A Chemical Approach to 3D Printing with Kate Black
Nick Weeks, Plant Manager at Carpenter Additive, UK, is joined by Kate Black, Chief Technology Officer at Meta Additive, an additive company looking to revolutionise additive manufacturing whilst protecting our planet’s future. Tune in as we delve into Kate's roots in the industry, cover Meta's novel chemical approach to 3D printing, and discuss innovative AM in higher education at University of Liverpool.
You can read the transcript or listen to the full episode below.
Hi everyone. And welcome back to PowderHeads, a Carpenter Additive podcast. With each episode of PowderHeads, we bring you the minds of industry experts and delve into topics that are defining how additive manufacturing is making an impact on our world. In this episode, we're headed across the pond, to the UK, Nick Weeks, General Manager of Carpenter Additive Liverpool facility, sits down with Dr. Kate Black Founder and Chief Technology officer at Meta Additive. Dr. Black is also a senior lecturer in additive manufacturing at the University of Liverpool. Training the next generation of mechanical engineers, her path to AM is an unconventional one compared to other guests we've had, which certainly makes for an intriguing discussion. Thanks for listening and enjoy the conversation.
Nick Weeks (00:57):
Um, so I want to start by welcoming Kate to the show.
Kate Black (01:00):
Nick Weeks (01:01):
Um, want to get started really by understanding a bit more about your background and how you first got into additive manufacturing?
Kate Black (01:08):
Yeah, it was a bit of a strange one, actually, not a conventional route. Uh, so I started in the world of, of academia. Um, so I'm a senior lecturer in the school of engineering at the University of Liverpool here in the UK. Um, and although I was working in engineering department, I'm actually a chemist by training. So my PhD was in chemistry. Um, and I worked in an area of chemistry, um, called atomic lady position and chemical vapor deposition. So the complete opposite of additive manufacturing is a very, very thin layers of, of materials of all different types. And, and that was fun. Um, but I really wanted to try and branch out and do something different. So when I got a, uh, an academic appointment in 2013, um, I changed my research area completely and I moved into to ink jet printing. And that was really off the back of the strong heritage of, um, additive manufacturing that we, we already had to, um, uh, Liverpool university through the likes of people like professor Chris Sutcliff, who was a, you know, a world leading expert in laser powder bed fusion. And it was, it was starting to talk to those guys and see what we could do. Could we translate these chemistries would used in one technology and move into another. Um, so that's what I did for a couple of years, but mainly 2d printing. So printing of circuit boards and all sorts of things, really, we do think the work with people like the Royal mint, uh, doing printing of security features, covert and overt security features. Yeah. And then I started looking more into the world world of 3d printing and said, could we translate these into, um, into 3d? Everybody said I was crazy and it would never work, but lo and behold, I got a grant through one of the, the UK government funding bodies. Um, and the rest is history really? That was the birth of of Metta additive. We, we started, um, printing, um, copper to start with it. It worked far better than anybody thought it would. And it's kind of progressed from there. And we, we spun out Metta, um, additive back, October, 2019. So yes, it's not something I, I first thought I would be doing, but I love it. And I think there's, there's so much more we can, we can be doing in am.
Nick Weeks (03:37):
Excellent. And can you tell us a little bit more about the technology because it kind of bridges the gap between a binder jet and laser?
Kate Black (03:46):
Yeah. So, um, and we we've discussed this in the Meta team. My Meta team that what do we call our process because we're saying it's binder jet, but really it's more what we would call reactive binder jet. So normally you would take a, a polymer glue and it's a sacrificial binder that glues the powder together. There's the whole Debind step. And then the heat treatment steps to, to center that together. Whereas we don't have any of that in our, in our process. So there's no polymers, it's not sacrificial. Um, and we are binding, but it's, it's a reaction that's taken place whilst we print. And as a result of that, um, we get much stronger parts than you would from a conventional binder jet. Um, so we have these, what we call organic, metallic chemistries, and they're in a solution in a liquid form. Um, and that could be a metal or a ceramic. And there's, there's a whole myriad of different materials that you can, you can process by using these types of chemistries and held within those, um, solutions. We have nanoparticles and micron particles. So when we inject our binder onto the powder bed, we form a conformal coating of a metal or ceramic using this, uh, organic metallic infraction. And then the nanoparticles fill in the holes of the powder bed and the micron particles fill in the holes of the powder bed. So you can see the processes, uh, uh, binding and infiltrating simultaneously. And when we take our parts off the printer, they're, they're hard, they're solid parts. Um, with conventional binder jet, you would, you'd have to lose a lot of parts. There's the quite fragile fraile, um, components, but because ours are not loosely bound with a glue, they're actually reacted. There's a reaction that's taken place.
