Material science is an untapped frontier for manufacturers


Additive manufacturing has enabled simple 3D printing of plastic (PLA) components.

The Latin saying “Citius, Altius, Fortius” or “Faster, Higher, Stronger” would be familiar to those at the pinnacle of world sport, the Olympics. Chosen to encapsulate the traits of peak human performance, these three words are just as relevant to athletes as they are manufacturers – both of whom continually seek a competitive advantage. 

Manufacturers today are continuously innovating to do things faster, manufacturing to higher tolerances, and producing stronger products. One area which can offer significant returns is the adoption of new materials for their products. 

Research and development (R&D) into new, or frontier, materials can deliver a competitive edge to manufacturers – from high-end bicycles featuring 3D printed titanium parts, to high-strength scandium alloys, and recycled materials. 

Previous AMGC research has found that manufacturers who reinvest into their business via R&D almost always achieve positive commercial outcomes. Take for example Melbourne-based Bastion Cycles, a company at the leading edge of materials science, developing components for professional cycling teams the world over.  

Bastion’s in-house team has developed a novel process for titanium material used in additive manufacturing of high-end bike components. Their expertise with materials enables them to make components that are lighter and deliver measurable gains for riders. A win-win – and there is more to the materials story. 

AMGC chairman, Paul Cooper.

Initially, additive manufacturing enabled simple 3D printing of plastic (PLA) components. However, as technology adoption and usage mature, so too do the materials available to manufacturers. Additive manufacturing’s progress spurred an idea from a recently announced AMGC project from Kinaltek in Sydney. 

Kinaltek spotted an opportunity to focus on specialised metallic powders and to  deliver into global supply chains, a market that is growing 20 per cent year on year. Targeting the aerospace and renewables sectors, Kinaltek’s world-first process has resulted from years of local R&D to manufacture low-temperature, direct reduction of metal oxides and metal chlorides. The technology can produce a wide range of metallic powders based on 27 different metals. Importantly, they are the only company in the world able to do so. 

Advances in materials science is allowing manufacturers to unlock hidden value in waste by capturing precious materials or developing new ones from the by-products of our existence. Molycop in the Hunter Region of New South Wales, in conjunction with the University of New South Wales, and AMGC, has developed a process for reusing rubber rescued from tyres, conveyor belts, and boots to replace the use of virgin carbon sources in the manufacture of steel – hence green steel.  

In the pursuit of better materials or better use of materials, recycling and the circular economy represent smarter ways to manufacture. A recent CSIRO and KPMG report estimates that an additional $23 billion could be added to the Australian economy by just embracing the circular economy. This means more jobs, more skills, and a solution to our growing waste problems.  

By seeking new ways to approach old challenges, manufacturers are in the driving seat to solve many of the issues that have plagued previous generations. Graphene, widely touted as the most remarkable substance ever discovered, is another example of a frontier material that can result in products performing better, being stronger or more efficient. Little wonder then that the market for this material is growing at an estimated 19 per cent a year and will reach US$1.4billion by 2025. 

An AMGC supported project lead Graphene Manufacturing Group (GMG) has pioneered a process to manufacture vast quantities of graphene from waste and LPG. The result is a pure material removing the need for a mined graphite feedstock. Why is this important? Graphene is the thinnest material discovered – 200 times stronger than steel, is a thermal insulator, an excellent electrical conductor, and according to GMG could improve the charging time of a battery 70-fold, in short, a wonder material.  

Australia, with its vast natural resources, world-class researchers, and vibrant manufacturing industry, has a real opportunity to lead the world in the development and application of frontier materials. Whether the use is improving an existing product or suppling materials to clients, frontier materials offer an opportunity for manufacturers to gain that competitive edge and perform faster, higher, and stronger than the competition while generating significant opportunities onshore.