In recent years additive manufacturing and 3D printing have been described on many occasions as the greatest thing since sliced bread, but what many don't realise is that it's not a one type fits all applications technology.
There are a number of technologies available for making cheap three dimensional prototypes through to high quality finished products using materials such as thermoplastics, and metal and ceramic powders.
To guide Australian manufacturers in the right direction, the CSIRO has recently established an Arcam additive manufacturing facility, the first in the southern hemisphere, to provide industry with access to advanced technologies for 3D printing of metals.
The CSIRO has identified additive manufacturing as a key opportunity for the manufacturing sector in Australia and has considerable expertise in titanium manufacturing including electron beam melting (EBM), coldspray and thermally assisted machining.
Arcam EBM technology, which can be used with metals including titanium, titanium alloys and speciality steel alloys such as nickel and cobalt chrome, uses an e-beam to melt and fuse the metal powders, layer-by-layer, into 3D parts.
According to Swee Mak, Director of CSIRO's Future Manufacturing Flagship, the resulting quality is high, as the process is conducted in a vacuum and held at high temperatures during the entire build.
He says additive manufacturing is an emerging technology capable of changing the future of manufacturing in Australia.
"And we are keen to facilitate the adoption of this new technology for the benefit of Australian businesses.
"We have invested in a suite of technologies and research, which combined with our links with RMIT and Monash University, provide industry a unique opportunity to explore and engage in forward-thinking design and production techniques," Mak said.
Services available to manufacturers include trials of parts manufactured using Arcam EBM technology, assistance in finding and converting the design of existing parts to one optimised for the process, and prototyping parts or tooling with short lead-times and rapid design changes.
Mak says the organisation has a high number of Australian manufacturers looking at the technology.
"With our machines, manufacturers can get a true sense of what is commercially viable and what is not. Our research is on production scale machines, they are not just little prototyping type machines.
"With our high Australian dollar and high manufacturing costs here, manufacturers should be looking at this technology for low volume manufacturing of highly specialised products, especially for high value products that can't be made using conventional methods. That's where the importance of design comes in.
"There's no reason Australian manufacturers can't do extremely well using this technology, additive manufacturing allows companies to manufacture in a more efficient way than conventional techniques," Mak told Manufacturers' Monthly.
John Barnes, titanium research leader in the Future Manufacturing Flagship, said additive manufacturing can been used for rapid manufacture of prototypes where its speed of production is advantageous.
"It can also be used for the manufacture of complex, high-value components for industrial applications, and is especially useful for short production runs," he said.
However Barnes warns companies that want to take on additive manufacturing that they face a number of practical challenges.
"But we are here to help them, and have been providing technical advice to solve problems and helping businesses to access these technologies for nearly ten years now," Barnes said.
While the aerospace and medical industries are arguably the biggest users of advanced manufacturing, Barnes says he is receiving a lot of interest from Australia's automotive industry.
"Not for making 100,000 piston rods, but for making the first few rods maybe or for making custom parts for high end models, customised parts that catch the eye, and that's where the importance of design comes in .
"While we don't want to be seen as a manufacturer, in the interim we might have to, especially with our cold spray technology, which is a form of additive manufacturing.
"Manufacturers are coming us to get the first few parts made, however it is possible for three or more manufactures to get together and buy an EBM machine. We see if evolving that way," he said.
Barnes explained that the machines are very sophisticated with very sophisticated algorithms, and cost over $1m.
"But before manufacturers rush off and buy a tool like this, they need to know if it's viable.
"One of the first things we did was develop an external based tool that allows a manufacturer to come in and work out costings with various labour rates on products they might like to make.
"We are working with large and small companies, and our mission is to help people get smart on how the process works.
"At the moment we are working with titanium, mainly because that is the name of the group, but the machine is capable of working on other materials.
"This is an exciting technology and has huge potential for Australian manufacturers. It often offers manufacturers a different way of manufacturing, with the potential to save a lot of assembly work, making it much cheaper," Barnes said.
Mak says manufacturers need to take a close look at this technology for the future.
"While we have an Arcam machine here, we won't be driving everyone to that solution. We have vast experience in all types of additive manufacturing and we will advise people on what will work for them," Mak stated.