Exciting, fast-paced, hard graft: how one postgraduate student landed a career of the future
“For me, going into work every morning is the best feeling because I don’t necessarily know what I’m going to make, create, or get out of the day. But the potential of that space is huge.”
Mark Chester, Product Development Specialist, Manchester Met’s PrintCity Network Programme.
The way that things are designed and made is changing. CAD (computer aided design) and 3D printing (also known as additive or digital manufacturing) aren’t new but what is new is how accessible this tech has become. This is revolutionising what’s possible, creating opportunities for innovation in any sector. And it’s a market that is expected to more than double in size within five years, reaching an estimated value of £28.4 billion by 2026.
It’s within this fast-moving field that Mark Chester, who completed an MSc in Digital Design and Manufacturing* at Manchester Metropolitan University, now finds himself.
This is his story.
A love of design
From an early age, Mark made things: “From Lego to K’NEX, I loved toys that allowed me to experiment and build,” he explains. “As I grew older, I was inspired by great designers from history, engineers like Brunel who left such a vast legacy in the UK. And for me, that was really a big driver. If I became a designer, maybe I could make an impact on someone’s life in a meaningful way – that would be my goal.”
Mark went on to do a BA (Hons) in Product Design at York St John University. Alongside his studies, he took a part-time job as a designer for a playground company. He posted about his design work on social media, which led to becoming a student ambassador for the company Autodesk, whose CAD software Mark was using. He then applied to become one of their certified instructors which meant he could run training on their software at universities and schools around the country. “At the time I was in my third year of uni so I wanted to do anything I could to make me stand out from other students,” he explains.
A playground for creativity
It was for one of these training sessions that Autodesk sent Mark to a brand-new centre for 3D printing – Manchester Met’s PrintCity. “It was a completely unique space, like a playground for someone like me,” says Mark, “so, when I found out they did an MSc course, I was immediately interested because I knew these technologies were becoming a big thing and I’d realised what I learnt as an undergraduate wasn’t enough.”
Mark began his masters. As well as the facilities and the teaching, Mark particularly valued the people he studied alongside: “We had someone from business, another from textiles and we had engineers on the course,” he explains. “It gives you a fresh perspective on what you’re making. So, you could go up to somebody and say, well, what do you think of this? And they might have a completely different way of thinking.”
Life skills and side projects
One module required students to arrange visits to companies, to learn how and why they did (or didn’t) use digital technologies. They then presented back on what they’d learned. Mark says this really helped his technical understanding and gave him valuable life and career skills.
But he also wanted to create his own ideas, side projects beyond the scope of the course. A lecture on Generative Design (which uses a computer algorithm to produce ideas) sparked Mark’s interest and he decided to create something to showcase just what this technology could do. He explains: “If you were trying to get a delivery from the very bottom of England to the very top, computational design might find the best route by car. But generative design enables you to find the best route going any number of ways – car, bus, plane, boat, anything – to find the best one. It then analyses it in ways you ask it to, such as the quickest, most cost-effective, most environmentally friendly route. It can come up with hundreds of ideas, some that maybe no-one has previously thought of.”
A tweet that turned into a trip to San Francisco
Mark decided to create an everyday object using generative design that pushed the boundaries of what you’d normally expect. He chose a bench to sit on, one that was solid and reliable, but with extraordinary features. The result was an intricate web of skeleton-like structures that supported the seat, off to one side instead of bearing weight at each end. It was something that could never have been designed by hand and the result was artistic, unique, and bold.
Mark 3D printed a small-scale prototype using a Formlabs Form 3 and shared it on social media, asking the question ‘which side would you sit on, and would you trust it?’ His idea attracted attention. Then, something he didn’t expect happened: Stephen Hooper, Vice President and General Manager of Fusion 360, the Autodesk software he created the bench in, commented, saying ‘We need to make this!’.
This was the catalyst for a chain of events which, with support from Manchester Met and Autodesk, gave Mark the opportunity to travel to the USA to visit their headquarters in San Francisco and their design lab in Chicago. “It was absolutely crazy. It was a small project I was just doing for my own personal development and somebody like Stephen had such a belief in it that they wanted to take it up,” remembers Mark who describes the trip as an incredible experience and a dream come true.
Stephen Hooper of Fusion 360 remembers this as he explains: “When I first saw Mark Chester’s generatively designed bench, I was instantly impressed, not only with the level of creativity but by the unique application of our technology to create a concept so different, yet so appealing.
Great design challenges convention in an elegant way and there are few better examples than this.
Fusion 360’s mission is to converge the worlds of design and make to help users imagine and create the impossible, so when I saw Mark’s design, I was compelled to offer the help of our manufacturing facilities in Birmingham to bring his design to life. The results speak for themselves.”
Getting the bench manufactured wasn’t easy because of its complex design. Autodesk contacted US-based company Aristo Cast who took up the challenge. The bench was 3D printed in sections. These were cast using a manufacturing method called investment casting, which involved a plastic sand-like material which was melted away leaving cavities to pour metal into. This then had to be cut into six different sections to be shipped over to the UK and assembled into a bench at Autodesk’s Birmingham facility.
New opportunities for Greater Manchester businesses
Following his success with the bench, and after graduating, Mark secured a job at Manchester Met where he describes the last two years as ‘exciting, fast-paced and hard graft.’ His biggest professional achievement to date has been setting up the PrintCity Network Programme which helps businesses of any size or sector in Greater Manchester to explore using digital manufacturing technologies.
“We’ve received £3.2million match funding between European Regional Development Fund and Manchester Metropolitan University, of which we’ve invested £800,000 into a new space, purchasing new equipment, getting it installed and getting trained on it and I’ve managed that whole process”, explains Mark.
The ambition is to create new products, processes or services that are new to the company, but also hopefully new to the market. “And then,” Mark adds, “if they start to embed this technology, it might lead to the creation of new jobs, which is obviously great for the region and for providing opportunities for young people like myself or those looking for a change of career.”
Potential, sustainability and opportunity
During the Covid crisis, 3D printing came into its own when people started printing face shields for the NHS and care workers. And while no-one knows exactly where the technology will lead, Mark is excited by the possibility of 3D printing houses and even human organs or body parts. He talks enthusiastically about the potential for improving sustainability, for example a PrintCity research project (CIRMAP) is looking at taking demolition waste and reprocessing it as concrete, via 3D printing. “It’s a really fascinating space and there are lots of different opportunities out there,” he says.
Mark believes going back to university to do the masters at Manchester Met was “probably one of the best decisions that I’ve ever made in my life so far. At times I wasn’t sure that it was the right thing to do, but I have no idea where I’d be now if I hadn’t done it.”
And his message to anyone interested in this field? “Don’t worry if you’re not sure it’s for you – anyone from any background can engage with this technology. Contact us at PrintCity to find out more about studying here – it could be the catalyst for everything you do next. “And if you run a business, get in touch to explore what these fantastic machines could do for you.”
As for that bench? It’s been donated back to the university where it will be placed on campus to inspire students, staff, and visitors to find out more about the remarkable technology that helped create it.
Thank you to Autodesk and Aristo Cast for making the bench a reality.