AMGTA Member Spotlight: Laura Ely, The Barnes Global Advisors

March 27, 2024

Laura Ely, The Barnes Global Advisors

Laura is Managing Director of The Barnes Global Advisors. Laura specializes in driving technological change in organizations. This includes translating technical roadmaps into strategic business visions and vice versa, building business cases, securing capital and operating funding, protecting, and exploiting intellectual property, and collaborating across the industrial supply chain. Laura’s leadership skills are highlighted through her ability to build and enable diverse teams. As the head of technology for GKN Aerostructures, she was responsible for the build-out of a new team focused on the maturation of laser/wire deposition for titanium aerostructures after negotiating a CRADA between GKN Aerospace and Oak Ridge National Laboratory, valued at $18M over 5 years. Laura has a passion for optimizing manufacturing processes. For 15 years, she has focused on improving metallic alloys and processes, specifically for laser/wire deposition, friction stir welding, spin forming, machining, and various wrought processes with application to titanium aerostructures, aluminum wing skins, and inlet lip skins, and copper electrical connectors, coinage, and ammunition. Her passion for advanced manufacturing and promoting diversity in the workplace is contagious, and Laura shares her energy via various public forums, ranging from executive conferences to university lectures to kindergarten classrooms. Laura holds a B.S. in Metallurgical Engineering from Missouri S&T.

The Barnes Global Advisors is a leading global engineering consultancy driving the industrialization and deployment of additive and advanced manufacturing technologies. With over 350 years of combined AM experience, the ADDvisor® team are recognized leaders in the qualification and certification of AM processes and parts. The ADDvisor® team of highly skilled and experienced industry leaders and engineers are committed to delivering data driven results and insights for customers.

Laura Ely 

You describe your role at The Barnes Global Advisors as that of an “optimizer.” What does that mean to you and why is it important for your team and your clients?

Laura: Life is a complex system requiring many elements to come together to be successful. I started my career in a copper and brass rolling mill optimizing alloys and processes for industrial applications. As my career progressed, I had the opportunity to build a technology team from the ground up. Success in these endeavors required an interesting balance of technical aptitude, strategy, and lots of people and communication skills. I absolutely love collaborating with our customers to develop a strategy and then carrying it through into an integrated plan that enables people to be successful. I have a knack of identifying issues within an active team; once named, they can be addressed. At the end of the day, it’s all about people. If you set a North Star and have a positive team culture with the right people in the right roles, the rest will get figured out.

TBGA has been around for seven years and is involved in many aspects of the AM ecosystem, including raw materials, processes, and end use applications. I know you have been around for six of those years! In what specific areas do you see the goals of sustainability within AM resonating the most?

Laura: TBGA is an engineering firm at its core. Engineers like efficiency and optimization. When you take a coarse look at how things are made and how much embodied energy there is in parts, it is obvious there is room for improvement. In some cases, unless we come up with a new method, there will be scarcity, e.g. growing demand for copper. When we view AM, there are places where it is very efficient and others where it is not. Add the macro layer of the supply chain to this and it provides another element of efficiency. In other cases, when we think about resiliency, sustainability comes into the frame again as some renewable energy sources are also highly resilient. Through our work with Neighborhood 91, for example, we’re able to combine these aspects and translate them into an economic benefit that helps everyone.

How does sustainability, resource, and energy efficiency, and reducing waste factor into those discussions and decisions?

Laura: It starts with data. We took on a partner and internal training to be able to conduct Life Cycle Analyses because we saw that the LCAs were very helpful. If you can measure it, you can improve it. Second, they are difficult to do correctly because of the inherent complexity; details and assumptions matter! When we combine our ADDvisor®’s knowledge of the manufacturing processes and value chains with the LCA methodology, we get to a much better outcome. For example, trying to ascertain if AM would be more sustainable than casting is a very broad question. What type of casting process? How old is the equipment? What kind of energy does it employ? Most of TBGA’s collaborators are interested in the combination of sustainability and economic impact. It rarely is simple as, “Is this option greener than that option?”.

Back to engineering principles, “What problem are we solving?” always comes to mind. For example, there are certainly smaller businesses who are also more eco-focused, including those who are working with the Department of Energy. I get the most excited when we help businesses use AM to enable sweet spots that are both “green” and bolster the bottom line. This is where our detailed TBGA economic models come into play, as they enable us to model various inputs and understand the impact on lead times and cost.

You’ve described your work as being at the intersection of technology, people, and strategy. It sounds a bit like rock-paper-scissors. How does each of those elements impact the others? What happens when companies get one (or more) wrong?

Laura: I like to think of it as a bit of a 3-way teeter totter. You must continually progress all three to achieve success, and it isn’t always an easy balancing act. Great technology without a good strategy or the right people dies in the TRL 4-7 valley of death. A great strategy without the people to achieve it is just an interesting idea. Finally, technology is only going to make a difference if it is solving an actual problem, a problem defined by people. So, to be successful, all these elements need to be revisited regularly. The beauty is that as a company or a given leader, bounces around these priorities, they learn and adapt and improve their understanding of what does and doesn’t work. AM is neat that way; it enables you to accelerate the product development cycle. If you fail quickly, you learn quickly and shift the reduction of risk earlier in the program. This also means that people, particularly leaders, must adapt their culture; failure IS an option!

Risk – real or perceived – stands as a frequent obstacle to broader adoption of AM. Which risk concerns are warranted, and which are founded in lack of understanding of the technology? Or is something else causing this risk-related hesitation?