Nick Weeks (05:43):
So they still need to be centred afterward?
Kate Black (05:46):
We prefer to say heat treatment because there's a reaction already occurred. Yes. There will be some aspect of, of, of centering, uh, going on there, but it's more about consolidating the component and getting the right micro structure. So we eradicate the need for a Debinding step, which shortens the, the, the processing time. Cause it's, it's never been the actual printing side of binder jet that caused a problem. It was the fact that there's so much post-processing that you need to do and.
Nick Weeks (06:16):
Managing the shrink cage.
Kate Black (06:17):
Yeah. Yeah. But because we're not taking anything out, we're biding and infiltrating with build material, there is, you know, there's very little shrinkage and depending on what, um, fraction of particles and organic metallic we'd put in our binder, we, we we've been successful in achieving parts that come straight off the printer with around 88% density. Um, and that's actually usable for some, some applications. Um, and then the heat treatments that we do a lot shorter and lower temperatures. So if you look at our, um, detaining process, which is still in development, and there's still some way to, to improve that who was shaving around 300 degrees off that heat treatment process, because your controlling the materials at the molecular level, um, which is not really been done before. I think one of the things that I saw as a, an outsider looking into to additive manufacturing when I first came is that it was very much engineering and software focus, and yes, people were doing, um, materials, but they weren't really thinking of them in the same sense that we do, uh, here at Matter. It was more of, well, can we shoe home these materials into, to these printers? And, and that was one of the things that I noticed when I first started out was that they were going to, well, these materials, worked for in our heads, or they can't be processed in this. And I was like, well, why can't you modify your printer? Or why can't you modify your head? Because if you don't have enough palette of materials and you don't understand those materials, then all those wonderful ideas that those engineers out there and designers have just remain a thought in your head, because everything that we look up is is made of materials. So materials have to become core. And, and, you know, there's a Carpenter that, you know, when LPW first started, that was one of their main missions, is that how can we bring the high quality materials to our AM customers? And so we're coming at it from a very similar, you know,
Nick Weeks (08:27):
yeah, I Think that's, that's, that's, that's a really good point and we've always focused on, uh, what are the needs of the, the additive user, what information do they need to know, and how can we change, uh, that, that product to meet, meet their requirements. We've always thought about it from the metallic point of view. And we're always talking about alloys, are we, we've been predominantly focused on the, the laser powder bed market where, uh, the, the allies you pick for the most part have to be weldable.
Kate Black (08:54):
Nick Weeks (08:55):
I imagine, uh, the alloys you're coming up with, you've got such a wide opportunity, Is it?
