Re-Building the Magical Forest: Women Leaders in 3D Printing

These phenomenal women are just the start of what a true culture of inclusiveness within the 3D printing industry could achieve.

by Giselle Defares on March 30th, 2016

The protagonist in the 3D-printed short film Chase Me is a young girl carrying an ukulele through a magical forest. Slowly her shadow evolves into a monster who chases her through the woods. Fighting an uphill battle against the darkness, she soon faces her fears, transforms her obstacles, and creates her own mesmerizing reality.

The main character from Chase me - a slender girl with mid-length hair - looks over her shoulder as she walks through the woods.

Still from the Chase Me trailer.

The 3D printing industry is like an alternate magical forest, brimming with futuristic potential to ignite change in the tech world. But the reality is that 3D printing is only marginally more diverse than tech itself … if at all.

From researcher Hideo Kodama who laid the groundwork for the first technology of 3D printers, Charles Hull who created stereolithography, to Anouk Wipprecht’s robotic Spider Dress, 3D printing has been on a steady rise since the 1980s. “It is impossible to foresee the long-term impact of 3D printing. But the technology is coming, and it is likely to disrupt every field it touches,” wrote The Economist in 2011. Their foresight is apt: originally used to produce affordable prototypes for the manufacturing industry, 3D printing is increasingly used across medicine, robotics, aerospace and even fashion.

In the last year alone, several inventions made it clear that the 3D printing technique is the ultimate bridge between the tangible and the conceptual. The FDA approved the first 3D printed prescription drug. A cancer patient received a 3D printed sternum and rib cage. The German car company Audi created the first 3D-printed race car. A patent application by Nike features 3D printing shoe technology — but hasn’t trumped competitor New Balance, whose 3D-printed shoes have an official launch date later this year. Several companies in the computing world, from Toshiba, HP Inc, and even Apple, have marked their territory in the ever-growing market.

Adoption by brands and manufactures alike ensures 3D printed wearables are about to saturate the consumer market. But success is distributed unevenly: It’s an arduous task for anyone that does not fall into the average white male mould to navigate prejudice and/or gender discrimination and rightfully take up space in tech… and the 3D printing industry is no exception.

Exploring The New Frontier

It’s well-documented that there’s still a huge gender gap when it comes to the representation of women in tech. Despite marketing efforts to attract young women into STEM fields, it’s been reported by NCWIT that 25 percent of the computing workforce are women and less than 10 percent are women of color. A NGCP study found that even though more women are working, they’re still underrepresented in the science and technology fields. These inequalities persist despite research showing that gender-diverse teams outperform male-dominated teams in terms of productivity, organizational effectiveness and financial health.

Nonetheless, 3D printing has brought women (of color) of a variety of backgrounds — scientific researchers, architects, designers, artists — together. The industry enables curious minds to collaborate on 3D printing, design, scanning and modelling, and bring their ideas to fruition. One of the leading woman in the industry is Neri Oxman, who uses her background  — MIT professor, designer, architect  — and creativity to push the boundaries of 3D printing. Oxman coined the term “material ecology” which explores how digital design, form-generation processes and environmental awareness can interact with the biological world. Oxman expanded her horizons and has collaborated with fashion designer Iris van Herpen, who has continuously shown the variety of 3D printing when it comes to the graphic design, intricate mathematical modeling, material science approach, and fine details of her designs. In van Herpen’s collection, 3D printing evokes the texture and appearance of life forms: marine organisms, coral reefs and sea anemones.

A pair of 3d-printed shoes designed by Iris van Herpen. A mesh seemingly made out of leather encases the foot area, while the dramatic heel and platform is adorned with large, fierce-looking crystals sticking out from the shoe.

Photo CC-BY Nobuyuki Hayashi.

Anyone who’s up to date with bioprinting knows that the woman who gets the job done is Jennifer Lewis. Lewis even has her own lab named after her: the Lewis Lab at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Lewis and her team were responsible for several breakthroughs in bioprinting and conducting extensive research to establish appropriate living environments for 3D printed artificial cells and organs to function in.

