Industrial giant General Electric (GE) is one of the largest manufacturers of jet engines in the U.S. Recently its aviation division began producing engine parts with additive 3D printing done with lasers, a departure from traditional processes like casting and welding. Jet engine design is demanding, and the move is more evidence that this technology is getting advanced enough to be used in some of the most technical fields. In biomedical engineering, for example, researchers are experimenting with 3D printed bone.
Matt Langford is a formally trained sculptor who now does finishing work in a prototype lab at GE’s additive-manufacturing facility in Cincinnati, Ohio. For The Atlantic’s series of interviews with American workers, I spoke with Langford about his training as a sculptor, how he’s transitioned those skills as technology advances, and how American industries treat older workers. The interview that follows has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Adrienne Green: How did you get into working with technologies that print 3D objects?
Matt Langford: I went to college and studied art, and was fortunate to study with a fairly prominent sculptor of that time. After school, I tried the starving-artist routine for a while and eventually decided I needed to find some commercial work to make a decent living. I live in Cincinnati, so I had the toy maker Kenner/Hasbro in town. I had made some contacts there, and eventually I ended up working for freelance sculpting groups. I made a reasonable name for myself and had good business with Hasbro over the years, and also with many other toy companies. I worked on everything from Barbie to GI Joe, Star Wars, and Harry Potter. It was a fun occupation, and it was also nice putting my three-dimensional skills as an artist to use. I never stopped being a fine artist, and I would cultivate projects on the side to allow myself to still have a venue for my proper discipline.
Over the years, the industry changed. I hate to say it, but much of the sculpting work began to be done in Asia, and also there was a shift from physical sculpting to digital sculpting. I was able to learn the digital side of things and continue to make a living, but the field just continued to shrink. I realized that I was going to have to go knock on doors and find another way to make a living. I am a bronze sculptor, and I found an assignment with a group that was in need of metal finishers. That group, Morris Technologies, was eventually bought by General Electric and became the thrust of new additive technology.
I find myself using my skills in additive sculpting in similar ways to how I use them in sculpture. I'm in a prototype lab, and I'm helping this particular forward-thinking technology in terms of visualization. Whether we're talking sculpture or industry, it's very important for people to be able to visualize designs, to see them in three-dimensions and to be able to hold them. I work in polymers, which are light-sensitive resins. It's very similar to the metal additive process, which uses lasers. The difference is that the end product is essential a plastic. Rather than going straight to metal in the designs that are being developed, engineers want to see preliminary models so that they can test their dimensions before they go into the expense of production aspects, such as tooling and assembly. This just allows a rough draft to be produced.
Green: What was the transition from art to toy-making to additive technology like? Was adapting to changes in technology difficult?
Langford: I'm not a spring chicken anymore, so it was a little daunting to change my groove at the age of 50. I've always been adaptable. That's frankly born out of the discipline of being an artist, because you have to be adaptable to what is before you. I’m not an engineer. I don't claim to be one. Was it difficult? Yes, learning to sculpt in a computer after being a classically trained sculptor was not easy.
My skill level here has risen to the level that's required with regard to computers. I certainly can use them effectively. It's not necessarily the world I want to occupy. I still prefer hands-on work; I find it therapeutic. There are other aspects I could probably redirect myself toward, but my strategy has been to make myself available to what is needed. In the time that I've been here, I've been a metal finisher on high-end medical and aviation-related pieces, working in metallography. Now I'm in the polymer lab. This is fairly technical stuff.
Green: Did the pride you felt as a sculptor change as you had to adapt to skills you were unfamiliar with to find work? Did you feel valuable as your industry changed away from what you were trained in?
I found myself unemployed five years ago for the first time in my life. That was unsettling, but it was not undoing. There's a difference. I was able to pick the technology up. This position that I hold with this company was better than I would've imagined I could've found at the time that I was looking.
Green: Oftentimes, statistics show that it's more difficult for older Americans to make the types of transitions that you’ve made. What do you think that that says about how the skills of older generations are valued in an economy that prioritizes innovation?
I wouldn't say that I have had a linear career, or that anybody should follow my path. The only advice I would say is that I do have at least that sense of purpose. I think when you have a sense of purpose, you'll find an application. Do I have those times at night, when the empty feeling in my stomach says that the days may not bring what I need employment-wise? Yeah, just like anybody else. I'm human, and I have my doubts. I also have faith that I was created for a purpose, and I will not be denied if I make myself available to it.
Green: What are your thoughts on the future’s reliance on technology?
Langford: The computer age has brought an absolute social and existential transformation. I don't fear it, but I recognize it. I see in my daughter skills and tendencies that I don't have, simply because she's a child of this generation. I understand that there's always been that fear of displacement of people for applications. There is a heightened sense of it now: Computers have been such a revolution, and I call it ruthless efficiency. It is completely logical, and you cannot argue with it.
Business models tend to be very aware of the difference between human tendencies and the need for a self-perpetuating system. I'm like anybody else. I certainly do have reservations about the unintended consequences. Do computers bring gifts? Or, is there a price for that blessing? The good side of it is that history shows that people are adaptable to the situations that develop. So long as you're willing to go and apply yourself, I'm convinced that you can find a place within the economy.
Green: Has trying to keep up with that dynamic in your career changed the way you see your identity?
Langford: Yes, I think that how I’m applying my skills affects my identity. When I'm well-employed and well-applied, versus when I'm unemployed and questioning my worth—there is a difference. I recognize that time passes very quickly, and that I'm well on the way into seeing a lifespan pass. I honestly believe that my identity is beyond simply what I do and certainly rooted elsewhere. My identity is rooted in Christ, and in that, my fear is allayed by assurance that I have a purpose. I prefer to have the satisfaction of feeling that I'm a contributor.
This interview is a part of a series about the lives and experiences of members of the American workforce, which includes conversations with a medical illustrator, a cartographer, and an architectural designer.