‘When engineers design a product, we need to consider ways it could fail’

Research Lives: Bryan Naab, PhD student, I-Form centre for advanced manufacturing, UCD

What is your PhD about?

It is on the physical properties and endurance of 3D-printed metals. I am doing my PhD as part of the Advanced Metallics Systems Centre for Doctoral Training programme (CDT), in conjunction with I-Form, the SFI Research Centre for Advanced Manufacturing. This is collaborative programme between UCD, Dublin City University, Manchester University and the University of Sheffield. The goal is to address a shortage of engineers with skills in metallurgy in Ireland and the UK.

Every student in the CDT works with an industrial partner, trying to solve a metallurgy-related problem. I am working with a company that produces biomedical devices in Ireland.

Using metal additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, you can produce complicated solid structures by fusing metal powders one layer at a time. I am studying the material properties and failure mechanisms of titanium alloys manufactured in this way.


How did you become interested in additive manufacturing?

I remember being impressed when I first saw a 3D printer suitable for printing with plastic materials in an electronics store in Germany 10 years ago. It wasn't until my Masters studies that I was introduced to the concept of metal additive manufacturing.

It seemed like something from a science fiction movie. What personally drew me in to additive manufacturing is the fact that we are still trying to figure out what the best applications are and how to get the most out of this technology.

What would you like people to know about your area of research?

When engineers design a product, we need to consider any possible ways in which the product can fail. One such failure mechanism is called fatigue; this is when a material is stressed repetitively. Maybe you are wondering why your phone charger stopped working?

Fatigue could be responsible for this by causing the wire to break after being bent back and forth too often. All metals suffer from fatigue, and engineers have developed standards and protocols for dealing with this issue, but 3D-printed metals have been found not to conform to these standards.

If we can better understand the failure mechanisms of additively manufactured metals, then this technology can be used in more innovative products in the future.

What are the challenges of being a PhD student?

Being a PhD student is a balancing act. There is an endless number of things you could do on a day-to-day basis, but it is important to focus on only the most relevant tasks at hand. Good organisation and time management are critical. But you also need to maintain a work-life balance because there is nothing preventing you from working through the weekends.

And what do you like about it?

What I enjoy most about doing a PhD is the freedom it provides. You can schedule your tasks as you see fit, and it is very enjoyable to share moments of triumph with your supervisor when an experiment you planned together goes well.

There is a great sense of achievement when you work hard on setting up a piece of equipment and then others look to you when they are trying to use it. Teaching bachelor or master’s students in labs is also something I very much enjoy doing.

And what do you do in your spare time?

I like to stay fit by running, cycling, or going for walks with my girlfriend and our little Jack Russell. I like to partake in a regular poker game together with some of my friends from secondary school. I'm also a hobby coder, which gave me something to do during the lockdown.

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell is a contributor to The Irish Times who writes about health, science and innovation