Additive manufacturing can get us more from ore says CSIRO titanium expert

Australia has the world’s largest reserves of titanium ore. There are numerous potential uses, from hip replacements, to cookware, to stealth fighter planes. Today, most our titanium ore is shipped overseas, and bought back after processing.

Australia could keep that up for 90 years, at the current production rate. But John Barnes has a better idea.

If we converted just 1 per cent of the nation’s ore reserves each year to metal for high-value manufactured items, Barnes estimates they would achieve the same annual export earnings – for another 9,000 years.

As the newly appointed leader of the CSIRO’s Titanium technologies theme, Barnes aims to turn the country’s natural wealth into high-wage jobs for Australians, and high-value products for the world.

Titanium’s phenomenal performance characteristics are critical to the aerospace industry. In his previous job, Barnes was a Senior Manager with Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Skunk Works, working on the development of advanced fighter jets, including the F-22 ‘Raptor’ stealth air superiority fighter and the F-35 ‘Lightning II’ stealth aircraft. He has also worked with Honeywell suppling marine gas turbine engines for fast patrol boats and megayachts.

Barnes (pictured alongside) believes the true potential of titanium remains to be uncovered. The arrival of additive manufacturing technologies, which generate 3D shapes directly, changes the game.

Instead of machining a product out of a block of metal, where up to 90% of the metal is lost as waste, additive manufacturing builds up products layer by layer out of powder or metal wire, using energy from lasers or electron beams to bind the metal into a shape. It is faster, cheaper, and cleaner – and it will change the way the world does business.

Australia is well-placed to get ahead in the race, Barnes says. We already have the highly skilled, educated workforce needed for computer-aided design of products and management of the high-technology additive manufacturing facilities.

With the right technology, we would gain a powerful edge over mass-scale, low-wage producers overseas. Additive manufacturing enables labour efficient manufacturing, and is suited to investment by small businesses, so there is huge potential for growth.

So Barnes is working with his CSIRO team to implement additive manufacturing methods locally to make items Australia can sell overseas. Building on the CSIRO work in direct manufacture of titanium items by powder consolidation and coldspray, and CSIRO-led collaborations such as the Victorian Direct Manufacturing facility, he aims to grow a local industry to achieve ‘critical mass’.

He’s also working hard to increase awareness and excitement in Australia’s next generation of designers and engineers about the potential of titanium. The recently concluded Titanium Challenge for Australian undergraduates attracted entries from young designers and engineers in three Australian states.

Image of John Barnes courtesy CSIRO.