Kate Black (09:01):
And because you're controlling them at the molecular level, you have much greater control of the whole, um, you know, from molecular to macro scale of, of, of structure. And it's just a different mindset really, of, of thinking about things. So going back to the question of, you know, what do you call it? Well, he kind of his binder jetting, but it's, it's not, and hence we use the term reactive binder jetting, um, and we don't know how that alarmed with, you know, our customers and the community, but, you know, I'm sure they'll let us know. Um, but it is this more of a hybrid system and being able to have control of the material at that Voxel level, I think is really key to, to seeing, um, additive manufacturing, reaching its full potential. There's been a lot of hype for a long time about am of all walks, um, but has it really achieved what everybody thought it was going to? No- And I think for me personally, I think that there's two reasons for that. One is the, um, the lack of processable materials, uh, being able to process dissimilar materials in the same printer at the same time, which is what matters technology will, uh, afford us to do. And then having that ecosystem. I mean, you're hearing rumblings of it now through, through lots of different companies. Um, and people think there is an additive manufacturing ecosystem, but really is it working efficiently? And what do I mean by that? I think there are many companies that are just trying to capture as much value as possible. Whereas if you collaborate with the likes of a software company, um, machine learning, the, the OEMs, you know, the printhead manufacturers, the material, raw material suppliers, if we don't collaborate and come at it with a common aim, a common vision, I just don't think that we will get to the level that we need to do. So Metta sees itself very much is, uh, playing one of those pivotal roles in that, because one, we can supply, um, our users with a whole variety of, of materials, but we also have that mindset that if you could, um, collaborate with all these different, you know, walks of life in, in am, then you start to, um, create value rather than just capturing it. And who knows what we can, uh, afford to do. And I think really, you know, software and machine learning and AI are going to play a really big role in the, in the future of additive manufacturing. It's okay for us here at matter, to be able to, to, to provide all these different binders for these different materials, but if you don't have the software to control it, um, then it's going to be difficult. And I see the likes of you machine learning algorithms, really helping us to accelerate our technology because we're start to form a database of materials that then can be used to say, okay, if you've got a customer coming in and says, right, I need a component that will work in this environment, needs to have this amount of load applied to it. What's the best one. Well, imagine what we could do, you know, you plug in those parameters and yeah, I'm talking maybe five, 10 years time, but all these different technologies existed at the moment. We just need to pull them to together, but would it be great if you could plug those parameters in and lo and behold, it says, right, here's your component. And this is what the bespoke geometry is playing up against one of the advantages of am, but what can we do with materials? Because it's a, it's an untapped resource, I think. Yeah,
Nick Weeks (12:44):
I think that's, it's really interesting as you say, you need the, uh, the skill set of the companies to do generative CAD design. You also need the skillset of the material scientists and the people who understand the process technology about how the actual process works. And if you can join them together in a digital workflow, You can.
Kate Black (13:04):
Yeah. And, and to, to be able to upscale. So rather than having, you know, additive manufacturing as maybe a one off or a hundred parts, let's see if we can industrialize additive manufacturing, because I think with the likes of technologies like binder, jet, uh, and, and some of the new extrusion, uh, technologies coming out, I think that's a real, you know, a strong possibility, but we've got to go our ducks all lined in a row here, if you, if you like. Um, but yeah, I think there's a lot of exciting things that are going to happen in the, in the coming years, but we, we have to join together as a community to, to make that happen.
Nick Weeks (13:42):
I think, um, overall the additive manufacturing industry is, is quite open when you visit people or you, uh, you go to some of the trade shows, there's, there's a huge amount going on. And because it's a, it's a growth industry that there is obvious benefit of working together to, to continue to grow the industry and sort of fighting Over you.
Kate Black (14:02):
Yeah, yeah, definitely. I mean, and this, somebody who came at it from completely cold, you know, all of a sudden there's this young academics and that she's doing additive manufacturing, but where she certainly appeared from. And I never felt that I wasn't welcome at any of the, you know, trade shows or conferences and the community has been been great. Um, but for me, I think who else could we bring in to that community that could just be that game changer? You know, I think why we've been so successful, uh, Matter additive is that we've come at it from a slightly different point of view. We've come from, uh, chemistry and materials first, rather than I think a lot of the people that are working in, in additive manufacturing come from this engineering, you know, physical sciences background, um, and think let's look at the machines. Well, if you don't understand the materials, um, then you know, you'll be limited. And I think we're seeing that limitation, but, uh, at the moment, I'm not saying that the, there isn't great research out there, there is. Um, but I think there's, there's a whole bigger resource that we could, we could tap into.
Nick Weeks (15:23):
Yeah. And it's such a, it's such a wide, um, industry with the different technologies that are available and that are working in the different routes. You can go. What are the sort of applications you think that the Metta additive technology is going to, uh, lend itself to at the moment?
Kate Black (15:40):
I think what's exciting me the most is not the fact that, you know, your shortening and then manufacturing times that will come into it. So, yeah, and there's, there's already existed markets in aerospace and automotive that do that. But for me, it's about what could we push, what boundaries could we push in terms of materials and being able to do multi materials, because you see that you've got biuld material coming from the print hat in the matter process, and you've got build material come from the powder bed, and you can control that the Voxel level, you could start to grid through materials, change the alloy slightly, you know, make something, that's got a hardened seat in a joint area, or, um, put in a strain, gauge, you know, some smart functionality. And I think if we can start to focus on that and do the fundamental science of how can we control those, um, who knows, you know, what we will be able to do, but adding this smart functionality in, in high volume products, you know, seeing where they're being shipped, um, striving to, to limit fraudulent, you know, copying of components. Um, I think there's, there's a lot we can, we can do. Um, and it's about giving that full set of tools and pallet of materials to our designers to say, here you go, you know, go, go crazy and, and see what you can, what you can do.
