Compared to conventional manufacturing, additive manufacturing or 3D printing offers a lot of environment friendly benefits, and helps engineers design products with fewer parts that are light-weight which reduces cost, material wastage, and lead time from design to market.

Noha Peter, our next pathbreaker, leads the applications team within the polymer department of Electro Optical Systems (EOS, USA), a company which makes industrial purpose 3D printers that print parts in metals and polymers.

Noha talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about volunteering to build a 3D Printer during his master’s, based on individual components in order to understand the inner workings of additive printing technologies !

For students, keep your eyes open for opportunities and be willing to experiment when you don’t have responsibilities. An unconventional career requires an unconventional approach !

Noha, tell us what were your growing up years like?

I grew up in a town called Chalakudy in Kerala. Thanks to my enthusiastic teachers at school, I really enjoyed learning, and was also into debating, public speaking, skits and drama. My dad worked for BPCL and that exposure encouraged me to take up mechanical engineering when I got an admit into NIT Calicut. Here, my stints in applied engineering through the BAJA SAE competition and club activities kind of molded my calling as a product design engineer. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

After a brief period of working in Chennai as an equipment engineer for an oil and gas engineering consultancy, I pursued my dream of becoming a product design engineer through a master’s program at the University of Florida in mechanical engineering. This opportunity furthered my understanding on the principles of design and manufacturing and eventually led me to the field of 3D Printing where I am today.

What were some of the influences that made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?

There were a lot of factors/ influencers that eventually led me to 3D Printing. A course at University of Florida on advanced manufacturing introduced me to 3D Printing. My master’s program mentor and the lab work I did at her facility further increased my knowledge in this field. A turning point that led into the company I currently work for is when I was doing my research at her lab. I built a 3D printer for her lab for which the components were supplied by the company I currently work for. 

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

As a kid I always enjoyed understanding how things work and building things to replicate. This along with the influence of my dad working on machines encouraged me to choose mechanical engineering for undergrad studies. As I mentioned before, the automotive club in my UG college made me realize I should be pursuing product design engineering. An opportunity through campus placement at an oil and gas consultancy helped to get industrial exposure in the same area but with limitations on what I can apply at work. 

Eager to design products on my own, I quit when I got admitted for an MS program at University of Florida in mechanical engineering specializing in design and manufacturing. Here I got introduced to 3D printing through coursework. Fascinated by this emerging technology, I eagerly explored the opportunities to learn more about this as there was no dedicated program at school for this new field. I started exploring ways to gain practical knowledge in this field as I realized that will help me to get into the industry. I found out that the university library has a 3D printing facility where I volunteered to repair printers and run them. This helped me to understand how they work and how to run them. 

I kept looking for opportunities to do academic research in this field and a casual conversation with a senior gave me the information I was looking for. There was a material science lab whose director was looking for student researchers to work with her 3D printers. Speaking with her about my interest and career plan led me to secure a research position at her lab from next semester. 

There I did research on the influence of printer parameters on mechanical properties of parts built by two different 3D printers. Around the same time, I came across an opportunity to win a 3D printer from a startup called Sintratec for educational purposes. My mentor wrote a proposal for it and our lab won the printer project. I volunteered to build it as it came as individual components like lego pieces. This experience helped me understand how this particular type of printer worked and the related technology on which it runs, “Selective Laser Sintering”. The printer was distributed by one of the industry leaders of this technology called EOS in the USA. 

Striking a conversation with the sales representative of this company when he came over to hand over the printer to our lab officially, paved the way for my entry into this company where I currently work. Luck was with me because around the same time, an internship opened up at this company that matched my skills sets. I was called for an interview based on my application and recommendation from the sales representative. I secured an internship during which I evaluated simulation software that simulates a particular 3D printing technology called Laser Powder Bed Fusion that lets you print in metals. I eventually published a research article based on my work during my internship and they hired me as an application engineer in the polymer department upon completion of my internship. 

How did you get your first break? 

As I was doing research at this lab, I was also looking for internship opportunities so I could gain industrial experience in the same field. I eventually wanted to work in 3D printing upon graduation, as that aligned with my interest to design products and to work in an emerging field which would assure, I do non-mundane work daily, as repetition and conformism wears me off. But getting a job for international students was not easy in mechanical engineering due to visa challenges. I realized doing an internship would be the stepping stone to overcome that challenge. The usual career fairs were not meeting that need as they never had anything related to 3D printing. So, I started attending 3D printing related conferences and trade shows to network and talk about my research. This helped me to understand the skill sets the industries in this field are looking for. When I applied for an internship at EOS, I was going to attend a 3D printing conference as well and at the conference I was given the chance to give my interview for this role and that was my first breakthrough to achieve my dream.

