IntelliDesign, an Australian contract designer and manufacturer of electronics, has invested in a Markforged Mark Two 3D printing machine that has enabled improved processes for prototyping and manufacturing jigs and fixtures.
IntelliDesign was established in 1995 and now employs nearly 100 people. Its main markets include medical technology, mining, defence and utilities.
Australia has a small manufacturing base compared to other developed countries, representing under 6 per cent of total GDP. In the USA manufacturing is worth 11 per cent, in Germany it is about 19 per cent. Australia’s electronics sector has eroded significantly, weakened from years of habitual offshoring, particularly to China.
Wanting every advantage operating in a difficult environment, IntelliDesign investigated 3D printing to encourage more rapid product development and a “fail fast” mentality, as well as better communication of ideas across departments.
It decided to purchase a Markforged Mark Two machine in 2017 from local reseller Konica Minolta. The Mark Two remains the lone 3D printer at IntelliDesign’s Seventeen Mile Rocks facility, southwest of Brisbane. It generally runs all day, every day except one day a week.
Jonathan Tighe, head of Industrial Design at IntelliDesign, added: “It works pretty hard.”
The two main applications are prototyping for design development and production jigs, but it also makes one-off tools, such as spanners to tighten a nut in a hard-to-reach place. Most work is done in the Onyx material, a chopped carbon fibre-filled thermoplastic. Occasionally continuous glass fibre is used, as this is an affordable way to achieve big strength improvements.
“Some end use production parts are also made,” says Tighe, who has been at the company for two decades.
“It might be a jig or a fitment or a clip or a holder. We might need an unusual little part to go into this product to solve a particular assembly issue… 3D printing a part is a really simple and effective way to do it.”
Printed parts have also helped elicit feedback from people outside the design department, particularly if they’re onsite and can hold an example in their hands. This has helped improve development speed, communication and even team-building, according to Tighe.
Such use of additive manufacturing is popular in manufacturing companies of all kinds. If a picture says a thousand words, especially when not everybody is familiar with engineering terms, a printed part says thousands more.
“We’ve got lots of colleagues at other companies who’ve spent less on their 3D printer. And then they’ve spent a lot more time with prints,” Tighe adds.
Reliability is essential to get the best out of an investment. The number of times of failed prints at IntelliDesign has been incredibly low.
IntelliDesign has grown handsomely, from a headcount of 20 in 2008 to nearly 100 now.
Like manufacturers in Australia and other nations, it has seen a wave of interest in reshoring since the outbreak of COVID-19. More value is being placed on localised production after the fragility of international supply chains became apparent. Australia’s small manufacturing base rallied in 2020 to produce everything from sanitisers to invasive ventilators.
“Once customers do the math for local versus overseas electronics supply, the local option can be competitive once you consider a supplier’s communication, delivery times, timezone alignment, agility, order quantities and other factors,” says Tighe.
The Australian government has rediscovered manufacturing’s importance, with $1.5 billion in support announced in October 2020. This is focussed on six National Manufacturing Priorities – areas of comparative advantage and strategic importance – including Resources Technology & Critical Minerals Processing, Food & Beverage, Medical Products, Recycling & Clean Energy, Defence and Space.
Tighe believes these align neatly with what IntelliDesign does, particularly after the company’s Quality Management System achieved AS9100D certification (Aviation, Space and Defence) for design and manufacturing. Only one other local electronics manufacturer has managed this, as far as he’s aware.
Investment in people and processes will continue. A MetalX is among possible future additions to the factory.
The path ahead will involve building on that and diversifying into new markets, such as space, as well as developing and selling its own products, not just those made under contract.
“We’re not just benchmarking ourselves across the national market,” says Tighe of IntelliDesign’s increasing maturity.
“We’re benchmarking ourselves against global companies.”