Hype, reality and potential: metal additive manufacturing in Australia

Professor Milan Brandt, Technical Director of RMIT’s Advanced Manufacturing Precinct and the Director of its Centre for Additive Manufacturing, discusses the adoption, limitations, and potential of metal-based additive manufacturing systems. By Brent Balinski.

“There are really very early examples of – the companies are simply exploring this technology,” said RMIT’s Professor Milan Brandt.

The director of RMIT’s Centre for Additive Manufacturing noted that while there had been some AM success stories at this early stage, adoption within Australia’s industry had been slow overall.

“In terms of research we’ve delivered a prototype, we’ve delivered reports, but they have to do their own business case,” he said of some recent cases. “And that’s where things stop.”

Brandt, who will give the keynote address at Manufacturers’ Monthly’s first Factories of The Future event, told us that his facility had never had more enquiries regarding metal-based AM than in the last 12 months.

But the technology – which is transformative as well as much-hyped – hasn’t been something Australian manufacturers had invested in, with business cases of local companies often failing when brought to the board level.

The Professor will discuss real-world topics such as when a business should and shouldn’t invest in 3D printing equipment, hype versus limitations, and other unsexy-but-nonetheless-very-important topics such as reliability issues with metal-based systems.

In terms of metal 3D printing, monitoring and inspection are still issues, despite developments in various methods (which are very much stochastic processes, adds Brandt.)

“You might get a vapour, a pore or lack of fusion, and you have no control because you’re not monitoring anything,” he said of one barrier to creating ideal parts for critical applications.

“The other one is the properties of the structures, the internal stresses in the parts. So you have to then look at strategies to mitigate the stress, from the design perspective or from the path – the laser or electron beam path – because depending on the way you’re building, the stresses will be different.”

A novel and incredibly promising use of the technology using titanium alloy has been developed by an RMIT research team led by Brandt.

Collaborating with surgeon Professor Peter Choong of St Vincent’s, the team’s Just In TIme patient specific implant method replaces bone lost through operations to remove osteosarcoma.

Designed using CAT or MRI data, the printed lattice-like structure emulates properties of human bone, such as the ability to bear loads and to flex, and has the potential to speed up recovery for a patient. (See video below for an explanation.)

According to Brandt’s university, a patent has been lodged and animal trials of the technique begin this year, with later trials on humans following.

Medical implants are an area where metal 3D printing has a lot to offer. It has already featured in tens of thousands of acetabular hip cups worldwide.

A notable example of the possibilities last year was an effort by the CSIRO, St Vincent’s and Melbourne’s Anatomics in October to replace a heelbone lost to cancer surgery, saving the man’s lower leg.

Further potential collaborative efforts, including those in the biomedical sector and elsewhere, have been frustrated recently by the uncertainty around the future of the Innovative Manufacturing CRC.

The IMCRC was the combined bid of the Advanced Manufacturing and Manufacturing Industry Innovation CRCs at the suggestion of industry minister Ian Macfarlane in February 2014.

The MIICRC submitted its bid for Round 16 of the CRC program in June 2013, and was strongly focussed on additive manufacturing, as is the IMCRC submission.

With other countries investing heavily in initiatives to spread additive manufacturing throughout their industries, the lack of a result after all this time for the CRC is a disappointment for those involved.

“Really I think the government needs to tell us one way or the other,” said Brandt, who said the lack of a result had been frustrating for participants in the bid.

“You can’t have big companies [like medical technology business] Stryker wanting to be involved in this now for two years and for them to move money from year to year, it’s a challenge.”

The CRC program received an $80 million cut over four years in the last federal budget, and the Miles review of the program, announced last September, is currently with the industry minister.

There is speculation that an announcement about the future of the program will be made at the 25th anniversary annual CRC conference at the end of this month.

For the research institutes and companies who have been a part of the stuck-in-limbo bid – such as RMIT, Stryker and a host of others – they just want clarity.

“Certainly from the industry’s perspective and in the comments I’ve received from industry, it’s been somewhat disappointing that the government has not made a decision one way or another,” said Brandt.

“From RMIT’s perspective and other universities – life goes on and we have to talk to companies that are part of that IMCRC, and we are looking at alternative ways of funding those projects.”

For more on the May 28 Factories of The Future event, click here. The venue is Palladium at the Crown, The Crown Casino Melbourne. Tickets are $30 plus GST.



Images: RMIT

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