Interview: Diana Kalisz, 3D Systems’ VP, Engineering – “3D printing has certainly come a long way”

Few people can claim to have been present at the invention of a new industry. Diana Kalisz, VP Engineering at 3D Systems, however, is one of those people. 

Kalisz joined the additive manufacturing (AM) stalwart back when the team was small and the technology was relatively unheard of. With three decades of experience spanning the development of the very first large-format stereolithography system, new material innovations, and several shifts in conversation around AM’s potential, Kalisz talks to TCT about the early days, lessons learned, and why 3D production has finally arrived.

Hi Diana, you’ve previously shared how your journey to 3D printing was a bit of a fluke, what was your first impression of the technology?

I was entering into relatively uncharted territory. 3D printing was a brand new technology and this was my first experience with ‘additive anything.’ For me, it was a bit like magic. Being able to work in such an innovative field, and then digging into what it takes from a technical standpoint to make a real, usable product made it exciting.

What was the culture like in the early days at 3D Systems? Was it a small team when you arrived?

Chuck Hull founded 3D Systems with his invention of stereolithography. His spirit of innovation and curiosity permeated the place. It was a fairly small crew in the early days, and we were all on a steep learning curve. But we were all energised about the potential of the technology and what it could achieve. I often describe the engineering of 3D printing as a pie. The entire pie is comprised of several slices, and each slice represents everyone’s specific area of expertise. In addition to individual domain expertise, everyone needs to learn something about every other slice in that pie, to have a chance of creating a 3D printer that delivers parts into a customer’s hands – because that’s the point. The level of difficulty shouldn’t matter to the end customer, just get parts into their hands fast!  For a technical person, it’s a fantastic environment to work in. Over the years, that same spirit is still at the core of the business – providing a great deal of opportunity to be creative, solve tough technical problems, and deliver products that are changing industries. 

You were heavily involved in the development of the first large-format SLA system, can you talk about what that was like and any challenges you faced?

In the early days, we thought – quite naively – that a large-format SLA system would just be “a big SLA-250.” As we began the development work, we quickly realised how wrong that was. We aimed to make the system not just bigger, but also much faster. The intention was to build a system that could produce a large part for the engineer on a tractor program just as fast as a small part for a medical device. This project taught me really important lessons about scaling, which is difficult no matter what you’re doing – but when you add the third dimension in printing, it’s a killer. Each technology since then has its own challenges when you want to scale size, speed, or any other attribute. Great lessons!

What kind of parts were you printing?

With the advent of 3D printing, the automotive and aerospace industries were very early adopters. As 3D Systems engaged in development work for our 3D printers, many of the parts we built were directed at those industries.   

What were the material options like for SLA back then?

Early on, there was just one material available for each 3D printer. For 3D Systems’ SLA printers, there were only acrylate materials at that time. The parts produced from these materials were yellow and brittle but served the purpose (i.e., prototyping) very well. They were miraculous! 3D printing has certainly come a long way since then – with a host of print technologies and each printer typically has dozens of materials, all with very different characteristics. The materials themselves have also enabled the technology to address a broader variety of applications.

We’re at a point where 3D printing is increasingly being used as a means for production; were people talking early on about that potential to move away from simply prototyping?

When 3D printing was first introduced, producing prototypes was the main goal. Simply having a part in your hand quickly, that represented the CAD fairly faithfully, was a real challenge. As the printers, techniques, and materials evolved, we envisioned creation of functional prototypes as a possibility. This would allow engineers and designers to use the printed part in the same capacity as a final part, just for a short time. When hybrid epoxy materials were developed in the mid-’90s, the use of 3D printing for functional prototyping increased as the materials had better properties and parts were more accurate. 3D Systems also invented QuickCast that allowed faster production of metal parts through investment casting. Now, with our Figure 4 materials, we have materials that possess true production properties that are comprehensively tested to both ASTM and ISO standards including the indoor/outdoor lifetime properties needed for direct use of the parts.

Before 3D Systems, you worked in aerospace at Lockheed Martin, does that continue to be an area of interest for you in terms of AM adoption?

Are there any other key industry segments or applications that you’re particularly excited by right now? I’m always amazed by how broad the application set is that AM can address. It’s fabulous to work on such a variety of products – all the way from hearing aids to missile housings, and everything in between. At 3D Systems, we take a ‘customer-first approach’ to innovation – meaning customer application innovation directly drives our material investigation. We continually re-evaluate what materials and solutions we invest in, based on how the customers want to use the technology. Having this view into how customers want to utilise AM in their businesses challenges our thinking, and pushes us to deliver new technologies to enable them to achieve their goals.

What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in the conversation around 3D printing over the last 30 years?

When you look at how long AM has been around – its history is comparatively short. Chuck Hull invented the technology a little over 30 years ago, but the industry has made remarkable strides. We’ve gone from prototypes that resembled the desired shape to materials and accuracy that allowed functional prototyping, to being in a position now to do direct production. AM is now enabling creation of parts that couldn’t be achieved using traditional technologies alone. It’s been an amazing road to run.

3D Systems was once prominent in the consumer conversation around 3D printing but while it may not have reached the ‘3D printer in every room’ dream, how do you think that mainstream spotlight on the 3D printing industry has attributed to its growth? Has it perhaps helped get more eyes on the technology?

There’s no question the consumer conversation opened eyes that didn’t even know 3D printing existed. For AM to be adopted within any organisation, it’s always necessary to have a champion. The more people that get excited about AM and its potential, the more likely we are to cultivate a broader group of ‘AM evangelists.’ 

According to stats from Women in 3D Printing, women make up less than 10% of the AM workforce. Has changed much in the time you’ve been in the industry?

At the advent of the industry, the number of women involved was significantly lower than 10%. So when you’re starting from almost zero, going up is pretty much all you can do. From my perspective, being a woman in this industry has not made a bit of difference to my career path. I’ve always had wonderful opportunities to learn and grow. Sometimes not the ones I expected, but great ones anyway. Performance and delivery have always been paramount. One of 3D Systems’ Values is ‘Trust & Empower’ meaning everyone is recognised for their talents and expertise. Putting your best foot forward to make positive contributions to the company’s goals and mission not only helps the organisation grow but helps each of us grow professionally. I hope that this is not unique to 3D Systems, but something that is embraced across our entire industry. I’ve been very fortunate to have such a tremendous opportunity, and I’m always happy to share my story because I want to get more women excited about the role they can play in AM. This is an industry that is changing every day. If you embrace the technology, love it, and work hard – you’ll never be bored, and will meet some amazing people along the way.

What is your current area of focus at 3D Systems?

I’m working on innovation to our materials portfolio – specifically Figure 4 materials for production applications. As an industry, we’ve talked about making 3D production real for quite some time and I’m excited we’ve finally “arrived” so to speak. There are some great opportunities in this space across all industries given the performance of the Figure 4 platform including the 3D printing technology and the materials.  

Is there anything on your wish list for the future of AM?

Perhaps any untapped applications or technology developments? I am really intrigued by the new opportunities in bio-printing. I am so inspired by everything AM is capable of, and love everything we build. But when you can make a tangible difference in someone’s quality of life, that’s really astounding and humbling.

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