Breaking the boundaries of additive manufacturing

Additive manufacturing company, Titomic, has launched what it refers to as the world’s largest and fastest 3D metal printer. Tara Hamid looked at the revolutionising metal printing technology, in conversation with Titomic founding director and CTO, Jeffrey Lang.

The world’s largest 3D metal printer has a build area 9 metres long, 3 metres wide, and 1.5 metres high. But it’s not just that size that makes it impressive. It’s the technology behind it, enabling it to print objects much bigger than current industry metal 3D printers and finding applications in areas where traditional manufacturing has limitations and no other additive technology has gone before.

The patented process developed by Titomic at their Melbourne-based facility goes by the name of Titomic Kinetic Fusion and produces load-bearing 3D forms from fusing metallic powder feedstock sprayed at supersonic speeds.

Unlike conventional metal 3D printers that print layer-by-layer using metal powders melted at extreme heat, the Titomic Kinetic Fusion process involves a 6 axis robot arm spraying titanium powder particles onto a scaffold at supersonic speeds of around 1 km/s– so fast that when they collide, they mechanically fuse together.

“We are challenging the traditional core of manufacturing,” Jeffrey Lang, Titomic’s
founding director and CTO told Manufacturers’ Monthly.

“While most metal printing processes use an electron beam laser to melt the metal, there is no melting involved in our process. Therefore there are no heat-related distortions and the materials retain their properties.

“This also means that we are not limited by size. Because melting metals in the conventional 3D printing processes causes them to oxidise, the conventional metal 3D printing needs to take place inside a vacuum chamber. Lack of melting in our process means that we are not limited by size,” he said.

The differentiating factors do not stop there. Titomic’s process is also much faster than conventional 3D printing and of course a lot faster than the traditional subtractive methods, minus the material wastage associated with the latter.

Read: Titomic signs MST agreement with Fincantieri Australia

“Depending on the complexity of the metal parts, we can deposit between 20-45 kilograms of metal per hour. That’s just with one spray head. We are working on a new system where we could operate a series of robots that connect multi- head robots. That would enable us to deposit up to 200 kilograms of material per hour.

“To put that into perspective, the normal 3D printers can usually deposit about one kilogram in 20 hours. So we are really bringing volume into the additive manufacturing market,” Lang said.

As with all new processes, the technology needs to go through a validation process before being adopted in industries such as aerospace. But there are other industries, which Titomic is already working with to produce parts.

Lang says early adopters could benefit through gaining a competitive edge, besides saving considerably on both time and material wastage.

“Airbus, for example, uses 50 tons of titanium a day in raw materials to produce just 8 tons of parts by traditional subtractive manufacturing,” Lang said.

That’s about 90 per cent of material going to waste in the machining process. According to Lang, that leads to one of the major problems faced by both Boeing and Airbus: long lead times required to machine titanium parts, contributing to as much as 10 years backlog of production.

“If we could make those parts as near net shape components, that is to create the final shape of the part and then add just a little bit extra burden of the material on it, we could
reduce that machining time in some instances by 80 per cent.

“We are not saying this technology can jumpstart now and replace the current aerospace process. But our process is currently one of the most significant processes that those aerospace companies are looking at. We have come up with additional solutions to remove a small amount of porosity to achieve aerospace grade.

“For one of the aerospace components, which can be up to $4 million in cost, we can reduce production time from 200 hours down to 6 hours,” he said.

Where did it all begin?

The Titomic Kinetic Fusion technology was born from a study by CSIRO –
the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation – as the Federal Government searched for a way to capitalise on Australia’s rich titanium resources.

“The Federal Government did a IndustryFOCUS including putting linings on jet study in 2007 with this idea that while Australia is not a large resource of titanium, we have a large amount of mineral sands that contain titanium. The government wanted to find ways to utilise that resource instead of just selling it off, like we always do in Australia,” Lang said.

“I was invited to be a part of the project and look at the ways by which we could use large volumes of titanium powder. We started thinking about how to develop titanium powder from that vast resource and build a whole industry around it.”

While doing the research, Lang and his colleagues found the existing additive manufacturing processes to be very restrictive in terms of size and quantities, “We were looking for something that we could use in an industrial scale,” he said.

Then they came across the Cold Spray coatings process. “Why hasn’t anyone ever used this for additive manufacturing?” they wondered.

Cold Spray process was developed in Russia around 30 years ago. It was rendered as a coating technology for doing very high-level metal coatings, engines in aerospace. It was also extensively used in Asian countries for manufacturing scratch-proof rice cookers and high-level frying pans with copper-coated bases. “What no one had realised was the potential applications of the process in additive manufacturing,” Lang said.

“We haven’t found any scientists who can clearly explain the theory behind the process, but the technique is currently being reviewed at the army labs in the USA. The US Army has already validated the process for doing aluminium repairs on aircraft wings, etc. There are also a couple of big global companies using the technology for defence applications,” he added.

