3D printing to thrive during COVID-19 and beyond

It is a common belief that you can make almost anything you want when it comes to 3D printing.

Bits and pieces ranging from a splint for a broken arm, a bulldozer part that has split or cracked, to a malfunctioning part on a navy ship patrolling high seas in the Middle East, can be remade with relative ease compared to a traditional replacement.

The 3D printing process, also known as additive manufacturing, is currently being adopted to solve some of Australia’s supply shortages during COVID-19.

Industry organisations such as the Innovative Manufacturing CRC (IMCRC), CSIRO and industrial-scale additive manufacturing company Titomic are at the forefront of promoting 3D printing technologies and advocating for its growth.

IMCRC CEO David Chuter said 3D printing, particularly for plastics, has never been more relevant.

“I think there’s a much greater awareness, certainly in the media, of many companies who are mobilising for help with very quick manufacturing of products in Australia that would not be possible without 3D printing,” he said.

“The ability to have 3D printing means you can respond to manufacturing needs in very short-term time frames.”

The ability to 3D-print unique products for customers in real time such as hospitals to support health care and making bottle tops for hand sanitiser has been provided “huge opportunity” for competition in the domestic market, according to Chuter.

3D printing, particularly for plastics, has never been more relevant, IMCRC CEO David Chuter says. Image credit: IMCRC

“The challenge in the plastics space is to make a traditional injection mould tool takes several weeks of design and manufacture before you can your first part,” he said.

“You can make one part, refine the design, make the second part and really optimise the design very, very quickly to get products into market, and that’s been really under the spotlight in terms of responding to the COVID-19 crisis.”

The South East Melbourne Manufacturers Alliance (SEMMA), a peak industry group representing manufacturers in Melbourne’s south east, has been calling for better government policy and decision making to maintain viable manufacturing.

In a statement released in April, SEMMA CEO Vonda Fenwick said a greater contribution by the manufacturing sector towards the country’s GDP will create strong economic growth to drive the creation of well paid, high value jobs.

“To ensure that our collective focus remains fixed upon the manufacturing ‘engine room’ of our economy, we recommend implementation of national targets to increase the manufacturing contribution to GDP from the current 6.9 per cent to 10 per cent by 2025 and minimum 15 per cent or better by 2035,” she said.

Recently, Australian health care brand Asaleo Care began 3D printing, pushing tubes on-site for their own assembly lines.

Challenges posed by coronavirus meant freight for the tubes, which were normally Swiss-made and imported, went into shutdown.

Another example of a company to take advantage of 3D printing is Australian manufacturer of metal-based AM technology, Speed3D.

Together with Charles Darwin University, they formed the Advanced Manufacturing Alliance (AMA) in 2017 to train soldiers how to design and print parts from computer-aided design (CAD) software.

Printers make metal parts by leveraging metal cold spray technology to produce industrial-quality parts in just minutes, rather than days or weeks.

The process harnesses the power of kinetic energy, rather than relying on high-power lasers and expensive gasses, which allows 3D metal printing in the field at affordable costs.

The program aims to increase parts available to the army compared to what the regular supply chain can provide.

Lab22 provides research and technology expertise to manufacturers using metal additive manufacturing in their daily operations. Image credit: CSIRO

The CSIRO has continued working on products as part of an ongoing partnership with Titomic during the COVID-19 pandemic.

CSIRO research program director, Dr Leon Prentice, said although the speed and efficiency of 3D printing meant tools are more accessible, people thought the process was simpler than it actually was.

“If you want something to be really robust and tough and you want it out of metal in particular, the machines are more complicated,” he said.

“To make it into a manufacturing process, into something that’s useful, and particularly something that can be certified or structurally sound or applicable for purpose, can be a more difficult process.”

The CSIRO works on certification and control of processes with manufacturers so businesses can make what they intend to make.

Prentice said a big part of the CSIRO’s focus is helping 3D manufacturing become additive manufacturing.

“One of the big advantages of added manufacturing is you can change your part with each one that you make,” he said. “It can be customised even down to the individual person or application.

The CSIRO has been working with Titomic on a $2.6 million project to develop cold spray technology and looking at ways to build large structures ­– in some cases up to 36 metres long – from the process.

