In the following video, 3-D printing specialist Steve Heller interviews Kevin Ayers, industry manager at SME. SME is a non-profit organization focused on advancing manufacturing and attracting the next generation of engineers.

Topics covered include:

  • The talent shortage facing the 3-D printing industry
  • How organizations are approaching this talent shortage
  • Why 3-D printing isn't an exact science
  • Advice for aspiring candidates

A full transcript follows the video.

Steve Heller: Hey Fools, Steve Heller here, I'm joined today with Kevin Ayers of SME. They are a non-profit focused on advancing manufacturing and attracting the next generation of engineers. Thank you for being with us today Kevin, I wanted to talk to you about the labor force conditions that you're seeing -- you're the boots on the ground, what can you tell me about the three printing talent gap if you will? What's happening out there? It sounds like there's a real shortage for good working, hardworking, engineers in the 3-D printing space?

Kevin Ayers: Well, that's a very good question. I probably get two or three inquiries a week on the phone and on the Internet asking me to find talent, experienced users, and operators of equipment, trying to find engineers that are experienced designing parts for head of manufacturing and, yes, it's a problem. We saw this coming up years and years ago. We were concentrating so much on being accepted by mainstream manufacturing that we never started asking the questions about what happens when they get there?

Now we have a lot of companies coming out and buying equipment as not just rapid prototyping machines but its manufacturing cells and then they tried to find some experienced users of the equipment, operators of the equipment, design engineers, manufacturing engineers, and they were coming short.

Heller: So we're going from a talent shortage here, the industry is obviously constrained in the labor force. How do organizations that want to adopt 3-D printing face this challenge, how do they deal with it, how are they going to approach it?

Ayers: Well, if you can get the experience, we have courses from companies themselves, they offer some training courses in the beginning basics of how to run the machines, operate the machines, also SME provides some courses, especially one that's an intense course on the fundamentals of additive manufacturing and it's a certified program, pretty intense.

Another good way to start is this, you start looking at your company, what it manufactures, take some of your parts that you think would be good to manufacturing through additive, and then we would outsource that to service bureaus in additive manufacturing, get some of those parts made, get them within your company, have your engineers manufacturing people in management look at those parts, develop some case studies, get them out to your customers, see if they're happy with the product, and then after you've had so many parts outsourced you start bringing in those machines that make sense to you after you've built this business case and then you've mitigated the risk on this and you start going into manufacturing.

Heller: So a company obviously needs to learn how to crawl before it can walk and there's definitely some sort of learning curve involved like you were explaining to me off camera before, it's a little bit of a black art, 3-D printing manufacturing especially when you work with metals. I was wondering if you could touch on that a little bit?

Ayers: Oh, definitely. There are many things you're not going to find out until you buy equipment and start producing parts because every company has unique parts. And in direct metal, for example, a lot of the processes, in fact most of them, require support structures that have to be applied and grown on the metal platform before it starts to build. You build the part and then you remove those metal supports and you want to try to minimize the amount of supports that you need so that it's easier to remove those parts and reduce the labor costs, but you also want to constrain it enough that you don't build bad parts and so you lose a lot of time and costs associated with that.

Heller: So it sounds like there's a lot of education involved. So I want to know, aspiring students out there, what would your advice be to them and what should they study, how should they get involved with the industry and where could they expect to be when they graduate, where would they expect to work?

Ayers: Well, this industry is evolving very fast and people are looking for bright individuals that are willing to learn these technologies. So you can go in the Internet obviously and find the companies. You can go through SME; we have a lot of resources in our networking to help you find jobs within those organizations. I think that if you're in college, for example, they have almost every university now has an additive manufacturing, 3-D printing (unclear) in there. Get yourself into that group, learn design parts, start getting experience and that will help you find jobs and get jobs in the industry.

Heller: So you're thinking more engineering background or what sort of -- what would I major in if I'm an open-option college student, you would say recommending -- should I go into mechanical engineering, manufacturing engineering, what would you say?

Ayers: Oh, exactly! Manufacturing engineering, mechanical engineering, material science, material engineering are all good avenues and degrees to get into and the universities are really, really changing their curriculum to include additive in those courses.

Heller: Very good, well thank you so much for your time today, I really appreciate it.

Ayers: All right, thank you.