Manufacturing’s quantum leap

There are almost as many names for digital manufac turing as there are compet ing technologies and companies, but all seem to agree on one thing: it is the future of manufac turing, and it is here today.

Digital manufacturing pro duces components by ‘printing’ them out directly from CAD files. It started as a way of accelerating prototyping and working models during product development.

Plastic or metal in powder, ribbon or wire form is laid on a platform layer by layer, and bonded through melting or with adhesive compounds.

One company offering these services is Formero, which utilis es five types of digital manufac turing technologies and a variety of materials, chosen according to client requirements.

According to Formero’s manag ing director, Simon Marriot, by eliminating the moulds, dies and tooling of traditional manufac turing, the technology offers savings in labour, time, materi als, and energy.

Though material advances have overcome early problems of brittleness in plastic compo nents, high temperature resist ance and creep resistance remain challenges, according to Marriot. Additionally, the print ing process means parts cannot be produced with a high gloss finish, and may have a noticeable ‘stair-stepping’ effect.

However, printed parts, espe cially those made from metal powders, now approach or exceed the overall properties of the final components. This has been key in allowing the technol ogy to push into manufacturing.

In July 2010, Formero took delivery of a selective laser melt ing (SLM) system, which pro duces components in titanium, stainless steel and tool steel.

“Traditionally, we would really struggle to make titanium com ponents, but over the last three years, there has been a lot of development in titanium pow ders and the use of lasers with titanium,” Marriot told .

Marriot says additive manufac turing is an opportunity to change the way Australian manu facturers look at product devel opment, traditionally a long and expensive process.

Tool-less manufacturing has been embraced by the medical, aerospace and automotive indus tries as a cost-effective and effi cient way to produce short runs of the complex parts they need.

Marriot says hearing-aid com panies such as Phonak and Siemens have built business strategies around additive manu facturing technologies such as stereolithography. Formero’s own clients include Nanosonics, Medigard, Ford and GM Australia Holden.

But the aerospace sector is the most enthusiastic adopter of dig ital manufacturing, having used it for the past ten years.

“Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Northrup Grumman all make extensive use of additive manu facturing technologies, particu larly selective laser sintering,” said Marriot.

“The lessons learned in those markets are being rapidly applied to other industries. In less than five years, we will start to see a lot more consumer prod ucts, be it high level or more niche style products, produced using this technology.”

Betta Machine Tools, which leverages EOS laser sintering technology, counts Sydney-based Advanced Manufacturing Services and Race Dental among its clients.

According to its sales represen tative Mel McNair, the rise of digital manufacturing comes as consumers and manufacturers are thinking differently about objects. Shorter runs and lower initial investment are the flavours of the day.

“People like to have a lot more variety. With this technology, you don’t have to get into the old style tooling that a company would produce to create the same model year after year,” McNair said.

McNair says the complexity of parts possible with direct manu facturing also has implications for design creativity.

“Your design is no longer sub ject, creatively speaking, to the limitations of conventional meth ods of manufacturing,” he said.

“When people want change, and the freedom to create, they’re definitely looking towards this technology.”

The disruptive nature of digi tal manufacturing technology has not gone under the radar of governments. In early 2010, the Victorian government granted $3 million under its Science Agenda Investment Fund to support a new Direct Manufacturing Centre.

The initiative involves 10 companies, including Frontline Australasia as a lead industry partner, Marand Precision Engineering, BOC, Camplex, United Surface Technology, AW Bell, Force Industries, Laselife, Kirk Engineering and Derwent, working with researchers from the CSIRO, Deakin University and Swinburne University.

According to CSIRO’s Dr Mahnaz Jahedi, director of the Centre, the collaborative effort between industry and researchers will focus on deliver ing the quantum leap technolo gies needed to safeguard local manufacturers.

“The manufacturing industry is facing challenges at the moment, as conventional manu facturing is moving to labour cheap countries,” she told . “We are working with industry to come up with new ideas to give them new direction.”

The Centre will establish nine initial projects, with a key component being CSIRO’s Cold Spray technology, which uses supersonic velocity rather than heat to deposit particles and build up complex components.

But manufacturers should not be scrapping their production machinery just yet. Traditional methods of manufacturing still have the edge in applications requiring high volumes.

Some manufacturers are also treating digital manufactur ing as a complementary technol ogy, enhancing traditional machining tasks.

These companies are using the technology to create die inserts, and to make tooling which includes the internal channels needed for conformal cooling, boosting performance and allow ing higher production speeds.