focus on metal 3D printing as well. In the coming years, 3D metal printing techniques will be more mature and advance in terms of speed, quality and the improvement of post-processing. Hence, I’m predicting there will be a lot of companies utilizing metal 3D printing processes to manufacture parts as their end products. With the continued emergence of simulation analysis software in 3D metal printing, the process will be more controllable during the build, thus reducing the amount of parts that fail during the build process. I’m also looking forward to the emergence of more hybrid systems especially in powder bed fusion technology.”
What are your thoughts about and experiences with diversity in the tech industry?
“It’s been claimed that certain professions, such as engineering, are dominated by men. However, it’s been my experience that women are very well-organized and meticulous – an important trait to have when undertaking detailed engineering work.”
Do you have any advice for girls considering the study of STEM areas in school? What about advice for women interested in working the 3D printing field?
“Do not hesitate to study STEM in school. Be at the forefront of ensuring women are being taken seriously in the engineering world. 3D printing is pioneering the industry right now and the technology itself has a bright future as it is creating strong career opportunities for women and men alike.”
“I believe a large reason the ratio of men to women is uneven within STEM subjects is due to confidence. Training should be given to younger women and girls to be more confident and enable them to pursue careers within the field of engineering. Women and men are equally suited to succeed within STEM careers so there is no reason there should be such a gap. Governments should take a serious effort in showing young females that engineering is an exciting career and offers them real prospects and opportunities.”
What do you see as being key to growth in the 3D printing industry as it matures?
“Universities and industries should be working closely and more openly together so that they are no longer overlapping research and the development of new processes. Right now, a lot of work is being duplicated between these two parties so better organization would vastly speed up the growth of the 3D printing sector.”
Metal 3D printing is rapidly growing, and becoming increasingly competitive with traditional manufacturing processes. Metal materials development is progressing just as quickly – it’s no wonder that this year’s RAPID + TCT event was held in Pittsburgh, the Steel City. To stay ahead of the game, heed Kow’s advice on making sure that your design is optimal for metal 3D printing, or you will rapidly fall behind.
Share your thoughts in the Chloe Kow forum at 3DPB.com.
If you are interested in sharing your story, or know a woman we should get in touch with for this series, please reach out any time. Send us an email or connect on Twitter. We’re looking forward to sharing more stories about women in 3D printing. Find all the features in this series here.