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Aaron Chow
Aaron Chow
President Voxel Defense & Voxel Consulting
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People of 3D Printing: Aaron Chow

Who is Aaron?

Recent graduate of The University of Michigan in Electrical Engineering, Aaron Chow is already making waves in the 3D printing world. Aaron’s projects range from healthcare, to defense, to Mars! Learn more about how Aaron got involved in 3D printing, the projects he’s working on, and how he see’s the future potential of 3D printing.

What is your background in 3D printing?

My background in 3D printing started back in high school, 2 or 3 years before starting college. After that, I attended the University of Michigan for a degree in electrical engineering. 3D printing was still a hobby at that point. I started to work in different labs, on different projects, and see what can 3D printing be used for that we couldn’t do before. The main highlight of that was looking at medical devices, orthotics, and prosthetics. How can we actually take a process that takes two weeks to go from the patient to devices that actually help them out, and take that down to ideally 24 hours? That project takes me all the way through college to a professional level. I continued to do this prosthetic work throughout college, creating a student organization, with 4 or 5 dozen students at the peak. We were looking at how we can create a device that is reasonable in price as well as capable in its functionality. It was exciting because it brought together electronics, 3D printing learning and experimenting, which was really exciting as students, to have the capacity to manufacture anything ourselves. 

I was also doing internships and contracts for other large companies in the summers, starting with Johnson & Johnson, working on laparoscopic medical devices. I also had the opportunity to work at Autodesk’s Pier 9 Facility in San Francisco, and have a taste of industrial 3D printing while going to India to design facilities and train personnel. I began exploring the question of “How can we start using this at an industrial level and where can I actually start to make a significant difference?”

What are you doing now?

I graduated in 2019 in electrical engineering and currently I am involved with three jobs. I run a consulting company to teach others how to design for 3D printing. I have my own defense company, founded on technologies that I worked on in college, which are only possible with additive manufacturing and unlocking new metamaterial capabilities we’ve never seen before. Finally,I’m also a contract engineer for Johnson & Johnson 3D Printing.

What is your role as a consulting company for 3D printing?

As a consultant, my role is to help a client identify where and if Additive makes sense from a business point of view. Because as much as I love additive manufacturing, I have to see where it actually makes sense to use it. I work with the companies to figure out where the application makes sense and where can additive manufacturing bring benefits to the company. I love working with additive technologies but only in the realm of where it is actually useful. I’ve been strongly opposed to printing out too many silly things that are a waste of design and machine time because I believe additive can bring huge benefits to many industries, but it’s a matter of finding the correct applications, along with the capacity and capabilities to accomplish it.

I focus on things that can only be 3D printed, you need to look at additive in a way where something else cannot do what you are doing with additive. Then the equation becomes either I can do it with additive manufacturing for this amount of time and this amount of cost or I can’t do it at all, and that is where it can make business sense. 

What is the role of your defense group?

There are two ways to get 3D printing adopted: the first one is you go to a company and you tell them all day long they need to use 3D printing. That’s a lot of work and you will get a lot of no. The second technique is the reason I have my own startup, we’re using things that can only be printed. The things we are designing could not have been done five years ago and we’re now unlocking material and performance capabilities that no one’s ever seen before. Instead of going to companies and saying they should print, we are coming with products that will blow everyone away, and explain that the only way to get this and this performance is by printing it. It’s not 3D printing versus another technology, it is not one or the other, it’s 3D printing or nothing. Your printed part has more performance than anything they’ve never seen.

Here is the first question I start with on any new project: throw away what the product is and tell me what it needs to do. Let’s take the example of the DXV 3D printed faucet, they took that idea, the point is not what it is, but what it needs to do: it needs to get water from one place to the other. It uses a lot less material, so it lowers your cost, increases the capacity of what you can make and decreases your waste. If you make a million of these, imagine the amount of material you could save.

Can you tell us about a 3D printing project that was particularly exciting for you?