“The beauty of this process is you can do all sorts of creative things and change your composition of your material,” Prentice said.

“Either inside to out, or along its length, you can just shift what you’re doing, and you’ve got all the design flexibility of adding material in.”

CSIRO’s Lab22 is working on exciting future developments to underpin a growing metallic additive manufacturing sector, such as new innovative materials and additive manufacturing techniques for the Space, Defence and Medical Industries. Image credit: CSIRO

Titomic managing director Jeff Lang said factors that attracted him to cold spray technology was the reduced carbon footprint and machine time.

“One of the luxuries we’ve had with cold spray is that we’re not limited to using expensive powder that is required in normal 3D printing,” he said.

In 2010, Lang’s company began collaborating with the CSIRO produce large volumes of titanium powder. The project was supported by federal and state governments, as well as funding from industry partners.

“Our job was to look at how we can use large volumes of titanium powder in additive manufacturing processes,” Lang said.

Lang said the company focused on cold spray because it was a technology that had been used for more than 30 years, and already had been validated in high-level areas and in other applications as a repair process.

“No-one ever considered it for additive manufacturing for building a part up,” he said.

He believes although traditional 3D printing is “amazing”, it is “notoriously slow and costly” when compared to modern additive manufacturing.

“It’s something like 10 times the cost of traditional subtractive manufacturing, where you might have a block of metal, but you then machine away at the material to get to the finished part,” he said.

While metals 3D printing was adopted quickly in the medical space for products such as orthopaedic implants, the additive manufacturing process has produced complex and strong products from materials like titanium.

Titomic has continued to operate a number of projects during COVID-19. Image credit: Titomic

“One of the patented technologies we licensed off CSIRO was the process that uses continuous titanium pipes but directly from the powder without process,” Lang said.

Such forms of manufacturing are considered hard to produce using other traditional methods.

“Those companies that have been early adopters of 3D printing will be the ones most able to respond quickly to find not just opportunity in a crisis,” Chuter said.

“I see that heralds a very significant growth and future for 3D printing in Australia as part of a major activity to rebuild manufacturing capabilities and local supply chains in our country.”

He said companies where additive manufacturing has been a long-time process will actually help with building supply chains in Australia.

Lang said innovation in cold spray technology has opened up new areas of engineering.

“We’re seeing more and more applications for this technology where we can peer two similar metals or two dissimilar metals together,” he said.

“I think we’re well and truly on the path of going about the right way in certifications.

“There’s a lot of people in traditional engineering, certainly in aerospace engineering, that think basically 3D printing is a bit of a scam, and it was never going to achieve what they want.”

Titomic is focused on the industrial scale of the manufacturing that is comparative with traditional.

“A lot of our patents actually done both with the CSIRO and independently ourselves, are patents around multi-metal,” Lang said.

“You can have a part that might have more than one metal in it and combined layers, which can’t be done any other way, we can use a late melt metal with a high melt metal.

“All of a sudden that opens up huge opportunities for the next generation of mechanical engineers or aerospace engineers to look at new ways to of dong it.”

The company has continued to operate under COVID-19 with the US Department of Defence.

At a time when businesses struggle to get “normal quantities” of parts, Titomic has found opportunity with disruption to the current supply chain.

“We’ve got a lot of new interest now from nuclear industries within nuclear power generation,” Lang said. “They also use a huge amount of titanium pipes, and we’re very heavily reliant upon China for that supply chain.”

Titomic has also made use of the new technology for creating carbon fibre parts for sustaining commercial aircraft production and currently has a partnership with Airbus.

“One of the key limited capabilities with our technology is not only can we build parts very fast, and to structural requirements,” he said, “we can peer two very similar metals together, which you can’t do on normal melt base process.”

Prior processes to join two metals together by welding involved a trade-off on the melt temperature being very similar.

Lang said it was important that advanced technology is still relevant to traditional manufacturing.

“I think what I’m proud of the most is out Australian ingenuity, we’ve got that pioneering spirit, but more importantly, we’re very focused on sustainable manufacturing and growing our technologies.”