Nick Weeks (17:10):
So that's a really interesting side of it. The, um, the additive manufacturing industry to some extent is held back by the, the people who can actually design for additive manufacturing and give them the stage. The other industries are at the moment we're getting, um, engineers coming through, uh, universities who've actually been at, um, educated in additive manufacturing. Um, but they've not been educated. They said in math additives processes and the design potential is there, they may have been stuck to the more traditional laser powder bed processes or the DD or the, uh, or the binder jet processes. It, um, how, how, how, how can you affect that in your, your, your role off also as a professor?
Kate Black (17:55):
Well, I think it's something that I've, I've had to do right from the very beginning because people go, oh, that sounds good, but it's also a bit crazy. What is this woman talking about? And she's going on about chemistry. You can see people's eyes glazing over. And, um, it's a bit like giving, you know, lectures to her my first year. It's the same lock and response that you get. So it's about how do you, um, capture people's imagination? And I think we're doing that, but then how would you educate the users that, okay, this is going to be different to the conventional room rules of yet, but am as a, as a whole. Um, and that's something we're working hard on. So looking at, you know, delivering white papers, uh, talking at conferences, talking to as many of our, uh, our partners and collaborators to say, okay, when we say this to you, does that make sense? You know, um, and does it work? So it's a challenge I think for us. And I think the more people get in from different disciplines, they will also come up with things that we don't quite get. Um, not just from the materials I expect, but software. And sometimes I talk to the software guys and the machine learning guys, it's like, they're speaking a foreign language and it's so magic that suddenly appears-appears. So I think we've all got a role to play in being able to, to educate, um, uh, our users, not just the people who currently use am, but those who wanted to come in to, to the am industry. And I'm hoping that, you know, with my, my background in education, we can, we can do that. I, um, I get told by the team, I dunno whether they're just flattering me, but I did get told by the team because you explain things really well. So, you know, hopefully, Um,
Nick Weeks (19:40):
I mean, that's a really important, um, really important aspect of what you're doing when you're, you're trying to introduce a technology that doesn't fit in a bucket at the moment. Um, a really important part of that has been able to explain it to people so they can understand it.
Kate Black (19:56):
We're lucky because we've got a really great team around us and Simon Scott, the CEO of Meta comes from a laser powder bed, you know, um, background who was, uh, MD for Renishaw, additive manufacturing, uh, brunch. So I usually use him as a sounding board and if he doesn't get something, then I can pawn, you know, work in a way, tell him till he does. Um, because you know, he's been in the industry for so many, uh, years that, uh, yeah, if it works on him, there's a good chance it'll work on, on others as well. Uh,
Nick Weeks (20:30):
And he's, he's coming from the more classical part of additive manufacturing, lazer powder bed process and the way that, that, that part of the industry thinks. And, um, yeah, if you can explain that, that the chemistry side of things to him, you're expecting that everyone else will understand it, same way. That's really,
Kate Black (20:47):
Yeah. And we've, we've got a, quite a lot of other designers that came from the laser, uh, background and background. So I think we've got a really good team to be able to, to, to make this a success because we understand the fundamentals of what exists now, but also we've got some, you know, good, crazy ideas of where we could go go next.