My senior design project for college was really exciting. We were looking at in-situ manufacturing for Mars, so this was a collaboration between the University of Michigan, Northrop Grumman, and NASA. Everybody is looking at how to get humans to Mars, which is great, but one of the huge problems is how do you house humans on Mars and keep them from dying? It’s a lot more support equipment than keeping a robot alive. The current ways of doing it could be to create some sort of reagent, mix it with the regolith on the Martian surface and then use that to create a sort of clay material, to use like concrete. This approach gives unpredictable material properties and therefore less predictable final structures. This is what led our team to look into the isolation of pure materials from the martian soil that could then be used for printing.

That project was really exciting because it really started to tie together even more than 3D printing, but also showed great benefits of 3D printing. One of the things is we don’t necessarily need to bring the material with us, but it is also a robotic process which means we don’t need humans there for assembly. Moreover, it can handle a wide variety of materials, if we can isolate pure aluminum oxide we can take that and build a building as large as we want, like ten years before any human gets there without resupplies of materials and it would have the functional performance that we are looking for. So the use of topology optimization means we have a much smarter use of the material we are creating on mars instead of just piling up a ton of bricks.

How is a pandemic such as COVID-19 showing the advantages of 3D printing?

The important thing to know is that you have to take a step back, you can’t just start printing things. Additive manufacturing does not bring the same benefits as other technologies, and it’s important not to be using it like you’d use another technology. During this crisis, the first things we are looking at are face shields and respirators. They present both very different problems, these challenges are really exciting to overcome but it just takes a little bit of thinking. The face shields are commonly used to block particulates and any moisture particles coming up to the face of the healthcare worker and their disposable items, you are not supposed to sanitize them, you are just supposed to use it once and get rid of it so you don’t transmit any germs to another patient.

You have to be able to 3D print them in such a way they are useful and how can we most quickly print these parts with the least amount of material possible. These masks are still designed to be disposable. The idea here is not to compensate for the lack of masks but reduce the lag between need and delivery, between when orders are placed and when parts are delivered. But it is not a viable long-term solution, that is not going to be able to do the capacity that automated machines from these large companies can do in one day. 

The face mask is what I’ve been working on more,  we’ve got interesting challenges to solve: the first one is the disposability of the masks. These disposable masks allow for a much cleaner part to be used, if you throw it away every time, there is no chance you will be transmitting germs from patient to patient. The problem is that you end up with very high amounts of waste right now with the supply constraints it is not as feasible to do that. This is why the next thing you look at is that it has to be reusable. Reusable means we need to be able to sterilize them. The problem with sterilization methods is that all the common printing technologies cannot hold up to it. It has been great to see hobbyists try to come and help with their machines, but we will need to come up with other methods of cleaning before those parts are truly useful for masks. It has been wonderful to see the acceptance and use of 3D printed face shields around communities, and I hope that printing can continue to fill that need.

How do you see the future of additive manufacturing?

3D printing is about to get really exciting thanks to materials and machine processes that are becoming available. It was exciting in 2014 when we thought everybody will have a 3D printer but it was unrealistic and now the capability is starting to catch up. There is this loop of problems that keep happening. One is that we don’t have manufacturing technologies to manufacture some complex shapes and things: we now have a lot of 3D technologies that have those capabilities. So the next problem is because we couldn’t manufacture it we wouldn’t design it and because there is no point in designing it, there is no tool to design it. We are seeing the tools catch up, with topology optimization and generative design. Now the final problem is getting the people to dream up the ideas that can be then implemented to do this. 

You need to be able to take a step back and think differently from anything you’re doing. For example, take a hinge, everybody tells me 3D printing is no good, if you machine those two parts they’ll fit together much better than printed ones, and it’s completely right. But if you take a step back and think differently you can make a compliant mechanism, it’s one part instead of three or four parts you end up no parts moving against each other; you end up with precise motion, and you have no assembly of components together.

The problem right now is that people teaching know how to make things with tools that exist. But now we are creating tools that never existed, we have new skills. With a degree in electrical engineering, I did a lot of software programming so I write algorithms to generate these things, but you need a computer scientist who will understand mechanics, and understand how to use software to build 3D bodies. 

The future of 3D printing needs mechanical engineers who understand computer science and how algorithm generation works and you will need electrical engineers, who can design the machine that can actually execute those tools. The big challenge is the crossover between mechanical engineers and computer scientists, you need both in order to do this and push the technologies as far as they can go.

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