3D printing is the key as Australia looks beyond mining

They say that 3D printing is an overnight success 15 years in the making (P. Fu) and as a participant in its development going back to 1996 it has been fun and frustrating to be a part of.

The program that we run at CSIRO is very focussed owing to limited resources and a late start to the technology.

Our primary interest is in metallic additive manufacturing (or 3D printing in layman’s terminology, 3DP if you’re awesome) and within that space we developed a 2+1 strategy.

The 2 represents our need to be globally relevant in scientific research and the +1 recognizes that Australian industry does not necessarily need cutting edge research to understand when and where to use 3DP.

We have not emphasized plastics given that in general the plastics side of 3DP is years ahead of metals in maturity.

LAB22 is the name we gave to CSIRO’s facility for 3DP. We joke that it is like Area 51, just smaller. In LAB22 we primarily look at feedstocks for 3DP and simulation of the deposition.

My group’s external revenue mainly comes from overseas to the tune of about 90%. This helps me justify that we are globally relevant because we are a long way away.

As we have become more known and as the technology proliferates in Australia we have had some notable successes, specifically the therapy horse shoe, fish tags, Flying Machine bespoke push bikes and the Oventus sleep apnoea device.

We decided to work in feedstock, which means metallic powder in this context because we have a special strength in metallic powder processing at CSIRO. We have novel production methods which produce titanium more directly from the ore (which we lead the world in) and its output is powder like.

We also evaluated the cost of operation and the top 3 cost drivers are: (1) Labour, (2) Depreciation and (3) Feedstock – so we saw a natural opening where we could make a difference.

Titanium Powder[Pictured alongside: Titanium powder manufactured by CSIRO's TiRO™ process.]

Today we are coming up with new sources of powder which cost dramatically less and have devised new techniques to qualify powders for use in 3DP equipment. In fact we are trying to completely alter the way industry looks at specifying metal powders for use in 3DP.

We primarily are looking at titanium powders but recently have begun to look at new materials which stand to benefit from the advantages of 3DP but don’t enjoy widespread success because they are expensive or heavy or difficult to machine.

Refractory metals have all of these attributes but have some pretty phenomenal properties. 3DP can enable these materials to affordable if you print less, requiring little to no machining which necessarily makes them much lighter.

The second area of research we have been active in is simulating the process such that we can predict things like distortion due to thermal gradients.

The 3DP process is very dynamic and materials like titanium do not respond well to being at different temperatures and as a result can distort requiring stress relief during the build. This means added schedule, added cost and more room for mistakes to most people.

Our new tool, developed jointly with Boeing, allows us to very accurately predict distortion on large deposits so much so that we now use it to manage the deposition process based on the part geometry.

As best we can tell, we lead the world in this area and it mainly stems from the experience our researchers have in casting and welding.

CSIRO 3D printed horse shoesOur Industry engagement has been frustrating and rewarding at the same time. Australian manufacturing is quite diverse and made up of a lot of small businesses.

We run a lot of workshops, present at a lot of functions. We have also done some more light-hearted experiments like dragons for seven year olds and purple titanium horseshoes for Melbourne Cup – which have gained serious attention and provided insight into what is possible in 3DP.

We try to tell companies that 3DP can make a difference throughout the product development cycle, from prototypes to tools to shop aids and even final parts and sub components.

Since we opened our doors in 2012 we have an increasing flow of people through the lab – 120 in 2012, 230 in 2013 and thus far in 2014 we’re on a pace to have 400.

We’ve produced over 700 objects for 50+ entities, most of whom were industry. We are even making limited production components for people until a commercial enterprise can be self sustaining running the machine we have.

Recently, we have launched the Additive Manufacturing Network – the hub for all things additive and we are now in talks to hand that over to the manufacturing group AMTIL as a place for companies to learn what “it” is, who’s who and a bridge between the researchers and industry within Australia.

The initiative that I am most proud of the CSIRO Titanium Challenge now in its fourth year. The Challenge is focussed at university students to help promote their knowledge of 3DP and also titanium.

If they can show a novel product that benefits from being printed in titanium that makes any kind of business case with a simple explanation of its innovativeness they will win a 3D Systems Cube personal printer.

The Challenge is now self sustaining due to generous companies like 3D Systems, Boeing, Coogee Chemicals and the International Titanium Association.

In short, the only thing keeping Australia from being a powerhouse in 3D Printing is people. We have the natural resources, the national wealth and the talent. It simply needs to be channelled and focused to go from ore to more.

[John E. Barnes is Leader, CSIRO Titanium Technologies and Adjunct Professor, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. Follow him on twitter: @JohnBarnesAM]