For Blanka Szost, additive manufacturing (AM) represents an entirely new universe. She is exploring its unlimited possibilities as the Head of Research & Development together with her ten-member team in Oerlikon’s Technology & Innovation Center near Munich.
August 3, 2018, Oerlikon’s Technology & Innovation Center in Feldkirchen near Munich. At the spur of the moment, Blanka Szost was able to find a gap in her calendar for us. Three hours between team meetings, visits from customers and scientific studies — not to mention her daily attention to networking in the area of materials sciences and additive manufacturing. Professors, former fellow students, colleagues and experts from around the world make up a regular Who’s Who in this young and exciting sector.
There’s more to it than 3D printers and metal powders
Szost, born in 1984, is the Head of Research & Development in Feldkirchen, making her the counterpart to Shawn Kelly, who heads Oerlikon’s R&D team in Charlotte. As does Kelly, Szost sees in AM “a completely new universe with virtually unlimited possibilities.”
What does that mean concretely? “AM is the technology of the future,” she says. “In addition to the obvious advantages, such as freedom in the design and development of new functions and materials, AM provides a sustainable and intelligent means of production that, in contrast to conventional manufacturing, doesn’t create extensive waste products.” Moreover, printers could be situated everywhere and supplied with powder. “At some point, we will probably even be able to print on the moon using moon dust to construct a base there.”
Everything comes together in additive manufacturing, says Szost: Materials sciences, component design, production and post-processing. The fascinating thing is that “like nature, AM is capable of introducing stability and/or flexibility in parts at precisely the location where they need it.” And what is R&D’s role here? “Finding combinations of powder, process and materials that yield the maximum in terms of possibilities.”
“At the moment, we are devoting extra attention to repeatability — the repetitive processes.” And it is not just the 3D printers and metal powders that matter here, but also reliability, efficiency and quality. “AM makes the most sense with small and medium-sized production series with complex geometries that would otherwise require intensive use of machinery.”
Szost has taken extra time for this visit. It starts with a tour through the Technology & Innovation Center. First to the 3D printers, then into mechanical, chemical and microscopy laboratory rooms as well as to the metal powders. Szost explains equipment and apparatuses, how AM works in a vacuum and how alloys from the printer are being investigated using Zeiss microscopes. She describes how she finds clues to unraveling the mysteries of additive manufacturing with her ten-member team of materials scientists.
And just how does the work of R&D take place? Trial and error? Szost smiles: “I would be more inclined to call it an educated guess because every single one of us contributes a great deal of knowledge.”
Learning, understanding, explaining
Knowledge is what cooperation partners and customers, including the likes of Lufthansa Technik, Boeing, LENA Space or the printer manufacturers, are looking for. “What counts are the purpose the customer’s product must fulfill, how many parts are needed and what working conditions prevail.” This requires comprehensive understanding of the material in order to be able to provide succinct and constructive consultancy and innovative solutions. “To be honest: Not everything can be replaced by AM,” because not everything makes sense. This needs to be communicated to the customer as directly and comprehensibly as possible. She adds, “‘If you cannot explain it simply,’ Albert Einstein once said, ‘you have not understood it well enough.’”
Learning. Understanding. Explaining. That’s the way it’s always been. She tells us more just one floor higher in a conference room behind her office. Szost talks about her childhood in a small town in the south of Poland where she grew up with five siblings. When she wanted a radio at the age of ten, there was no money for it. She was told that she could have the broken-down television from up in the attic. With spare parts and the indefatigable energy of a hobbyist, the girl transformed the television set into a radio.
“I think time is the decisive factor in just about everything,” says Szost. “When you are confronted with a complex mathematical equation for the first time, you don’t understand anything. The second time, it’s a bit better. The third time activates processes in your brain. And the fifth and sixth time, you begin to gain a command of the situation.”
During her doctoral work at Cambridge, she constructed the prototype of a machine. There was no other way to prove her thesis concerning a type of steel that binds hydrogen in its structure. The only comparable apparatus was located in South Korea. She worked for three months straight, 16 or 18 hours every day, until the machine was completed. “I always have to be learning,” says Szost. “I always strive for perfection.” Then she adds an important detail: “I’m not afraid of challenges.”