Nick Weeks (21:07):
That mix is really interesting. Is there, is this what's going on at, at Liverpool university? Cause we've got, um, you guys spending out, obviously Simon was involved there. You already mentioned, uh, Chris and there's certainly some people who I, I still work with who came through, um, uh, uh, Liverpool university. So, so is there something that, that, that, that happens in the undergraduate and the postgraduate programs that helped, uh, focus people on, uh, innovative? Yeah,
Kate Black (21:35):
Well, I think so. I used to teach a module called additive manufacturing and Chris taught that before for me. Um, and I think it's Testament really for, um, to Chris that he set up a really strong foundation for us to come after. Um, and there's a, there's a legacy that builds up there. Um, but yeah, I think we're lucky as well because it's, um, it's an interesting topic. It captures the imagination of, of the students. Um, they're not going, oh, who are listening to a two hour thermodynamics lecture and they're like, no offense to the thermodynamics guys out there. Um, but you've already won the mover because, you know, 3d printing people go, wow, how does that even work? So they're, they're interested to start with, so I think that's the first hurdle, but then it's about trying to, to show them how does this fit to the outside world? You know, students want to get a degree that will get them a job at the end of the day. And, and I think it's probably easier for us teaching additive manufacturing to get that across. Um, and again, the likes of, you know, people like, like Chris and the, the, the wider AM team at Liverpool that have really worked hard for many years to, to keep that going and be innovative and also taken on people like me, who've come up with this. True. Could you just do this or could you do that? Not gone. Right. Okay. That's crazy. Go away because people do. And I have had that said to me, it's just like, no, no, that will never work. Um, so it's having a bit of bravery, I think, uh, being prepared to have 10 crazy ideas and one work and not being frightened of failure, I think, um, just have a go and see what happens and if it doesn't, and I think being able to create that environment for myself, but also students. So they're the, the coming generations of people that were in a go moving into the am arena and starting new companies. It's about giving that, um, freedom for them to just go, okay, let's see what, see what works. Yeah.
Nick Weeks (23:53):
That's, that's really interesting. I think, I think we've had, I want to say five, uh, ex students from Liverpool university and our technical team, uh, at our facility. And I think the, uh, the th they don't have that fear of failure. They're happy to try out new things and, um, just pitch them in, in the meetings we've got and, and try them out. And they've got, I quite like, they've got a fairly hands-on practical aproach of things.
Kate Black (24:20):
And that came from Chris. You know, it wasn't a stereotypical route for him into, to academia. You know, he had a real job before all the academics and what you're talking about, but, um, no they've worked in industry. So he knew what industry wanted, you know, his collaborating, um, with, with Renishaw, he had a big role there to play, so he knew what the students needed to do. So he, he prepared that. And, um, and he taught me a hell of a lot, you know, um, because all of a sudden this, uh, you know, woman who did a PhD in chemistry wants to work in manufacturing. Um, so he, he helped me a lot and led the foundations for what we've got now. Yeah. Yeah,
Nick Weeks (24:57):
No, that's, that's really good to hear. So, um, I wanna ask you a bit about where do you see the industry going in the next sort of five years? What direction you think is going to be critical?
Kate Black (25:08):
Um, I think we need to tie down the material supply chain. That's that's key, uh, particularly for, for companies like, like matter, and you see some of the innovations that, um, X one are doing, you know, where they're, they're, they're none of the fuse. Um, are we preparing the supply chain of people who supply things like nanoparticles, who probably wouldn't have prepared them in the same scales that we're going to need for these types of technologies to progress and really flourish. So I think it's about getting those ready, but again, that comes back to that ecosystem is getting the, the, the, the players, the right players working collaboratively to together, um, and not allowing it to just be dominated by, by one, you know, corporation. Yeah. I think that that's key when, when you get a monopoly on some thing, you lose the innovation, you look at the so many startups, you know, and entrepreneurs out there that are doing some really great things. It's, uh, it's about letting them shine through, um,
Nick Weeks (26:22):
Yeah, there's the growth for the number of sort of new startup companies in new areas using additive and in different ways is, uh, is, is fantastic. I've seen so much growth in the time that I've been involved.
Kate Black (26:34):
And I think, I think as a result of that, we will start to see some really smart manufacturing solutions coming because we've entered a phase, you know, of humankind where we're going to face a lot of weird, uh, things happening to us really more now. Yeah. And we've seen am really step up to the plate and made a big impact in the, the, the pandemic that we've, we've all been through. Um, you know, there's shortage of materials, water growing populations, climate change. So to be able to face those as a, um, as a world, we need to be able to have these smarter manufacturing solutions. And, and I think AM could, could really play a big role there, but we've got to make sure all those players, uh, lined up and singing off the same hymn sheet. Yes.
