A Diamond in the Rough: The Challenge of Finding Great Talent in AM


When it came time for Peter Lau to hire employees for his 3D printing startup, he ran into a problem almost immediately.

The candidates who applied typically had only one of the two skill sets needed to get the job—they either had great technical skills and limited people skills, or great people skills and limited technical skills.

So Lau decided to base his hiring decisions on something other than just tangible skills: He started asking candidates to describe their passions for 3D printing.

Lau, "maker-in-chief" at the educational tech startup Makerwiz in Toronto, is not alone in his decision to consider something other than educational qualifications or skills listed on a resume when hiring new talent in the additive manufacturing (AM) field.

Whether it's passion, curiosity, or decisiveness, everyone hiring in the field of AM seems to be seeking a little something extra from prospective employees. What it boils down to, perhaps, is a sense that a new hire understands the opportunities and possibilities AM represents, while also understanding its limitations.

Makerwiz offers 3D Courses, Workshops, and Camps for ages as young as 8–16. Image: Makerwiz

For Makerwiz, which focuses on educating people about burgeoning technologies, the decision to put passion at the center of the hiring process was based on the company's goal of getting the general public excited about 3D printing. If you want employees to spread excitement, they need to be excited themselves.

“We're not making a new 3D printer," says Lau. "If we were, I'd need the most technical people to provide the best product. But we need people who can connect with customers and educate them."

Technical skills still required—sometimes

The skills companies are looking for when they hire someone to handle AM initiatives vary greatly, according to John Hart, associate professor of mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

This summer, Hart is teaching a course on AM aimed at professionals who want to know more about this growing field. He also teaches undergraduates and graduate students about the intricacies of AM processes.

So Hart speaks from experience when he says that many of the companies hiring in the world of AM are, in fact, looking for people who can make a new 3D printer, or develop a new printing material. In those cases, a candidate's technical skills are usually very important, he says.

"While 3D printing can do really impressive and unique things, I think there's a misconception that you tell a 3D what to do, and you get what you want. There are a lot of steps in the [printing] process and a lot of knowledge required to really master 3D printing and get a part that's the right fit, without too many defects," says Hart.

Hiring engineers who have a detailed understanding of the fundamentals of the 3D printing process and who can actually operate a 3D printer is probably a good place for companies to start, according to Hart.

He also notes that engineers trained in AM processes are more likely to also understand the advantages and limitations of this kind of manufacturing.

Seeking: Curious engineers

But finding someone who knows how to operate a 3D printer will only get companies so far, suggests Taylor Landry, director of print solutions at MatterHackers, a California-based company that sells 3D-printing software, hardware, and materials and offers in-house printing services.

MatterHackers retail store in Orange County, CA. Image: MatterHackers

Landry has hired several employees who know how to use a printer, but not all of them have been able to solve problems that arise during the 3D-printing process.

"It's been difficult finding people who have curiosity," says Landry, adding that he's seen plenty of prospective employees who are capable engineers with resumés full of the necessary technical skills to work in AM.

What he hasn't seen a lot of, however, are applicants who are really able to "figure things out" as engineers.

Because desktop 3D printing is still a relatively new phenomenon, there are a lot of problems with this technology that have yet to be solved, Landry explains. There are also relatively few resources available for people who are trying to solve these problems.

In other words, engineers can't always look something up in a manual, or even find the answer they need online.

"What we've been looking for is someone who says, 'Well, it's not out there, it's not done, but I can figure it out. I can figure out how to use the technology we have to come up with a solution to fix this or make it better,'" says Landry.

MatterHackers, which seeks to educate the public and the maker community about 3D printing, is also searching for employees who can communicate the solutions they come up with to others.

In fact, most companies are looking specifically for engineers with good communication skills, according to Hart. He points out that, in AM, designers, engineers, and anyone else involved in the manufacturing process need to be able to communicate effectively.

"I think one of the biggest themes for additive manufacturing overall is for designers and engineers to know both the capabilities and the limitations of the processes. And if you know those details, then you can more quickly and more effectively design parts and make use of 3D printing," says Hart.

Tips on finding talent

So where should companies look for candidates who possess all of the skills—and the little something extra—needed to work in AM?

They can start with universities, says Hart, who notes that several universities have ramped up their course offerings related to AM. Some schools also have laboratories with both industrial and desktop 3D printers to help educate young engineers about all aspects of AM technology.

Many companies are also emphasizing on-the-job training that helps both new and existing employees get the opportunity to sharpen their 3D printing skills.

Of course, there are also professional courses available—like the one Hart teaches at MIT—that are designed to educate everyone, from seasoned engineers to novice business owners, about all that AM has to offer.

The new frontier of additive manufacturing can be intimidating to navigate; fortunately, there’s the ASME AM3D conference to help guide you as you integrate AM into your business. Learn more about the ASME Additive Manufacturing and 3D Printing Conference and Expo here.

What we've been looking for is someone who says, 'Well, it's not out there, it's not done, but I can figure it out. I can figure out how to use the technology we have to come up with a solution to fix this or make it better.'

Taylor Landry, MatterHackers


August 2015