The idea that the tech industry could produce potential material for aerospace seems almost too good to be true. Yet, you only have to look at the credentials of Leila Ladani and realize that it’s not an insurmountable feat after all. Ladani has conducted research for NASA and received funding directly from the National Science Foundation. She’s currently an associate professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Connecticut, and advocated for the school’s investments in 3D printing research and equipment.

Yvonne Cagle speaking at TEDx Brussels.

Yvonne Cagle. Photo CC-BY TEDx Brussels + Thomas Popovich.

The industry truly explored the new frontier with the work of former astronaut and flight surgeon Yvonne Cagle. Cagle wants to establish an intricate relationship between space and 3D printing, and aims to 3D print products in space. Cagle’s creation is a buckle which has a compression strap to prevent muscle atrophy and protect the heart in a zero-gravity environment. This buckle will protect astronauts in the vacuum of space as they push the boundaries of exploration.

Changing The Status Quo

These phenomenal women are just the start of what a true culture of inclusiveness within the 3D printing industry could achieve. There are certainly limitations and obvious barriers when it comes to 3D printing — think funds, materials, volume sizes and production. Nevertheless, women already in the field show that there’s a kernel of truth in the “make anything” conception. In fact, the 3D industry is the perfect playground to bring more diversity and women into STEM fields: the 2014 MakeHers: Engaging Girls and Women in Technology report by Intel found that “making” can help girls and women to learn new content and technologies and provide an avenue for them to engage in scientific and engineering problems that align with their interests. 3D printing allows girls and women to ‘instantly’ bring their ideas to life, stimulating creativity and personal growth.

To this end, there are various self-started initiatives where women are coming together in order to network or learn about skill enhancement, and create a wider range of alternatives on the 3D market. One of the more successful inclusive initiatives is from Nora Toure, a Sales Manager at 3D print service Sculpteo. She’s the creative mind behind the group called “Women in 3D Printing”, a platform for women where they can share ideas, network and help each other succeed.

Homepage of the Women in 3D Printing community. Diverse faces make up the grid of recent stories and interviews, including one with Turnera Croom on Vets in 3D, and Bridgette Mongeon on sculpting with 3D printing technology.

Women in 3D Printing homepage.

Representation and seeing (non-white) women taking strides in their respective industry, may it be medicine, robotics, aerospace or fashion, will inspire young girls and women to achieve their goals in STEM fields. Grace Choi, founder of the MINK 3D portable makeup printer, aims to “change the dialogue between beauty companies to start talking about diversity.” Choi’s cultural background and interest ensure that she will make a dent in the beauty market. She knows the consumer behaviour of her target group and can effectively engage non-white consumers. Choi is an excellent example of a woman of color who innovates the 3D printing market. Choi broadens tech communities with her knowledge, tools and connections, thus creating more sustainable, scalable technology.

On a smaller scale, practical initiatives such as Vets in 3D by Doctor Tunera Croom, offer 3D printing classes with a focus on Veterinary Medicine to young students of color and stimulate them to move into STEM careers and 3D printing. She acknowledges the power of visibility in an interview stating “My focus, as a woman of African descent is to make sure that young Black girls SEE this doctor, CHAT with this veteran, and GET A RECOMMENDATION from this Black female entrepreneur. Then they can carry on the tradition of giving back as they mature.”  

Thus education, equitably distributed resources, actively stimulating female talent and mentoring, can be the start of slowly creating cultural change in the 3D printing industry.

After all, it took some time for the 3D printed girl in the magical forest to find her way out of the darkness. The same can be said for the imbalanced representation in the 3D printing industry. Those who believe in diversity can see that 3D printing is providing new opportunities for scientific researchers and designers to innovate while simultaneously addressing societal needs in efficient and personal ways. Diversity isn’t a mere buzzword: it should be an indisputable part of our digital networked society, and that should be reflected in the tech industry. Then perhaps initiatives to promote STEM to young girls and women will be a distant memory from the past.

Diversity in 3D printing shows that anyone can create their own magical, 3D printed path.