Not just a foundry: Keech plans to lead Australia in additive manufacturing

Keech's efforts to become a "one-stop" engineering and manufacturing solutions provider to its region and beyond continue, with further investments in additive manufacturing machinery planned in the next few months.

“Keech has got the oldest technology in the world – in melting metals – and we’re actually now looking at the newest technology in the world, 3D printing in metals,” explained Keech 3D business manager Doug Baird.

The Bendigo-based parent company of K3D has been busily turning itself from a foundry into an engineering and solutions specialist under the leadership of CEO Herbert Hermens. It put itself forward last year as the first commercial provider of large-scale additive manufacturing in the central Victoria region. This year it re-named its patternmaking subsidiary Keech 3D (formerly BPM 3D), reflecting the growing role the technology will play in Keech’s overall future.

Keech’s annual revenue has grown to about $50 million, according to the company, with about 7 per cent of turnover going to R&D. It currently employs 117 in Australia.

At the site it moved to from Sydney in 1995, the third-generation, family-owned company has added an Innovation and Quality Centre (in 2012), and invested heavily in recent few years upgrading its smaller No. 2 and then its No. 1 foundries and opening a Chilean subsidiary along the way. (See here for a story last year about the company’s numerous foundry improvements.)

Its significant efforts to improve what it does saw it ranked 7th in the BRW Top 50 Innovative Companies List at the end of last year.

Since its announcement last August that it wanted to become a major provider of additive manufacturing solutions in the state, it has made significant progress in that area.

To its existing polyjet and production system machines it plans to add a beefy 900 mm x 900 mm x 600 mm FDM machine this month and a Mcor Technologies machine able to 3D print in paper in May. There are plans to add metal additive manufacturing capabilities after that.

It currently has the ability to print in a range of about a dozen thermoplastics, including Stratasys’s new Nylon 12.

The focus, explained Baird, is on end-use parts, citing trends shown by the annual Wohler’s Report. A decade ago, the amount of end-use products created through the technology was tiny, but Terry Wohler’s closely-watched compendium of industry trends last year saw end-use purposes make up 30 per cent of the total.

“We still have service offerings around prototyping, but we really want to concentrate on material that would be able to be used for end-use parts as opposed to prototyping,” said Baird.

Within the company, it has opened up huge possibilities, in patternmaking – though Keech can still chisel out patterns the old-fashioned way – and elsewhere.

“It’s had a significant effect on the way designers can look at things,” said Baird.

“We have design engineers with us for our parent company and they’ll come downstairs and say to me ‘Doug, I’ve got an idea, here’s a CAD model’ and the very next day they’ll have that part in their hand and they’ll play with that and look at how it fits into the part they’re building,” explained Baird.

“They might come back to me and say they’ve made a couple of tweaks and ask for another one. And the next day or later that day they’ll have that part in their hand. And that really speeds up the design process.”

Besides this, the company has been able to reverse-engineer old patterns through digital scanning.

“It might be 20 years old and there has never been a CAD model for it or even a drawing, it might’ve been [from] a customer’s drawing,” said Baird.

“So we can scan that, turn it into a CAD model and then 3D print that and have complete repeatability.”

Outside of the Keech companies' Bendigo site, there is an aim to provide engineering, design and additive manufacturing expertise to not just the region but the world, a task where they have already had some success.

Keech has manufactured for the defence industry since WWII, where it made munitions at its old Mascot factory. Recently, a major defence contractor wanted a model of one of its vehicles (and some sub-components) additively manufactured in a hurry for an exhibition in France.

“We had them shipped over to Paris and the guys at [the defence company] used them in their show and all the reports back were that they wowed everyone and we’ve now got orders from France for more models directly from Bendigo,” recalled Baird.

“So I guess we’re not talking central Victoria – we’re talking globally [Laughs]… Already in the short time we’ve been in additive manufacturing, we’ve already sent parts to Indonesia, the Netherlands, Japan, China, and France.”

Keech hopes to build on its early success and be seen as a “one-stop-shop” for engineers, designers and manufacturing companies in Australia.

Keech's main source of local revenue (80 per cent of what it makes is sold here, with the rest exported) in castings is at the mercy of mining activity. It makes sense for the company's strategy to grow to include making itself useful to local industries who could benefit from the considerable collection of technology and material science smarts Keech invested in during the resources boom times.

“They can come to us with an idea or a model, we can prototype it for them, give them different iterations as they require, and we can hopefully take those parts to production as well; a full service offering,” said Baird.

“We would be expecting into next year that Keech 3D would be a major player in the additive manufacturing sector throughout the country. With an export market as well.”