Nick Weeks (27:28):
Yeah. No, that makes, makes complete sense. I, wasn't going to mention the, uh, the global pandemic, since you did, you started a business, um, a month before the pandemic, a couple of months before the pandemic hit, what was that like? Just trying to start a business, uh, whenever things sort of closing down and people are putting their shutters up
Kate Black (27:51):
To start with, I thought, oh no, what am I doing? And everybody was saying to me, oh, this is a good time for you to start a company, but you know what, it's been really tough for, for loads of people, um, for lots of different reasons. But I think we've been really fortunate, uh, Metta additive. It's given us some time to reflect on actually, um, what we want, what's important to us as a company, uh, to grow. Whereas I think if it had been full steam ahead, we may not be doing what we're doing now and going in the direction that we did. So I think, yeah, it was hard, but, um, I don't regret any of that. I think it's allowed us to, to, to be the company that we are and, and, and grow in into. Um, and we played a, you know, a big role at the beginning, um, printing, um, you know, PPA for the local hospitals that live with us. So that was pretty full on for us. I thought everybody's gonna, yeah, we can read books and, you know, watch Netflix. Oh, no, no. I don't think I've ever worked so hard in my entire life, so, but he's been great. Yeah.
Nick Weeks (29:03):
We had one of our engineers who's um, you, uh, you, you taught, you took, he took our, um, uh, our polymer based 3d printer home, and he had a mini production line going, uh, at home to, to create the, the bit the homeless visor. And he, um, that was a really interesting insight and a thing, as you say, he wasn't planning and didn't think he'd be doing beforehand. So yeah, it quite interesting how It's. Yeah,
Kate Black (29:31):
but it shows that how we can, you know, really step up to the plate with that. And if we hadn't had that, who knows where we would, you know, where we would be, but that pressure, and also the, the, the feeling of joining together, you know, this is a common cause that we're all, all fighting against. That's where true innovation, um, comes. And it's about how do we learn to keep some of that feeling when we move into more stable, you know, comfortable times let's not fall back into old ways. Um, there was a lot of rallying around, uh, collaborating with all different companies that perhaps wouldn't have collaborated in a normal time trying to keep that momentum of collaboration. And I think that's that that's key.
Nick Weeks (30:18):
Yeah. Brilliant. Um, I've got one last question for you. Um, do you have any advice for, uh, women who want to get into 3d printing or maybe at the start of back room 3d printing and any advice you'd give them, given the journey you've had in the position You are now in?
Kate Black (30:35):
Yeah. Um, and I don't think it's just 3d printing. I mean, I was the first female academic to be appointed at the university level for 15 years. There were no female academics, and I'm really proud to say that we've, we've now got 15 in our department. Um, I would say keep persevering, actually, it's, it's not always as bad as it can seem, um, and use those networks that you get. And that's not just female in that, uh, networks. There are some really understanding men out there that, um, uh, have helped along the way. Um, but yeah, it's about perseverance and having it can be lonely. That, that's the one thing I would say, festival, especially when you're doing something like this, you've got to have the conviction in your own, you know, thoughts that actually you're doing the right thing, but you know what? It doesn't matter if it doesn't always work out because something else will come and it's about, I've used it before, but being brave, just go ahead and do it. And it will change and calling out things when you see something that doesn't fit right to you is, is saying, actually, I don't agree with that. That's not how it should be, you know, sticking to your guns.
Nick Weeks (31:56):
Yeah. Brilliant. Thank you very much for that. Um, thank you very much for your time today. It's been a fantastic talk and yeah. Thanks. Thanks.
Thanks to Dr. Black for joining this episode of PowderHeads. She's the kind of additive champion who is putting a real effort into ushering AM into the mainstream. And we're all benefiting from her intelligence and experience in the industry. Her call for everyone to join together, to build up this industry is an important one. If you have questions or comments about what we discussed in this podcast PowderHeads, send them to email@example.com or visit our podcast page at www.carpenteradditive.com/powderheads. We continue to build an archive of all of our interviews there as well as additional material that provides insight and perspective on modern day additive manufacturing. PowderHeads is managed by Carpenter Additive and its parent company Carpenter Technology, a global leader in specialty alloys for over 130 years. Our goal is to help solve their most challenging material process problems. Learn more at CarpenterTechnology.com. Thanks again for listening and keep building!