Swapnil Sinha is a PhD candidate in Mechanical Engineering at The Pennsylvania State University whose story in moving into additive manufacturing is becoming more familiar these days.
I met Swapnil in a recent virtual networking event — thanks to Alexander Daniels Global for coordinating! Side note that digital networking events remain an excellent resource while we’re all still physically unable to shake hands, and should be attended — where a general conversation touched on what we attendees all thought were some of the most interesting things to happen in additive manufacturing in 2020 that weren’t directly COVID-19 related. Her perspectives at the brief event were interesting, so we sat down for a deeper conversation.
Entering Additive Manufacturing
It’s really only in the last couple of years we’ve been hearing about more intentional paths toward careers in additive manufacturing.
Few things make me feel old in quite the way that students pursuing Master’s degrees and PhDs in a technology suite that was so immature in my own university days does. These degrees simply weren’t options when I was a student, and — like so many others working in this field for half-a-decade or more — I wandered in through a much less direct route. It’s incredible to see educational opportunities focusing on additive manufacturing arising at such a rate these days, starting as early as kindergarten and going all the way through to an ever-increasing PhD and professional upskilling suite of options.
This variety of career journeys into additive manufacturing, though, as the industry continues to grow is actually part of its charm, as the shared experience emerges organically.
“That’s the thing with 3D printing, it involves people of all backgrounds, all ages,” Swapnil told me. “I get to talk with people from all areas, but 3D printing brings us together.”
For her part, Swapnil got her start in making. From handmade cards to creating homemade mechanisms from a young age, this early start likely sounds familiar to a lot of those who have gone on to study engineering.
“I went to undergrad in India, at Manipal Institute of Technology, which is a really good university for mechanical engineers. I joined mechanical engineering there because I was really into making,” she explained. “I saw this ‘How It’s Made’ episode on Swiss watchmaking and thought, ‘I want to do this!’ So in my undergrad, I joined the robotics team and was on the mechanical design team.”
It was during this time that Swapnil was introduced to 3D printing. Some of her teammates discovered online sources for 3D printing and wanted to try it out themselves.
“That’s where I was introduced to the industry, and the idea I could make anything was so interesting! We were trying to make these unique robots and were limited by these hand tools and what was out there in standard form,” she said. “In my capstone project in my final year, I was interested in using 3D printing for some healthcare applications. My first project with 3D printing was making a prosthetic hand.”
3D printing has often come into play for better creating prosthetics. Swapnil was attracted to the idea of making a cheaper, lighter, more functional prosthetic hand.
The project came to fruition, and she and her team made a fully functional grasping hook-type device. She shared with me a video that showed it successfully performing tests like pouring water, handling delicate objects, and opening and closing doors. As far as projects that would lay ahead of her went, the gripper hand was relatively simple, but still, “a lot of engineering went into it,” as she noted, and it opened the door to what’s become an enduring interest.
Engineering Meets Design
After graduating with her Bachelors of Technology Degree in Mechanical Engineering, Swapnil turned her attention to another direction: design.
“I started looking for design schools, into what would get me into design spots so in the future I could make my Swiss watch,” she explained of next steps. “Penn State had a design school, and it was one of the few that didn’t require an arts degree. It’s something I really wanted to learn, but every other school required a minor in art at least. I got here and started learning a lot about product design — how products are designed and conceptualized. It’s a complete new world for me at Penn State; I owe it to Penn State for how I got here, came to understand user experiences, all that.”
Part of this new world was working with her advisor as she looked to Penn State for her Master’s in engineering design. Meeting her advisor — Dr. Nicholas (Nick) Meisel, Assistant Professor of Engineering Design in the School of Engineering Design, Technology, and Professional Programs (SEDTAPP) — was fortuitous, as she explained that when she came into the program in 2015, “he was a new professor with funding for someone to go into 3D printing. This was amazing because I had always wanted to go into 3D printing.”
Dr. Meisel leads Penn State’s Made by Design Lab. The Lab describes itself:
“The mission of the Made By Design Lab is to encourage informed and inspired engineering design using Additive Manufacturing technologies. We operate at the intersection of design, processes, and materials, to advance Design for Additive Manufacturing (DfAM) research in 3 key areas: [Design Complexity, Design Guidelines, Design Thinking].”
An opportunity presented itself to Swapnil at the Made by Design Lab to examine the process of designing products with embedded electronics — via 3D printing.
“Laptops, phones, smart products that have sensors, battery components, actuators — they all have embedded electronics, usually in a separate assembly. But how can you design for it? How can you design these cavities and plan out the manufacturing process with 3D printing? I started working on it and just enjoyed the process of looking at how the design is impacting it,” Swapnil said.
“I had never considered this before. I knew a little from my mechanical engineering degree about how the material and process impact it, but it wasn’t as pronounced as it is in 3D printing. In 3D printing, every single parameter you change impacts everything.”
Understanding the finesse required for design for additive manufacturing (DfAM) is a key tenet at the Made by Design Lab — and Swapnil’s research has really taken root there.
Following her Master’s degree in Engineering Design, Swapnil decided to stay on at Penn State and work toward a PhD in Mechanical Engineering, working with in-situ embedding of components in 3D printed parts.
It’s here in her story that we’ve connected, as it was a short video she shared during the networking event that piqued my interest in her research (which, employers heads up, she’s looking to make into a full-time career):
We’ll discuss more of her research in part two of this interview.