Additive manufacturing a must for local companies, says expert

Though some have criticised the country’s level of public investment in additive manufacturing compared to the rest of the world, according to Professor Milan Brandt, our research institutions are home to a great deal of AM capability.

Brandt has been the Professor of Advanced Manufacturing at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology since 2010. He will give the opening keynote address on day two of the Inside 3D Printing conference (on Additive Manufacture: The Next Industrial Revolution).

He believes that the adoption of additive manufacturing is a must for local manufacturing companies, that the matter is urgent, and that facilities at research institutions (such as RMIT’s Advanced Manufacturing Precinct) should be examined by those in the industry.

“In terms of our interaction with industry here in the AMP, we try to demonstrate to industry what the benefits are of additive compared to subtractive or traditional manufacturing,” Brandt told Manufacturers’ Monthly.

“So we can look at developing their new product together with them and saw that testing is done and they’re confident they can meet the product specification or objectives.

“They can then buy their own machines and we can help them translate all the knowledge that was built in the research in their manufacturing.”

RMIT’s $25 million AMP was opened in 2011, and has a variety of polymer and metals-based additive manufacturing technologies.

Brandt – who is the lone Australian among the contributors singled out in the acknowledgements section of the bible for the global AM industry, Wohlers Report 2014 – notes that most of the investment in metal 3D printing technology is around Melbourne.

And the bulk of it is in research institutions, which Brandt believes have a crucial role to play in exposing local companies, particularly those with an export focus, to the technology.

There have been companies investing in metal additive manufacturing – such as Amaero Engineering, Brenco and Breseight Australia – though the take-up has been slower than elsewhere.

“No-one is really using it for production purposes,” said Brandt. “I think some are close, but no-one is making production parts.”

The precinct that Brandt is technical director of is concerned with research in aerospace, sports, automotive and bioengineering, with the latter a particularly interesting area for additive manufacturing.

PhD research at the university in collaboration with St Vincent’s Peter Choong (who will present at I3D on Wednesday) has developed what is called Just In Time Bone Specific implants.

“The idea being that the patient can be on the operating table and he can then cut the cancerous part out, we would scan that volume of the bone and print the part at the same time while the patient is on the operating table,” said Brandt.

The process creates custom bone sections made by direct metal deposition technology, and its application is in the removal and replacement of cancerous bone.

“We have a provisional patent on how we make these lattice structures,” said Brandt with noticeable pride.

The sections have a structure optimised to match stress and buckling criteria. If perfected, it would mean less tissue needed to be removed and would speed up recovery from the operation. Smaller parts can be created in around an hour, according to Brandt.

“This is really revolutionary in the sense that hospitals can really become manufacturing factories,” he said.

“So that’s not happening at the moment, but that’s where we’re going,” explained Brandt, who believes it will be a mere five to ten years before the JIT process is widespread.

Those behind the project believe it has great potential, with Melbourne’s strong reputation in biotechnology, as well as 15 major medical research institutions and seven teaching hospitals in the city.

Outside of bioengineering, Brandt is enthusiastic about the potential that can be brought to the local industry through additive manufacturing, and believes locally-based SMEs are of great value, both for commercialising the IP and creating opportunities here and for setting an example of what’s possible.

“Now I’m focussing very heavily on local companies with the potential to export,” he said.

“So we’re looking at companies like Rode Microphones. Or even the Australian Submarine Corporation. All these guys who are local but can use this technology in their products.”

Time is important, though, and the message is one of urgency.

When asked what might happen if local businesses don’t take up additive manufacturing and leave that to other countries, Brandt was blunt.

“This technology’s not going away. It is really growing,” he said.

“I think there is a limited window of opportunity. And if they don’t adopt it in some of their products they’ll be disappearing from the local scene.

“If the local companies don’t adopt this technology we’ll see a further decline in the manufacturing space.”