Laura: For a decade or so, AM was heralded as the “make anything” technology, and while true, it isn’t the “make anything well” technology. Fundamentally, companies spent a lot of resources trying to understand what AM is and is not. It was always going to be about making parts, and parts have requirements. Part production necessarily needs to be boring. It likes consistency. It likes competition. It also requires people who get it, can design for it, and who can build a value proposition using it. AM has also lacked productivity, so the paradox was that a company had to find the “killer application” but probably had no real ability to design that killer application, much less implement it. And then everyone’s other fallback position was “like for like” replacement of existing parts. So, we had unproductive AM, which few knew how to implement competing with a part that had been designed for the process it is currently being made. This adds risk to risk. In some cases, this led to the conclusion, “We tried AM. It didn’t work.” Productivity will continue to open the door, so every AM success story doesn’t have to be a “hail Mary”.

How does the advisory work of TBGA enable AM adopters to implement the right technologies strategically and successfully with the right expectations?

Laura: It all starts with understanding requirements – What problem are we solving? What opportunity are we creating? Then it requires a holistic approach to defining a solution. We’ve developed a suite of tools and methodologies to help break down the AM space into manageable bites. One of the earliest is the TBGA AM Maturity Model which describes the application requirements and necessary skills to adopt AM. I jokingly call Level 4 “Ninja Level AM”; it’s many groups’ goals, but we usually advocate for a progressive approach of targeting lower risk applications and growing skills over time to progress to higher maturity levels.

We can manage expectations with data (have we mentioned data yet?) and we do that with our process economic models. These models aren’t about the exact predicted price of a part but comparing one process to another and one form printer in the same class of printer. Most importantly, we take all the process steps to get to the final part. We deal in parts, not shapes (shapes emanate from a printer). We have designed exemplar parts which allow us to exercise how a type of printer deals with features, size, geometry, etc.

As you look out at the AM sector, how important is collaboration – up and down the supply chain and even between competitors – to advance technical capabilities and increase acceptance and adoption?

Laura: We like to think AM is special and different, but, when it comes to industrial system certification, it’s not special. It’s just another manufacturing process that needs to make a part repeatably and reliably. Adoption is paced by the Design Authority’s willingness and ability to assemble a plan to certify a system that is made using AM and the certification authority’s acceptance that the plan acceptably mitigates risk. The manufacturing situation is often further complicated by having a supply chain where the Design Authority is not the AM part manufacturer, therefore collaboration is essential. Two quotes come to mind that, when taken together, frame the challenge (paraphrased): “Gravity doesn’t care if you don’t believe in it,” (Clayton Christensen), meaning, certification doesn’t happen without doing the work. “Trust but verify,” (Ronald Reagan), meaning a couple of things; first, you can’t be a collaborator without trust, and second, you must bring data.

We’re hearing a lot about the need for AM-specific standards. How urgent is this and which standards would you like to see prioritized?

Laura: This is an interesting question. There is no doubt that producing parts requires specifications to define requirements and expectations. Our team of engineers has authored a lot of specifications over our careers. Industry-wide specifications, like the SAE AMS which are relied upon by the FAA, necessarily take time to create, because they are not company specific, require consensus, and must be worthy of trust by agencies like the FAA. There are 16 AMS powder specifications as compared to over 2,000 AMS bar specifications – so we have our work cut out for us! AM is still the teenager in the process family, but it isn’t an excuse. The industry succeeds when printers enable part manufacture. The part has requirements. I think what people mean by this “standards” problem is tied up in what is still not understood. Companies have and will continue to write their own specifications to ensure a repeatable, reliable process, but a supply chain who is trying to deliver to a potpourri of OEM specifications will struggle to deliver at a reasonable price point.

TBGA was an early member of the AMGTA. How important is the independent work of the AMGTA in convening members across the sector to address the most pressing issues impacting AM technology providers and users? 

Laura: Our team focuses on areas where we can make an impact. Mentoring, volunteering, and generally fostering the connection of people and ideas are ways TBGA is part of the fabric of the industry. We only have so many hours in a day, so where can we invest in them? We can either sit on the sidelines or we can be in the game; we want to see AMGTA use data and develop processes that help illuminate AM’s impact on sustainability. Like TBGA, AMGTA is independent and agnostic, and this must be true to carry out this important work.

Anything else you would like to share with the other AMGTA members and the broader manufacturing sector?

Laura: Mostly that we are here to help. We use data to create information and turn information into insights. The sustainability of a part is complex to determine and so we might ask first, “What problem are we solving?” Then we apply the classic program management triple constraint of schedule, scope, or cost. Sustainability could be considered the fourth, but you must choose one and optimize for the second.

Why is sustainability important to you personally?

Laura: I have two adolescent kids, and I believe my husband and I have a critical role to play. One is to be an adult who makes responsible decisions today that hopefully positively impact the world they’ll live in tomorrow. The second is to raise them to be environmentally conscious, to be intellectually curious, and to seek good sources of data. We are the proud owners of a new solar array, and it’s created a wonderful opportunity to discuss sustainability, energy supply chains, state legislation, and the balance between creating a financial win with doing the right thing.

The claims and views expressed in this Member Spotlight Interview are not necessarily those of the AMGTA, its staff, its Board of Directors, or member organizations. The AMGTA is not responsible for the content or accuracy of any information or claims provided as part of this Member Spotlight Interview and shall not be responsible for any decisions made based on such information.