Who are you inviting to sit at the table when decisions about additive manufacturing are made? If those people all look and sound the same, then your ability to innovate seems doubtful, writes our columnist SJ
In 1966, James Brown coined the phrase, ‘This is a man’s world’ – and I don’t think there’s ever been a better soundtrack for the additive manufacturing community as a whole.
Like most people of colour, I entered not through the front door, but through the side door. After months of hustling and struggling and chasing down lead after lead, I finally found myself on the back doorstep of what would be my greatest dream: working as an additive manufacturing engineer. A role that hadn’t even existed when I was applying for colleges.
The first thing that I noticed upon arrival was that everything was too big or not at the right height. At 5-foot, 5-inches tall, I am an average-sized woman, yet I was straining on my tiptoes to see into the windows of the machines.
The sitting height of the build chambers was above my sternum, which meant that any lifting I had to do was ergonomically disadvantageous – be that powder, plates, filters or parts.
Everything was two sizes too large. My helmet, to guard against powder inhalation, continued to droop over my head. The belt that held my PAPR filter needed extra holes punched into it, just to fit around my waist.
My arms and legs swam in a sea of fire-retardant clothing that was more likely to drown me than keep me safe from spontaneous powder combustion.
My ESD shoes (of which there were only three female styles to choose from) made a horrible clunking sound as I plodded around the shop floor, wearing these giant, brown sailboats.
The windows of this house are too tall. The clothes are too big. The gender disparity – insurmountable.
Genie in a bottle
I’m a genie in a bottle. My job is to understand customer desires and grant their wishes for parts of the highest quality, within budget, and delivered on time – an epic, magical feat. And much like a genie, I’m expected to nod my head when taking requests. To be a woman in AM is to be seen and not often heard.
I’m often invited to meetings as the ‘AM expert’. However, I’m rarely invited to speak. Instead, I am asked to take notes, to send out calendar invites, to record the meeting agenda and perform all manner of secretarial duties. When I complain about this to my male colleagues or my bosses, they say things like, “If that’s the case, why didn’t you speak up? Why don’t you say anything?”
I try to speak up, but I’m spoken over. I try to interject or steer the conversation one direction, only to be steamrolled by another member of my team. I try to speak factually and give the customer an accurate assessment of what we can and cannot provide – and I’m immediately undermined two seconds later by another team member. If I were a real genie, I’d perform a true feat of magic and teach men how to listen.
Mic check: One, two
If there are any men out there who are listening, please understand that you have a crisis on your hands. Your. Money. Is. At. Stake.
A new column is to be added to your risk assessment charts: there’s a shortage of ‘talent’ and ‘skill set’ in your AM workforce. This means you’re going to lose contracts, parts will be late, supply chains interrupted. But there is a solution. A way to save your jobs, your companies, and your industry.
Mic check. Can you hear me? Are you listening? (Or are you just waiting to interrupt, the moment you feel entitled to be heard?) I’m writing to tell you about a secret weapon. An untapped resource. An oasis of talent.
It’s women (and all other genders on the spectrum – let’s not be exclusive, its 2021 for lasers’ sake).
Include women (and all other genders) in every room where decisions are being made. I’m not simply requesting this so I can get a 2-million-dollar metal printing machine I can comfortably operate. I’m suggesting this because half of the population is, well, not male, and we are a severely underutilised resource.
I find myself stuck with men of similar minds, constantly asking each other the same questions: Where do you see the future of additive? In five years? In 10 years? What do you see as the next big thing?
I sit quietly in my genie bottle as one man speaks, and the others all start to echo him like a cacophony of raucous seagulls. If you gather together, in the same space, the same kinds of people – entitled/ white/ male/PhDs – they tend to think the same thoughts and create the same solutions.
In order to successfully innovate, to push additive to new limits, we need to think differently. We need to approach problems from a different perspective to cash in on fresh ideas. My dudes, we need to think like the other genders.
Here’s my hot take on 2021: Additive companies with the most diverse workforces will dominate the future of innovation in AM. That is to say, the companies that women can call home – that offer them an equitable seat at the table – are going to have the largest impact and the biggest future financial gains.
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SJ is a metal additive engineer, aka THEE Hot Girl of Metal Printing. She currently works as a metal additive applications engineer providing AM solutions and #3dprinting of metal parts to help create a decarbonised world.
Get in touch at @inconelle on Twitter