Third-generation company Keech has launched its new subsidiary, Keech Advanced Manufacturing 3D, with plans to put Bendigo on the additive manufacturing map.
The group of companies, best known for its steel castings - which are used globally by some of the biggest mining firms - announced its plan to be a major provider of 3D printing technology to its region last year.
Its use of additive manufacturing goes back “three or four” years, according to CEO Herbert Hermens, and to experiments involving a Stratasys uPrint Plus.
The experiments were prompted by skills issues in the patternmaking subsidiary, BPM 3D Technologies, which was this year re-branded as Keech 3D.
“What became evident at the time was that a bottleneck in our organisation was our patternmaking business,” Hermens told Manufacturers’ Monthly at KAM 3D’s launch this Thursday.
It was hard to get enough patternmakers, and those who were suitable tended to be in the twilight of their careers.
“We started to investigate what are our options,” he said.
“CNC cutting of patterns? We’re already doing that, but it’s not fast enough. And it doesn’t allow us to do undercuts and all this sort of stuff. Wood patternmakers know how to do all this fancy stuff. And a CNC machine, even one with six axes, it just couldn’t do what we wanted to do. So that’s what became a dark alleyway.”
The company recognised 3D printing as suitable for patternmaking, and was excellent for reverse engineering old patterns through digital scanning.
The willingness to experiment with a novel solution was consistent with the company’s tradition of innovation and adaptation, believes Hermens, beginning with the third-generation, 80-year-old company’s founder Gordon Keech Senior.
“One of his first statements was ‘we will be an innovative organisation’,” said Hermens.
“Keech wouldn't be here today [without a willingness to change] because they would’ve gone under, the way a lot of foundries do, saying ‘we’re a foundry that does this. This is what we are.’
“But because this was structured within the organisation, where they’ve moved from making hand tools to making axes to making ground engaging tools to making stuff for the defence industry, for the rail industry, for the aeronautic industry.”
In the short-term, the company sees its additive manufacturing division as having great opportunities in prototyping and short-run manufacturing uses.
The launch of Keech’s new company was a step along a path from “local significance to global relevance,” according to Hermens.
Keech’s ambitions are high, with plans to be a major national supplier and then adding to its collection of the four machines currently up and running.
The most recent addition is the company’s Stratasys Fortus 900 mC, with a build envelope of 914 x 610 x 914 mm and the ability to print in several different materials. Its capacity fits with the company’s plans to target short-run production.
Hermens pointed out that investing so heavily in equipment (their collection of printers was acquired for about $1 million all up) was one thing, but engineering know-how was what provided value to those needing solutions.
“We’re not talking about technicians at machines, we’re talking at people with the input to get the maximum value out of it,” he said.
“We’ve spent a lot of time training these people, so that when a customer comes to us we can actually respond.”
Along with the new Fortus and old UPrint machines, the company has invested in a Mcor colour printer that uses paper as a feedstock, and an Objet 30 Pro photopolymer machine.
It received a little help last year through a $141,700 Investing in Manufacturing Technology grant from the Victorian government.
The state’s manufacturing minister David Hodgett said that the government co-investment was worthwhile, assisting the company to continue to innovate and create higher-value local jobs.
“So it has wonderful applications and it’s a local company here, it’s about the government supporting them in their manufacturing business here in Bendigo,” he told Manufacturers’ Monthly.
When asked if government at state and federal levels had a role to play in supporting the local industry, Hermens said that there definitely was, in areas including investing in education and research institutions, flexible labour laws, and helping local businesses to compete globally.
“It needs to make sure we’re supported by providing proper training facilities, they need to also make sure that there’s a facilitation to allow manufacturing to adapt and adopt the latest technology from anywhere and everywhere in the world,” he said.