In December the successful bidders for round 16 of the Cooperative Research Centre will be announced. If the Advanced Manufacturing CRC is successful in its re-bid, it aims to bring greater access to metal 3D printing machines for Australian manufacturers. By Brent Balinski.
“They’re all familiar with rapid prototyping, but the metal-based additive manufacturing is an area of great interest,” said Bruce Grey, managing director of the Advanced Manufacturing CRC, during a discussion with Manufacturers’ Monthly on his organisation’s talks with over 120 companies over the last year.
The AMCRC, established in 2008 with a $35 million Commonwealth grant, is designed to address Australia’s at-best mixed results in pairing researchers with industry to create high-value products. For all of our country’s research strengths, it compares poorly to Germany, for instance, in commercialising innovation.
Two core areas for the AMCRC re-bid, lodged in June, are bio-manufacturing and additive manufacturing.
“Last October I went to Europe and met with major suppliers of metal-based additive equipment, in particular Renishaw out of the UK, Eos, SLM, Voxeljet and Concept Laser out of Germany and said to them that we’re going to focus on this technology in terms of our collaborative research program,” Grey explained.
“[In Australia] we’re hearing companies who want to trial the process, but they don’t want to invest in a machine because it’s too big of a risk.”
The buzz around additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, is not new. The annual Wohlers Associates report on the global market for the technology calculates it to be worth $US 2.204 bn for 2012 alone. While this isn’t a huge figure, compounded annual growth was 28.6 per cent for last year, and has been at about 25 per cent for the last quarter of a century.
As 3D printing advances, so does the potential for its uses, as capabilities including what materials can be used, resolution, process control and cycle time are strengthened.
Aerospace is just one area where enormous potential has been identified, for example in GE’s recent creation of a 3D printed fuel nozzle out of a special alloy, or – back in Australia – Ferra Engineering being contracted to print titanium parts for the Joint Strike Fighter project.
For all the hype and potential, however, some SMEs in the market for a high-end machine are cautious.
“This is reasonably new technology and certain fields like dental and orthopaedic applications, aerospace, they can justify a machine, but other companies will need to trial it first,” explained Grey. “And the entry-range Eos machine is about a quarter of a million Euro.”
Grey sees additive manufacturing, and providing access to it, as a big part of the AMCRC’s plans, as it takes part in the bidding process for the 16th round of the CRC.
“The companies we talk to are saying, ‘we need to see this technology and trial it’ so we’re setting up a portal through AMTIL,” said Grey. “So companies can join the CRC through the AMTIL portal and that gets them into the network so they can start to learn about the technology.”
Grey hopes to increase access to metal-based additive manufacturing technology, which is currently limited to only a few places, mostly around Melbourne: including at the CSIRO, RMIT and Monash.
“There’s also a couple of machines elsewhere – there’s one in Perth, there’s one in Sydney, but that’s it,” said Grey.
Grey’s organisation wants to expand availability in Sydney and elsewhere, possibly at the Innovation Centre in Wollongong and at Redfern’s Australian Technology Park
“A couple of guys spoke to me independently of each other, saying ‘We’d like our CEOs to see these machines to help them understand and so that’ll help our decision-making internally,’” Grey said.
“If it’s at ATP they can stop off on the way to the airport and look at it. So ATP, University of Wollongong, probably also at Ingleburn, and in Victoria we’ll likely supplement what’s here already and in South Australia we’ll be looking at Mawson Lakes and Tonsley Park.”
The CRC program – administered AusIndustry – began in 1990 and this time around has included bids from a wide variety of current and would-be centres, including Active and Engaged Ageing, Sheep Industry Innovation, Manufacturing Industry Innovation, and Cyber Security.
The process is competitive, though the federal government has boosted funding significantly.
“The government announced $240 million for this round,” said Grey.
“And in November the somewhat unprecedentedly announced another $240 million, $50 million was targeted specifically for innovative manufacturing. We’re going to try to get as much of that as possible.”