Taking the Unconventional Route to 3D Printing

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Growing up in a household with a father in engineering and mother in mathematics, I was destined to be in the science and engineering world.  However, I didn’t see it that way until I grew up a little.  Education, dedication to sports, and hard work were always the focus in my family. My sister seemed to know exactly what she wanted to do and became an engineer. Off she went to college at Grove City for mechanical engineering; no wavering at all.  I, on the other hand, didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do post high school.  I always enjoyed math and science, but I also loved to be creative.  When dissecting frogs in 8th grade, I made sure my diagram of the frog’s intestines was precise and color coordinated.  My junior year in high school was met with winning the science fair for writing a computer program that organized  the periodic table and showing the layout of each atom.  To be fair, this was inspired with a little (well, maybe a lot) of help from my father who taught me (in a three-month period!) how to code; no easy feat.  Alas, with all of this, I decided I wanted to study business at the University of Toledo.

Why business? It was general, and I thought I could find a job wherever I went.  Ah, how naïve I was. I decided that marketing with a minor in e-commerce was my route.  I graduated in three and a half years with a Bachelor of Business Administration.

Hilary with her parents and sister upon her dad’s receiving an engineering award

The last year of my undergrad, I worked for a florist.  I loved that job.  I learned about how to prepare flowers for long life and all the beautiful names of each species.  As a closet artist, this was a wonderful medium to play with.  However, I had to move on and went to work for a large corporation as a management trainee.  I loathed the stiff, boring, monotony of the position.  So, I went back to the florist and decided to go to graduate school. Two and half years later, I graduated with a Master in Business Administration but remained with the florist while looking for career jobs.  It was 2005, and the economy was on a downturn, especially in Toledo, Ohio.  So, after jumping around to various jobs and doing some consulting working on the side while teaching myself graphic design, I decided to move to Columbus, Ohio for a fresh start in 2008.

It is incredibly hard to move to a town where you have no friends, family or acquaintances. I picked up a job at a local florist and began looking for a career that was focused more on my degrees.  I was having a hard time finding anything because now-a-days it’s about who you know, and I didn’t know anyone. I tried to join young professional groups to meet others with similar interests.  Most of the time was spent telling people that I didn’t need insurance and couldn’t afford to buy their candles or jewelry. Fast forward about four frustrating years with a continued lack of career focus.

Eventually, I realized I was a visual person and good at problem solving with the help of my father’s guidance and brutal honesty.  In addition, with the help of my background and way of thinking, I could wrap my head around the engineering world and found a niche where my skills could be useful.  With that in mind, I registered for classes at Columbus State Community College (CSCC) under the Mechanical Engineering Technology department.  With my parents’ support and encouragement, I earned an associate’s degree.  As much as the degree helped me, it was the networks and connections I made that were most helpful in getting me where I am today.  I had an instructor that believed in me and helped me along the way. I went in a timid, uncertain girl, and came out the woman I am today.

Hilary’s favorite Fabrisonic-made part: a 3D printed metal skull design

From there, I picked up a great part-time job doing graphic design, another part-time job teaching at CSCC, and then found my place at the company I am now all in a matter of a few months.  It was a scary, glorious whirlwind.

Let’s begin with the first opportunity.  The instructor I mentioned earlier was working with a center that was part of The Ohio State University on creating aptitude testing for vocational programs in the state of Ohio.  The Ohio Department of Education was contracting with OSU to help make these tests.  My instructor was a Subject Matter Expert (SME) for the engineering test.  Engineering was the first subject they wanted to tackle for this huge project.

Fabrisonic parts as seen at RAPID + TCT 2017 [Photo: Sarah Goehrke]

My instructor noticed that it was imperative to have someone who was familiar with dimensioning, scaling and engineering in general to create the graphics to go with the questions.  Engineering is very visual and any aide in that way was essential to relay what the question was asking.  He pulled me aside one day and gave me the contact information for someone at OSU.  He said with my CAD and graphic design background, it would be a good fit.  We were both not expecting much but maybe something to get a little money in my pocket.  That was over four years ago!  I have been with them from the beginning of this project and have a contract for the next year for more work with them.  It has been great for networking.

My second job came on quickly as well.  Because I was interactive with my instructors and having a master’s degree, I asked if I could teach at CSCC. So, I went to the chair of engineering and my instructor and asked if they could give me a good recommendation for the business school since my focus was marketing.  Both thought I would be a good fit in the engineering department teaching an intro to engineering class.  With my enthusiastic personality and odd background, they thought I could inspire students to stay with the program and relate what potential careers and avenues there are in this world.  I then expanded into teaching introduction to engineering graphics and basic mechanisms.  That was also over four years ago which brings me to my third career job.

Fabrisonic is a 3D printing company that focuses on metals.  Since it is a small business, I have been able to tap into all my abilities. I started running the machines and really tried to understand the science of what was happening. The machine process is also referred to as Ultrasonic Additive Manufacturing (UAM).  Unfortunately, and fortunately, this is not something you learn how to do in school.  This is new technology where failure is constant and success is sweet.  Our largest machine, SonicLayer 7200, is a huge beast that has a 6′ x 6′ x 3′ envelope just for building parts.  It was incredibly intimidating, especially for someone who had never worked with machinery larger than a manual lathe before.

However, I conquered my fears (for the most part) and ran the machines for the first year or so. My work was and still is a popular spot for people to bring students from Columbus State for tours.  Almost every part of my education as CSCC is used in this job.  There is use of a CNC and coding, technical writing, research and development, materials and processes, metallurgy, etc.  It helps students to see where they could possibly end up including new technology.

From production engineer, I then transitioned into sales, project management, design, marketing and whatever hats I needed to put on for the day.  I guess I am a Jackie-of-all-trades.  One day I may need to run the machine.  The next day I am designing an infographic making our process more relatable.

3D printed examples of Fabrisonic’s work as seen at RAPID + TCT 2017 [Photo: Sarah Goehrke]

I have been able to grow so much with Fabrisonic.  Small companies are awesome because you never get bored, and you are always learning new things. I have been here for almost four years.  Going back to start my career in engineering was one of the best things I could have done. Was it easy? No way. Was I angry at the economy because I had a master’s degree and still wasn’t able to find a job? Absolutely.  But I learned a lot in the process.  How do you set yourself aside from everyone else with the same degree? You can never have too many skills and should NEVER stop learning. You get yourself out of your comfort zone and learn a variety of skills including how to talk to people…in person.  In an age of cell phones and computers where websites and emails are the norm, being able to hold a conversation is a lost art.  This skill has been invaluable because of being a woman in a male dominated industry where having a technical background is needed to earn respect.  

So, I circled back around, growing up with engineers then becoming one; and going into a more business-related role in life has taught me that it is important to being able to communicate on both sides of the fence.  Being a Jackie-of-all-trades is not a bad trait because it lets you stand out among the masses to be part of something new and exciting like the world of 3D printing.

Share your thoughts in the Hilary Johnson forum at

[All photos unless otherwise noted provided by Hilary Johnson]


Hilary Johnson of Fabrisonic shares her personal story on finding her place in the 3D printing industry as part of our Spotlight on Women series focusing on diversity in additive manufacturing.
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.
We are also featuring educators focusing on training and teaching 3D printing skills; see all these features here.


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