Behind every great advancement in manufacturing is research: research into new processes, research into new materials and research into new applications. It goes without saying that in an industry as young as additive manufacturing, research is still playing a huge role in the advancement, adoption and industrialization of the technology.
Tonya Wolfe is an Alberta-based engineer whose research and work in AM processes and metal composite materials is opening up new and exciting opportunities for local industries. Wolfe works for InnoTech Alberta, a subsidiary of Alberta Innovates which is aimed at facilitating the transition from applied research into tangible benefits for the Canadian province’s economic, social and environmental areas.
In the case of additive manufacturing—and Wolfe’s area of work—InnoTech Alberta is exploring the development of additive manufacturing processes and materials for heavy duty applications in Alberta’s key industries, which include oil and gas, mining, pulp and paper, agriculture and biofibre processing.
We spoke to Tonya Wolfe about her ongoing additive manufacturing work and how it is addressing challenges specific to Alberta’s industrial landscape.
3dpbm: Can you tell us a bit about your background and current job?
Tonya Wolfe: I work at InnoTech Alberta, which is the provincial applied research lab that is a subsidiary of Alberta Innovates, and our mandate is to support Alberta businesses in adopting new technologies to be more competitive in their respective industry. When I started at InnoTech, I focused on hardfacing, overlays and coatings, designing new materials for specific environments that we see here in Alberta and process development optimization. We know the kinds of environments that equipment are exposed to here and we started doing this work because the standards or guidelines were not cohesive enough to address the issues.
One of our biggest goals is to align the service condition with material selection—and there have been notable increases in this. We know that people are receptive to trying new materials and processes.
3dpbm: How did you get into additive manufacturing?
Wolfe: About five years ago, we were doing some overlay work and realized we could start making those same unique materials that you can’t cast or machine for our industries with additive. We knew additive manufacturing was around but it was still way too small for the type of equipment we’re looking at—we need parts that are half a meter to two meters in size at least. When this type of equipment breaks down, you’re looking at 12-20 weeks of wait time for a new part to come, so there has been a thrust to figure out how to print these composite materials in on a large scale for replacement parts.
Our original thrust was to focus on larger pieces with the aim of deploying them to our end users, but now we are also investigating re-design of these components using design for additive guidelines and generative design
3dpbm: What AM systems are you working on?
Wolfe: We have two systems that are close to commercialization: a plasma transfer arc system and a wire arc system. I’m aware that there are other similar systems around the world in that area, but they don’t yet meet our needs. So we’ve adapted these technologies for our own uses.
Our wire arc machine is built to print parts up to 1.7 meters in diameter and weighing up to 500 kg. That’s the kind of scale we’re focused on for that system. It also has a high degree of design freedom, so we’re designing parts that are support-free.
At this stage, we are working on printing some small components for testing. We are hoping to test them in the field where they’ll be compared against parts made using other manufacturing methods. These test pieces are not that large, but they are a comparative set to go into field trials.
Right now, our major focus is on machine learning to ensure that the build is repeatable, just like every other AM system out there.
3dpbm: What materials are you working with and developing for AM?
Wolfe: We are a heavy user of metal ceramic composites. The oil sands mining industry uses a significant amount of tungsten carbide composites. Although our primary ceramic is tungsten carbide, we investigate a variety of composite materials. Our focus is finding a metal and carbide that together enhance abrasion- or corrosion-resistance in a particular environment.
With a lot of of the focus in AM being on titanium or any of the other lightweighting materials, we’re not seeing a lot of work being done for the materials that we use here in Alberta, so it’s really important that we have a voice in the development of AM materials and standards.
We’re also highly invested in functional gradients so that we can transition from a steel base, for example, and build features off of it. We’re lucky that we don’t have the same issues that other industries have in that the material systems we use are generally compatible. We don’t have the same risk of high stress fractures that occurs with most titanium. We are looking at multi-modal machines to allow us to print some material in one area and transition to another.
3dpbm: What are the target industries for your AM systems?
Wolfe: I would call it industrial equipment. Our primary focus is resource equipment for severe wear environments. Oil and gas is the major industry here, but there are other markets in Alberta that could benefit from it too, like mining, pulp and paper, agriculture and biofibre processing. In Alberta, it’s definitely not cars or aerospace, but there is an avenue here where we feel there could be some major improvements thanks to AM.