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

There were so many challenges, but I kept my spirit up in those times

Challenge 1: As I mentioned above, there were no direct or dedicated courses in 3D printing then, so my solution was to find hands-on or research experience in it.

Challenge 2: Being a new field, conventional career fairs didn’t offer much opportunities in this field. So, my approach was to attend conferences and trade shows dedicated to 3D printing.  

Challenge 3: I, being an international student, not every company showed interest to sponsor my work visa. Since a lot of developmental activities are happening in the US in this field, getting a job in the US was vital to achieve my aim of gaining industrial exposure in this field. My solution was, I developed necessary skill sets required by this industry so the companies would be interested to hire me by sponsoring a work visa. 

Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?

I work for a company called Electro Optical Systems (EOS) in the USA. We make industrial purpose additive manufacturing systems or 3D printers that print parts in metals and polymers. Here I started as an intern in the metals department, then as an application engineer in the polymer department and now work as the lead for the applications team within the polymer department.

A lot of my work revolves around customer interfacing. So, providing solutions to customer’s problems is what I do. It can be developing process conditions to run a material in our systems or helping a customer to analyze why they can’t print some of their designs and what modifications are needed.

Some of the sectors where we have customers are automobile industry where they use our printers to print interior parts like customized gear knob or dashboard controls for physically disabled or in the medical industry where they print custom guides or fixtures for surgeries. The advantage here is you can customize the parts for each individual / patient yet print them together in the same machine without any special tooling to make changes needed for each part. One specific example is how another colleague of mine helped Colorado School of Mines to print a real world Iron Man suit for Adam Savage’s TV show (if you check online, you can find awesome videos of this project and more info). This suit was printed in titanium. Using titanium had several advantages, as it made the suit light, so it can fly. There was very little machining needed, bringing down the cost. Printing the complex geometries needed to match body contour would have costed a lot if done with traditional manufacturing, including more steps and time. If a 3D printing engineer has good imagination and design skills, he / she gets to do interesting projects like this. 

What skills are needed for your role? How did you acquire the skills?

Since it is a customer interfacing role, effective communication, and thinking out of the box are needed as a straight solution may not be there for the problems. In terms of technical skills, design knowledge, data analytics, hands-on approach with machines and tools will make your workday easy. I picked these skills through the different roles I did while in college and in work.

What’s a typical day like?

A typical day at work involves 40% meetings to give status updates to customers, teams, and to lead colleagues working with me, 40% on preparing 3D printers to run jobs and cleaning parts, and 20% on planning or keeping myself updated on this field. 

I enjoy resolving problems needing out of box thinking, that are non-repeating or have less procedure. My current job provides ample opportunities for these and to further the team. The manager I work with is very friendly and approachable. This keeps my job interesting. Also, I love seeing places and the role has given me good opportunities to travel within the US and Europe as part of site visits.

How does your work benefit society? 

Compared to conventional manufacturing, additive manufacturing or 3D printing offers a lot of environment friendly benefits. The design freedom it offers helps an engineer to design products with fewer parts, that are light-weight and that require no-special tooling. These can reduce cost, material wastage, and reduce lead time from design to market. If you are someone with a passion for unconventional thinking and design, additive manufacturing will offer you interesting opportunities like rethinking aircraft parts that make them lightweight yet meeting property requirements through topology optimization, or improving heat transfer for a functional part through conformal cooling features.

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

When I started my work in the polymer department as an application engineer, my main job was training customers on how to run our machines for their manufacturing needs. This gave me ample opportunities to understand how our machines work and what improvements are needed. Then I was given the task of testing a newly developed machine. Product testing involves a lot of responsibilities. In addition to testing different features, you must coordinate with different departments and often have to offer solutions that they may not have. From my previous job I realized, being approachable and taking initiative while working with different teams makes you a leader and helps you develop your potential further. You will be thrown with challenges you might have never anticipated but those will help you to discover your strengths. So, while I helped to improve the features of this machine, this opportunity helped to forge my personality and leadership style. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Keep your eyes open for opportunities and be willing to experiment when you don’t have responsibilities. Following passion is not a call for all, but trying different things at early stages of life until you realize what you want helps you to discover yourself. No matter what field you want to pursue, there are three qualities that will help in the long run: 1) An attitude that matches your values 2) Effective communication and taking initiatives 3) Ability to keep learning. The good thing is all three can be acquired at any stage of your life and without any prerequisites. I would also recommend learning to manage time or prioritizing, but then I have to practice it before I preach, lol. 

Future Plans?

Gaining more experience and building relationships in the field of 3D printing is my immediate goal. I haven’t still figured out what my long term goal is, but I hope there will be a moment or moments when I get that realization as I had so far in my journey.