One researcher hopes to change manufacturing forever with 3D printing

4 Mar 2020

Seán McConnell. Image: IMR

Seán McConnell of the Irish Manufacturing Research centre describes what it’s like being at the forefront of the latest 3D printing technologies for manufacturing.

Following the completion of a degree in product design, Seán McConnell has been working to develop additive manufacturing for industrial processes.

He now works at the Irish Manufacturing Research (IMR) centre in Mullingar as a senior technologist. His role is to help to create a state-of-the-art manufacturing lab that covers everything from the design of products to process optimisation of laser-based additive manufacturing technologies.

‘The idea that 3D printing is a black box that just produces the part is a misconception’

What inspired you to become a researcher?

I’ve always had an innate curiosity to know how things work and ask why things are the way they are, much to the annoyance of my parents and teachers alike. For me, it was 3D printing that got me interested in research.

Before I got a job in the industry, I would spend days researching the various versions of the technology and its genesis. The key driver is the speed at which the technology has begun to move over the last number of years and how it is starting to reshape how we approach manufacturing.

I remember my first time watching a fused deposition modelling printer and just spending hours staring at it. I think people thought there was something wrong with me at first. They may not be far off!

Can you tell us about the research you’re currently working on?

We work predominantly at the higher technology readiness levels, which means that the work we do is much closer to industrialisation than most would typically see. One of the first large projects we undertook was that of creating a framework for the adoption and integration of additive manufacturing into production facilities.

This was an opportunity for the new facility and team to stretch their legs in looking at existing products and developing the pathway for design through to first off production.

The products that we worked with were that of the replacement of injection moulding of complex parts for automotive with vat photopolymerisation. Finally, we looked at the design and production optimisation of orthopaedic implants on metal laser powder bed fusion machines.

There is so much involved in the above that it’s hard to begin to explain. Luckily enough, the multidisciplinary nature of the work meant that there is a lot to get up to speed with quickly and you must think of things that don’t come naturally to everyone.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

For me, the research we do is important as I feel there is nothing more disappointing than seeing a great new technology or idea not get to industrialisation and seeing companies who have massive potential with a new technology not actualise it.

I think that for such a small country like Ireland, we are very capable of competing with other countries in R&D, but we can do far better if we coordinate the needs of both academia and industry. As such, higher technology readiness level research that brings all parties together is instrumental.

What commercial applications do you foresee for your research?

Given the space in which we work, the commercial application of the work we do is front and centre before any work is commenced.

For ourselves, we are judged primarily on the commercial aspect of what we do. To date, we have been successful in transferring the technology and applications we work on in the facility to several SMEs and multinational companies based in Ireland and beyond.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a researcher in your field?

Dealing directly with industry is predominantly great, but does come with the challenge of competing with internal pressure for attention. When it comes to engaging in projects that involve a redesign or technology transfer, it is best to work as closely together as possible. Unfortunately, when there are operational and internal pressures, research can take a back seat.

On a week to week basis, one will have to wear multiple ‘hats’ as having a relatively small team means that you need to be able to advise and talk to a vast plethora of stakeholders and experts.

Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research?

The idea that 3D printing is a black box that just produces the part is a misconception made by people with little exposure to the technology. This, alongside the idea that you don’t need to design for the process, can be a big hurdle to overcome when engaging with industry.

Addressing this would be best done through education and the dissemination of the results the technology can have if the adequate time is spent upfront to design for the process.

What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?

Within the metal additive manufacturing process, the areas of developing new materials and the elimination of support structures would be of most interest. If these are tackled, additive manufacturing will have a great future ahead of it.

Are you a researcher with an interesting project to share? Let us know by emailing with the subject line ‘Science Uncovered’.