3dpbm: How big is the team you work with at InnoTech Alberta?
Wolfe: We just hired two design engineers to support the transition from traditional to generative design and design for additive manufacturing. We’re actively working with Alberta companies to help them identify areas of opportunity through design as well. My direct team of staff at InnoTech is five and I also have a number of graduate students that I co-supervise at the University of Alberta. I work with students in both mechanical engineering and materials engineering.
3dpbm: Demographically speaking, do you supervise many female students?
Wolfe: I will say that I’m unique here in that the Surface Engineering Group that I’m a part of is made up of eight women out of a team of 15—something which is pretty unheard of in the field. In the team of graduate school students I supervise, there are currently about two women in 10 students.
I was very surprised while attending conferences and other meetings in the area of additive about the lack of women. I thought it would be an area where women would be more active because of it being relatively new and having so many interdisciplinary aspects to it.
I’m not convinced women are making gains in manufacturing. And I don’t know why exactly, but I’m definitely very engaged with having these conversations and being a role model for my younger colleagues and students. We’re essentially solving problems that are relevant to resource minimization, higher efficiency and more tailored products. When you talk about making a global impact, this should be something that we’re all very interested in doing.
3dpbm: What is it like for you to work in a male-dominated sphere?
Wolfe: I spent the last 20 years being one of the only women in a manufacturing environment. I started in primary steelmaking and later working in welding shops. That was for sure very intimidating, but you get used to it. I do support women when they say it’s challenging, because it is, but you just have to focus on your knowledge and what you contribute and let the rest go.
In some cases, inequality is still something that I deal with. But the way I see it, I can either throw away 20 years of my experience and do something else or I can keep forging ahead. I am lucky to have an alliance of very trusted people that I rely on and work with. Overall, good work speaks for itself.
3dpbm: Are you working on any other AM-related projects?
Wolfe: One of the things I’m also involved in is more of a social initiative to build Alberta’s additive manufacturing network. It’s become really challenging to acquire resources in a province that has three million people, so rather than fight each other for limited funds, we’ve decided to work together to share resources and not duplicate equipment. The goal is to support the industry because it needs growth right now rather than competition. We are currently finalizing the contract surrounding that, but I think it will be a very collaborative and unique network to support additive growth for whoever needs it in Alberta.
We also have some research in FDM 3D printing that we’re giving a small amount of resources to. We’ve been extruding our own filaments made from agricultural byproducts and tailoring them for some of our environments. We have a product at InnoTech Alberta called cellular nano crystals (CNC) which are obtained when you chemically process wood byproducts and retain the cellular part of the material which is very strong. We hypothesize that CNC will increase the strength of the filament, and potentially thermal conductivity.
There are some challenges with the extrusion, but we have successfully extruded a few different compositions and are proceeding with the research. We’re also exploring FDM with tungsten carbide and other types of carbide composites as well as biopolymers to see where they can fit.
3dpbm: How are you addressing adoption for AM in Alberta’s industries?
Wolfe: We’ve hosted two workshops for industry aimed at discussing additive manufacturing, DfAM and what’s holding us back. Alberta’s very interested, but there are still some hesitations that exist more broadly with AM: the cost of equipment, lack of support for building business cases, consistency, standards and approvals and lack of AM skills.
These problems are not unique to Alberta but not once have I heard anyone say they don’t want to use the technology. That’s where a lot of that community has come from for the network; people want to work together, they want to learn more and they know it’s something they need to invest in to grow their businesses.
3dpbm: Are there any training initiatives to bridge the skills gap?
Wolfe: I’m running a project this year about how to get a printed part through regulatory approval. I also want to schedule an event around regulatory approval and materials testing in early 2020.
Part of the mandate of our program will be to have more regular educational sessions. We hope to have design engineers come to certain locations to talk to engineers. Software is also going to be a major part of this, and the limitations of software for generative design is going to be a big focus.
Training is something we know we need to spend more time on in the community and going forward we plan to have more training sessions in areas across the province.