Australian industry takes its next step into metal-based additive manufacturing

The newly-launched research hub based at Monash University aims to help Australia’s industry make the leap into the fast-approaching age of metal additive manufacturing. Brent Balinski spoke to the hub’s leader, Monash University’s Professor Xinhua Wu, about where Australia’s potential exists.

The demand for additive manufacturing (or 3D printing, depending on your preference) using metal powders is growing rapidly.

Consider that last year the number of metal-based production systems sold increased 75.8 per cent, according to May’s Wohlers Report.

And the quality of what’s being made from machines, though there’s room for improvement, is going up rapidly.

“In some ways metals have come further in 10 years than the plastics have come in 25 years,” Terry Wohlers, founder of consultancy Wohlers Associates and an authority on global trends in 3D printing, told this magazine in June.

Professor Xinhua Wu, who heads the Australian Research Council Hub for Transforming Australia’s Manufacturing Industry through High Value Additive Manufacturing, believes that there are two areas where the high-value potential of melted, printed metals are most obvious: aerospace and biomedical.

The future is looking up for metal 3D printing in these two industries, for reasons including the biocompatibility of titanium alloys, the rapid customisation for batches as small as one, the ability to lightweight, and minimal waste of (often expensive) materials.

The $9 million hub – funded through $4 million from the ARC and the rest through a host of industry partners including Safran-Microturbo SAS, Metallica Minerals and Amaero Engineering – is already booked solid well into 2015.

Its first three projects will be a civilian engine product with Microturbo/Safran, the second on customer-specific medical implants and instruments, and the third a stirling engine generator with International Seal Company Australia. 

“I think it’s a wonderful idea for Australia, because Australia has so many remote areas,” Wu told Manufacturers’ Monthly.

“If you have a cheap, small engine to put in your garage and generate power anywhere in the world, I think that’s pretty good.”

Wu, who also initiated Monash Centre for Advanced Manufacturing (M-CAM, opened in February last year), moved from the UK to head the ARC Centre of Excellence for Design in Light Metals (comprising 100 researchers from six universities)

So influential is her work that, according to a profile in Monash Magazine, European companies – including SAFRAN, the European Space Agency and Airbus – followed her to Victoria.

Wu’s research is mainly new high-temperature alloys, and in new manufacturing processes such as laser additive manufacturing and hot isostatic pressing (HIPing) of near-net shape items.

The research the hub will focus on will include, says its proposal, “the effects of non-equilibrium solidification, process optimisation to achieve quality, consistency and repeatability, and new user-friendly design tools to realise the benefit of free-form manufacturing.”

Wu said that titanium part surface finish can be optimised, but only up to a point (though polishing is easy enough).

Current repeatability issues tend to be around larger parts created by blown powder additive manufacturing. For smaller items made by a powder bed, things are looking good.

“I have a partner in China; they’ve been doing aerospace education for aircraft applications,” she said.

“They have done more than 2,000 samples and the repeatability is fantastic. For a powder bed, repeatability is not the issue at all, if you have a high-quality powder and understand what you’re doing.

“So repeatability is not a problem to meet international aerospace standards for flying.”

The Monash Centre has some of the best facilities in the world, according to its leader.

There’s a Concept Laser Xline 1000R machine, with a build envelope of 600 x 400 x 500 mm, which is the biggest selective laser melting machine in the world. Monash’s unit, Wu proudly notes, was the first ever to be installed and operational (though was the second purchased overall).

The capability of the machine is important, but so too is the expertise that surrounds it.

“We have customers from the US and Europe: all the big names like Boeing and Airbus and GE and Raytheon and Safran all come because of our big machine and the capability; nobody else has it.

“But on the other hand I think it’s important for those customers – one of the reasons those customers come here is because of our centre’s material innovation. So we do fundamental research and apply research to achieve the mechanical properties required for each component and each different material.”

The main challenges the new industrial transformation hub have are around getting the word out to manufacturers who could benefit from metal additive manufacturing and limited capacity.

The need to raise awareness and “educate the market” about the benefits of additive manufacturing are frequently mentioned by companies looking to sell 3D printing machines, but they are real all the same.

“Training is basically educating the society and the workforce so they recognise what the technology can do, how they can apply it to their products, and they can redesign their products to create much [more] value – to become more competitive,” explained Wu.

“…It’s extremely important to let people, especially engineers, understand what they can do to change their products.”

In terms of access to metal additive manufacturing for that education (and to try out new concepts) availability is scarce, and, like the aerospace, tends to be centred in Victoria.

Australia’s investment in additive manufacturing is small compared to the United States and Singapore.

“We do need to have investment to buy more machines and better machines,” said Wu.

“At this moment our machines are fully booked until next April. And we are now rejecting business because we don’t have enough machine time to provide the products.”

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