Lang and his colleague and co-inventor, professor Richard Fox, explored incorporating Cold Spray onto a scaffold to build a 3D object. The co-inventors requested that CSIRO patent and license the technology to their composite sporting goods company, Force Industries. Titomic was established in 2014 to commercialise this technology.

Titomic currently has the exclusive rights to commercialise CSIRO’s proprietary and patented process for the application of cold-gas dynamic spraying of titanium or titanium alloy particles onto a scaffold to produce a load-bearing structure.

Infinite potentials

Titomic’s technology is not limited to 3D printing. Their process also finds applications in seamless coating for large industrial- scale parts, as well as in creating advanced composite materials by fusing dissimilar materials together.

“Probably the most exciting advantage of Titomic Kinetic Fusion process is that it enables us to fuse dissimilar materials that could not be fused in any other way. This puts us at the forefront of pioneering new smart materials that can be specifically designed for different components and parts,” Lang said.

The aerospace industry is currently the largest customers of titanium alloy products. “Airbus is sticking with carbon fibre while Boeing is moving towards super alloys. So Airbus is looking at ways for metallisation of the carbon fibre. We are currently working with a couple of Tier 1 companies from the aerospace industry who are looking to develop carbon fibre parts with titanium middle structure,” Lang said.

Defence is another sector where Titomic’s technology finds relevance. “In the past, the idea of protecting our land vehicles from explosives, land mines and bullets was simply

to use thicker plates. With smart materials, we can significantly reduce the weight of those vehicles. Using kinetic technology, we can fuse a hard material such as titanium with a layer of light material like aluminium to produce a multi-layer material with superior properties,” Lang said.

 Titomic founding director and CTO, Jeffrey Lang, and Titomic chairman, Philip Vafiadis, at the launch of Titomic’s 3D metal printer in Melbourne.
Titomic founding director and CTO, Jeffrey Lang, and Titomic chairman, Philip Vafiadis, at the launch of Titomic’s 3D metal printer in Melbourne.

“Similarly in the containment or pressure vessels, say for the submarine hulls, we currently have hulls with 200 to 400mm-thick sections using mono- materials. Using hybrid composite metals, we could reduce that thickness down to 50mm with even higher compressive yield properties,” he said. Shipbuilding is a major industry Titomic is targeting. In mid-May, Titomic signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Fincantieri Australia – a division of Italian shipbuilder Fincantieri.

As part of the MoU, over the next 12 months, Titomic will investigate how its industrial scale advanced manufacturing process can be effectively used in Fincantieri Australia’s manufacturing process.

“The shipbuilding industry is currently using 50-year old technologies. Nothing much has changed in that area over the past years. Our machine can be installed on a gantry system to coat the whole hull of the ship. That shows the significant scale of what we can do.” Lang said.

Titomic’s technology also finds applications in the mining and the oil and gas industries in laying continuous pipes or coating the existing pipes and valves.

“While setting up a mine, one of the main costs is related to pipe welding. Customers are excited around the potential for Titomic to produce pipes on demand and on site at large lengths.

“The pipes in the oil and gas industry are in very abrasive environments. When they pump up the oil, there is a lot of sand and grit in the oil. We are working on new materials to harden the insides of valves, extending the lifespan of the parts up to ten times,” Lang said.

On the smaller, commercial goods side, Titomic has already worked with two famous US-based sports equipment manufacturers for production of bicycle frames and golf equipment. There is also interest from international design houses for manufacture of luxury titanium suitcases.

 Kinetic Fusion process involves a 6 axis robot arm spraying titanium powder particles onto a scaffold at supersonic speeds.
Kinetic Fusion process involves a 6 axis robot arm spraying titanium powder particles onto a scaffold at supersonic speeds.

Cost-competitiveness of 3D printing with titanium

While 3D printing of titanium has unique applications, particularly in making complex-shaped parts, Lang says with time, the technology will catch up with traditional manufacturing processes when it comes to cost.

“The nitrogen and electricity costs for running the machines are not very high. Our biggest cost restriction at the moment is the cost of metal powders,” Lang said. “Titanium powder can be prohibitive for high volume, low value industries.”

He believes the cost will come down, however, as more and more applications are developed for titanium, increasing demands.

“When you look back at 150 years ago, the most expensive material in the world was aluminium. And that is now only $2-3 per kilogram. Things change based on demand. The demand for titanium powder in Australia hasn’t been great until Titomic came along. Now we are in the position where we are securing the supply chain from larger suppliers,” he said.

Lang is also leading negotiations with a few key countries including Russia, which currently controls most of the world’s titanium supply.

Despite the small hurdles which will be overcome with time and ingenuity, including validations and perfecting the manufacturing process – particularly in post- treatment and finishing of the parts, Lang is excited about the opportunities the technology offers.

“One common reaction that I get whenever I speak to engineers and industrial designers is that they say they couldn’t sleep for nights after our conversation as their minds came up with new, exciting ideas about possible applications of this process,” he said.

“These are exciting times. We started the whole project with the view of developing sovereign capabilities for Australia. But the technology does not benefit just one country,” he said. “It’s about securing a better future for all humanity and future generations on this planet.”

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