“I knew that AM was the next step for me”
Szost had studied the diverse facets of metallurgy, researched the atomization of powder and delved into the topics of components and surfaces. Oerlikon is leading in all three of these areas, and it is AM that connects them. As a result, she did not have to consider very long when the inquiry arrived. “I knew that AM was the next step for me and Oerlikon is the best possible place for that.” She is also convinced of the company’s DNA. “Perfection is very hard to achieve,” says Szost, “and everyone knows that. But when you strive for it, that can lead to excellence.” And that, she observes, is ultimately “one of the fundamental values at Oerlikon, which the staff endeavors to achieve.”
Of course, the head of R&D communicates that to her team as well. “We all believe in AM. It’s our mantra. It’s not a job in the classic sense, but rather a way of life.” Szost’s everyday routine does not follow a rigid or even foreseeable set of rules. At present, work in Feldkirchen is being conducted on 20 projects that are all in different stages of completion. Time and again, she discusses intermediate results and the current states with her team and describes customer requirements. Often colleagues simply stand in her office door, which is always open. They come around with a question, a suggestion or a new discovery.
“I have outstanding people here,” says Szost, “a highly talented team.” They are all young people from various countries with different professional and cultural backgrounds. The common denominator: “They all love the technology and are passionate about taking on challenges.” That is exactly how Florian Mauerer, Head of Additive Manufacturing at Oerlikon, thinks it should be: “My desire is for us to maintain an open attitude toward each other, promote cross-fertilization and expand our network so that we can showcase our expertise and exploit the potential of our professional, national and cultural diversity.”
Everything depends on the team
“The team is the foundation,” says Szost. “Communication and coordination are the key to its success. We need to empower people – that’s the only way for them to contribute their best. But we also need to provide structure to enable efficient work processes.” Anyone who loves technology is prone to get lost in the jungle of details from time to time, and thereby lose their orientation. “There’s no doubt that sometimes we just have electrons flying around in our heads,” says Olivier Messe, who is part of Szost’s team. And Marius Knieps, who is doing his doctoral work at Oerlikon on AM alloy design, adds with a grin: “I have already caught myself fantasizing about how my ideas will revolutionize the aerospace industry in 20 years.”
“Four highly qualified emails on a certain topic are of no use,” explains Szost, “if the people haven’t coordinated their efforts to work in a common direction.” An orchestra, she muses, in which everyone plays what they want will never produce a symphony. Consequently, the department head requires that everyone talk to each other, and that they listen and acknowledge the contributions of others so that trust and a team spirit are created. That applies to her, as well. “She guides us like a conductor,” says Messe. “She has a great deal of experience, is unbelievably qualified, warm-hearted and friendly, but can also be strict when necessary.” And that is the way it needs to be. The conductor needs her ensemble as much as they need her.
BLANKA SZOST was born October 4, 1984 in Muszyna in the Voivodeship of Lesser Poland. After being fascinated by a lecture delivered by a professor, she studied materials sciences in Krakow and finished in June 2008. She subsequently applied for and was awarded the prestigious Vulcanus Scholarship in Japan, where she worked with the JFE Steel Corporation until August 2009. When the manager there saw Szost reading a book by the famous materials scientist Sir Harshad Bhadeshia, he encouraged her to apply for a research project at the University of Cambridge. From October 2009 to September 2012, she was engaged in doctoral studies at Cambridge under Bhadeshia dealing with the topic of “Hydrogen Trapping and Mechanisms.” From December 2012 until November 2015, Szost worked for the European Space Agency in Noordwijk, The Netherlands. Afterward, she moved to Johnson Matthey in Reading, Great Britain. Since 2017, she has headed the R&D Competence Center at Oerlikon in Feldkirchen near Munich.
Blanka Szost has been the recipient of ten scholarships and awards and has published eight scientific works.