CSIRO: more companies should adopt metal-based additive manufacturing

The CSIRO’s Lab 22 is part of an effort to get Australian industry up to speed with metal additive manufacturing. Brent Balinski spoke to the innovation centre’s research director, Alex Kingsbury.

Those interested in Australia’s future with metal additive manufacturing received two pieces of good news late last month.

Funding for the long-awaited Innovative Manufacturing CRC – which lists additive manufacturing processes as one of its key research themes – received the green light from Federal Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane.

The same week – during National Manufacturing Week, in fact – also saw the CSIRO officially launch its well-equipped, $6 million Lab 22, concerned with 3D printing, particularly in metals.

According to Alex Kingsbury (pictured), CSIRO's Research Group Leader in Additive Manufacturing, AM in metals is badly in need of a kick along.

“We’re lagging,” she told Manufacturers’ Monthly recently.

“Europe and the US are a good five to ten years ahead of us.”

However, there is a lot of potential, particularly when it comes to the possibilities in 3D printing with titanium.

The CSIRO has adapted and refined its Ore to More strategy over the last few years. The country’s reserves of titanium ore – in mineral sands deposits concentrated along the east coast and from southern WA up to Geraldton – and we lead the world in Ilmenite, Rutile and Zircon deposits.

This potential hasn’t been realised in anything much more significant than in producing Titanium Dioxide, the brilliantly white pigment in everything from toothpaste to road markings.

The CSIRO-developed TiRo process for Titanium powder production has been handed over to Coogee Chemicals, which is scaling TiRo up and moving it through the technology readiness levels.

At the other end of the processing scale, the research organisation is working to expose more companies to making things with Titanium and more.

“We work in Titanium a lot, with the new printers, and with the Level 3 training on the Arcam machine,” said Kingsbury.

“We’ve been able to diversify a little bit and work on other metals as well.”

Since the Arcam electron beam melting unit arrived in 2012 (not long after Kingsbury, who did evaluation work on the machine and has been involved with additive manufacturing ever since) it has been used for a number of applications with the high-value, lightweight metal.

Some of these were quite whimsical, such as a blue dragon for a young girl from Brisbane, while others have offered more solid commercial potential, such as custom lugs for high-end bikes and a device to treat sleep apnoea for Oventus.

Australia may currently lag in manufacturing with 3D printing in titanium and other metals, but there’s a real chance to generate industrial wealth from it.

“We’ve certainly got an incredible skills base here in the auto industry and we have fantastic product design happening in Melbourne and elsewhere in Australia,” said Kingsbury.

“Australia is very strong in product design. We have product design, we have R&D expertise, so if you buy a machine I think you’ll be pretty well supported.”

CSIRO’s role in this is exposing businesses to Lab 22’s arsenal of additive manufacturing machines, where these can be trialled – minus the worries about capital expenditure or depreciation – for a modest fee. There are three tiers of engagement available with Kingsbury’s lab.

It already has four businesses signed up, including Keech Advanced Manufacturing 3D, which was the first business to do so (and which won Technology Application of The Year at the Endeavour Awards for its adoption of polymer 3D printing).

Group sponsored projects begin this year, with co-operation on the challenge of powder production to begin 2016. Particle quality is just one part in the notoriously difficult process of 3D printing with all kinds of metals.

“We’re trying to get something that looks like Cheezels to look like something that looks like sand,” said Kingsbury.

Kickstarting projects and tackling real-world problems fits in with the CSIRO’s more industry-focussed and externally-focussed approach under the current government, for example with its new CEO announcing last October that the “I” would be put back in CSIRO.

Similarly, The Future Manufacturing Flagship to which Lab 22 is now more focussed on industry’s immediate problems. It was also renamed the Manufacturing Flagship in last July’s restructure.

What became of the “Future”?

“It’s about helping manufacturing now,” said Kingsbury.

“And I think that’s really what we’ve been trying to focus a lot on, with Lab 22. We can do R&D to solve problems that people are going to have in five years.

“We still do that with the big global companies that are really interested in solving these problems and want to be able to work five years ahead – ten years ahead, even. But, for our local industry now – they’re not asking the questions, because I don’t even have the machines, and they don’t have the machines because they’re not at that stage yet.

“So we need to be much more focussed on how we help local industry. And that’s really what’s been the impetus behind Lab 22.”

Manufacturers engaging with researchers will continue to be a hot issue in Australia, as will the adoption of 3D printing in metals.

The sector for metal AM is growing quickly, with sales of production machines up 54.7 per cent last year, according to the authoritative Wohlers Report 2015.

We’re late into the game, but Australia has already contributed some reportedly world-first applications in the aerospace and biomedical sectors. There’s also a wealth of expertise and capability, particularly around Melbourne, at the CSIRO, as well as at Monash University, RMIT and Swinburne University.

“It’s really seen as a perfect opportunity for Australia,” said Kingsbury.

“There’s no reason we can’t play catch-up, because we absolutely can.”

 

Companies wanting to visit Lab 22 can follow this link or call 03 9545 8614

Images: CSIRO