High-performance heat exchangers could be a new sweet spot application for metal additive manufacturing. Brent Balinski spoke to Conflux Technology founder Michael Fuller about an Australian-born innovation that’s getting worldwide attention.
For all the excitement and promise around metal additive manufacturing, solid business cases involving expensive AM machines and what they produce have been generally rare so far. This is especially so in Australia.
However, we may be closer to seeing a local “killer app” for the technology, with one startup making great progress in only a year on automotive heat exchangers. And the world is beginning to take notice.
According to Michael Fuller, a former Formula 1 engineer and founder of Conflux Technology, this is an application that is ripe for reinvention through additive manufacturing.
The design freedom offered by layer-by-layer printing and the ability to lightweight a high-value part match the possibilities of metal AM.
“We’re able to achieve structural efficiencies so that we have light weight, we’ve got surface area density efficiencies because of the geometric freedoms – so we’ve got good thermal exchange – and our fluid pathways allow us to achieve a good compromise between pumping losses and thermal exchange,” he told Manufacturers’ Monthly.
“So you can have this high surface area density to fluid volume ratio, which is quite a key fundamental with heat exchangers.”
Heat exchange is an area that hasn’t seen significant innovation in two decades, believes Fuller. He plans to use his concept to test where manufacturing might head in the future as metal AM technology matures and becomes more widespread.
“Having designed lots of high-tech parts in F1 for other people over many years, you generally have a reasonable idea about whether a design is worthy of further exploration or not,” said Fuller.
“So going through feasibility calculations, not doing too much advanced simulation but keeping a high-level feasibility, I then looked at the potential supply partnerships that are in Melbourne and the ecosystem and Amaero was suggested to me by a colleague at one of the universities.”
The results have been compelling enough to push the case further, following six one-month-long iteration cycles, using Monash University spinout Amaero Engineering as a prototyping service. This was assisted by a Victorian government technology voucher grant.
Additive manufacturing might’ve reached its “tipping point” in about 2012 or so as far as media attention is concerned, but it is old news for the automotive industry.
It’s certainly old news for the super-early-adopter, high-stakes world of F1 racing, where anything that might give a team the edge will be considered.
In this case, it’s been used in ways to squash manufacturing time and enables more time to be spent with design before this is frozen for tooling.
Fuller got his first design engineer job at Reynard in 2000 and began his career in F1 with the Super Aguri team in 2005, before stints at BMW Sauber, Sauber Motorsport AG and the Mercedes-AMG team.
A turning point was in 2008-2009, when two family tragedies forced Fuller to re-examine his priorities.
“I made the decision that I didn’t need to muck around with racing cars so much,” he said.
“I moved permanently back to Australia and started consulting.”
This took him back and forth to Europe, before his consulting work ended up purely in Australia, within the university sector.
The focus recently has been on bringing Conflux to the world together with his three co-founders.
The opportunity in heat exchangers is huge. A Research and Markets report has valued it at nearly $US12 billion globally in 2013, with the market predicted to grow at 6 per cent a year (CAGR) to $US 18 billion in 2020.
Thanks partly to a recent profile in Future Crunch, the world is beginning to take notice of the ex-F1 engineer’s idea.
A re-tweet of the article by Netscape co-founder and Silicon Valley venture capital guru Marc Andreessen led to Fuller being invited to present at the GSV Pioneer Summit in October.
“Within 12 hours I was invited to Silicon Valley,” recalled Fuller.
Fuller is the only confirmed Australian presenter so far, and will make his speech at the event – dedicated to transformative technologies and industries – alongside guests including the former VP of Engineering at Twitter, the CEO of Evernote and others.
GSV Capital is also co-investor with Andreessen Horowitz (Andreessen’s multi-billion VC firm) and took note soon after that fateful re-tweet.
“We then learned more about the core technology behind his metal additive 3D printing and believe that it may have a transformative impact across multiple markets,” Alec Wright, Startup Director at GSVlabs and co-chair of the summit, told Manufacturers’ Monthly.
Fuller will present to Silicon Valley executives and investors, not just on heat exchangers, but on predictions regarding how additive manufacturing could eventually decentralise and reshape manufacturing in general.
Many have predicted supply chains being radically transformed, with manufacturing brought closer to the point of consumption in many cases. Labour costs will become less important, and engineering capabilities more so.
Fuller hopes to test the hypothesis out with Conflux, which he hopes will ramp up to serial production of 10,000 heat exchangers a year.
“What I’m most interested in with this is showing and demonstrating the applicability of the technology, to say that we are ready to do serial production of metal additive manufacturing and to test out this idea of the democratisation of the manufacturing method,” he said.
“For example, metal additive manufacturing machine purchased in China costs the same as a machine purchased in Australia, nominally.”