Interview with Steve Kranz, Material Science for 3D Printing

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Steve Kranz has been the senior scientist and lab manager at Origin since 2017. Before joining Origin, he worked on the Autodesk Ember 3D Print team in 2016. From 2013-2015, he worked with Prof. William Hammack to write, edit and produce educational engineering videos for the EngineerGuy Youtube channel. In 2013, he graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with a MS in Materials Science and Engineering.

Jenny: What influenced you to focus on material science as your career choice?

Steve: I did well in math and science classes in high school, but in my 11th grade English class we had to make a video version of Hamlet. I was the video editor of the group and I loved it. Convinced me that I wanted to be a filmmaker. So when I went to college, I was initially a film major, but after a semester, looking at the film program schedule, I realized I wouldn’t be actively working on projects till the 2nd or 3rd year and it turned me off. So I switched to graphic design — another hobby I really enjoyed in high school. But the classes I took seemed too “soft”, so after 3 days as a graphic design major, I switched to Materials Science.

Why materials science? Well, my father and uncle had encouraged me to go into science/engineering because they saw my strength there and also they saw better career opportunities in that field (I think they were right). My uncle lived near the university I was attending (Arizona State) and new the head of the Mat Sci program. I talked to him and it seemed alright, so I studied that and stuck with it. 

Jenny: When was the first encounter you had with 3D printing? What was the context of that encounter?   

Steve: Grad school at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. We never called it 3D printing, we used the term “Direct Ink Writing”. It was essentially FDM extrusion printing. The ink was a vaseline/wax mixture. We created thin, flat (1-4 sq ft, 1 mm tall) lattices with an open woodpile structure (200 um features). We would then use photocurable material to flow in to the void space, cure it, then wash out the wax structure. The result was a prototype polishing pad for silicon wafers. 

Jenny: What or who inspired you the most along your journey in 3D Printing?

Steve: Lots of people:

  • Prof. Jennifer Lewis, my advisor in grad school. She understood many aspects of the field well and expected a lot out of her students. Her high standards honed me into the scientist I am today.
  • My dear (and late) friend John Vericella, who was a fellow grad student in Prof. Lewis’ group. He was so practically oriented and strongly concerned about safety — he would chew people out for any safety violations. That safety focus rubbed off on me. He was also just a great guy to so many people.
  • Prof. Bill Hammack.  I met him when I was a grad student. He makes educational Youtube videos on engineering subjects. I ended up working for him for 2.5 years after I got my MS. I learned so much from him, including the process of self-publishing books.
  • Bill Buel. I work with Bill right now at Origin. He has been an amazing mentor to me and I think pretty much everyone who works with him. He’s got a seemingly unlimited positive attitude and maneuvers around all sorts of obstacles with grace.

Jenny: I found people with different backgrounds look at differently. What do you think is the biggest challenge facing 3D Printing today? What do you think the potential solution(s) is (are)?

Steve: I think a big challenge is the fact that 3D printing, while it has made great progress since its inception, still has a long way to go before it is a solidly reliable method for mass manufacturing. I think because the industry is relatively new, it wants to put its best foot forward, but sometimes there are issues shared among similar technologies, but it does not get discussed, which means collaborative efforts to solve the problems don’t happen. But again, it’s a difficult position. For example, nobody is perfect, but you’re probably not going to share a list of all your biggest flaws on a first date. Even if naming those flaws might help find a solution.

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Origin Test Swabs printing on Origin One printer

Jenny: What motivates you the most for your daily work? 

Steve: I think the idea that the progress and knowledge of my work will be of some use to at least one other person is enough.

Jenny: What was your biggest accomplishment in 2019, and what are you looking forward to 2020?

Steve:

  • I self-published a book, Archie: Gold in the Fire. It’s not something I wrote, but it was something I found by almost miraculous circumstances. It was the (previously) unpublished memoir of a prisoner who died 13 years ago. It tells of his struggles growing up and lessons for others to avoid the mistakes he made.
  • In 2020, I’m looking forward to generally slowing down and doing less. Was planning some international travel, but perhaps I’ll have to find some alternatives 🙂

Jenny: If you could have a giant billboard to promote ONE message to millions and even billions of people (i.e. healthcare 3D printing and bio-fabrication), what message would that be? 

Steve: Don’t quit. The path may be long and uphill, but the view at the top will be worth it.

Jenny: Why don’t we have more biocompatible material options available for 3D printing? 

Steve: Developing materials is hard. There’s almost always tradeoffs with material properties: strength vs toughness, high-heat resistance vs brittleness, elongation vs printing viscosity, etc. Being biocomapitble is just another property that will be difficult to achieve without sacrificing something else.

Jenny: What advice would you give to a smart driven college student in the “real world”? What bad advices you heard should they ignore? 

Steve: Learning doesn’t stop after college. Find a position where you will learn valuable skills even if the pay isn’t great. Think of it as a mini-apprenticeship. Observe all aspects of your workplace: technical and social.. Being technically savvy is good, of course, but your career depends a lot on social skills. You may not have gotten those skills in your science/engineering schooling, so find other ways to get them

Jenny: What was/is the biggest risk you took in your career?

Steve: I didn’t think about it as a risk at the time, but taking a video editing job with Prof Bill Hammack might have been one. I went from earning a technical graduate degree to working with “softer” skills. If I had thought about it more, I might have been concerned it would be harder for me to get back into a more technically scientific career path. Didn’t seem to matter so glad I didn’t worry 🙂

Jenny: How do you think COVID19 is going to change the world? World of 3D printing? 

Steve:

  • I think hand-shaking might go from an expected social ritual to understandably optional or even discouraged in a lot of situations. 
  • I think dating in a post-covid world will be odd. Sitting 3 feet apart will be the new first base.
  • I think it will normalize wearing face masks when presenting symptoms of any contagious illness. Also people will be much more strongly encouraged to stay home when sick. I wonder if the spread of seasonal flu will be reduced because of behaviours learned from COVID-19

Jenny: Software, materials, or 3D printers. It has been a debate in the industry forever as to which is the most important player. What do you think is the most important player in healthcare 3D printing? 

Steve: Well, they all matter of course, but I’ll say materials. At the end of the day, what you are producing is an object that is a piece of material. Doesn’t matter how fast it was made, or how accurately if the material is weak, brittle or chemically unstable.

Jenny: What do you enjoy in your spare time? What are you passionate about outside of your work/3d printing?

Steve: A hop around a bunch of different hobbies: photography, reading, yoga, hiking, learning about organizations and systems, I’m curious about the inner workings of politics on a local level. Recently just bought a sewing machine so I can make myself a vest.

Jenny: What is your favorite quote? Why?

Steve: “Perseverance and spirit have done wonders in all ages” — General George Washing in a letter to Major Gen. Phillip Schyler in 1775.

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