A revolutionary method of production known as Additive Manufacturing is creating a new model for manufacturing in industrialised countries. Although the technology has been in use for some time, technical improvements are lowering costs and increasing production capacity, creating opportunities for small and medium size enterprises to respond quickly to the customer.
For Bruce Grey, Managing Director of the Advanced Manufacturing Cooperative Research Centre (AMCRC), Additive Manufacturing could see Australia becoming an attractive destination for international businesses. An initiative funded by the federal government, the Cooperative Research Centres actively support the development of new industrial technologies and play a vital role in driving Australian innovations into the global marketplace.
Originally developed in the mid-1980s and regarded as possibly representing a ‘third industrial revolution’ Additive Manufacturing is a technology that combines the computer with manufacturing. A computational model instructs a laser or printer to melt material – such as titanium powder or plastic – to a detailed design. Since the technology requires much less material than currently needed with injection moulding or machining, Mr Grey believes that ‘in time, Additive Manufacturing could reduce the use of more wasteful and labour intensive processes like grinding, stamping or milling and turning. New generation procedures such as electron beam melting, 3D printing and fused deposition modeling could see the development of innovative products made more economically and in flexible production runs.’
Recently the AMCRC announced backing for a ground-breaking new Additive Manufacturing project in the aerospace industry that involves revolutionary production methods for making engine components. Considered by many as ideal for the aerospace industry, Additive Manufacturing can produce customised parts on the scale aerospace requires and often without the bolts and welds that lead to increased maintenance costs down the line.
The project, which is an international one, involves collaboration with French company Microturbo and will focus on the production of micro-engine parts for applications in the aerospace industry. Key to the technology will be the utilisation of a Selective Laser Melting (SML) process for 3D printing of each micro part. According to Mr Grey, ‘this highly advanced manufacturing project will further develop SML and its associated supply chain and contribute to more efficient production of microengine components. It will use metal alloy to achieve a complex demonstration component that is free of cracks and porosity, has appropriate mechanical properties and lack of stress.’
In aiming to deliver a dramatic reduction in the number of production stages, less material wastage plus a shortened design cycle, the potential for new Additive Manufacturing projects like AMCRC’s collaboration with Microturbo is enormous. A company of the Safran group, Microturbo in based in France and specialises in the design, development and manufacture of high-tech gas turbines. Recognised as a world leader in the field of propulsion systems and power systems, Microturbo works in partnership with universities, laboratories and institutes, drawing on its own and Safran’s networks. Design, manufacture and testing work range from incremental technologies on gas-turbine component or complete systems to ground-breaking technologies and concepts outside the field of turbomachinery.
AMCRC Project Leader Dr Tim Black, believes the organisation’s support for the development of Additive Manufacturing is recognition that there is a future for high-end manufacturing in Australia. A specialist in the areas of Next Generation Processes and Knowledge Based Manufacturing, Dr Black explains that with Additive Manufacturing there are no moulds or tooling needed to make parts. This means cost savings and an environmentally friendly outcome as there is much less wastage of materials. ‘With traditional manufacturing every time someone makes a change to a design you have to retool or make an entirely new mould, and that can be very expensive. But with Additive Manufacturing and 3D printing designs can be easily changed on a computer file,’ he says.
These innovations are at the forefront of radical changes currently underway in manufacturing technology. ‘3D printing techniques, for example, won’t just make it more efficient to produce existing parts, they will make it possible to produce things that weren’t even conceivable before – like parts with hollows and wall cavities that minimise weight without sacrificing strength,’ says Dr Black. Unlike traditional machining processes which can leave at huge amount of material on the floor, 3D printing leaves virtually no waste. With expensive metals like titanium this is a huge benefit. Further, the technology could also reduce the need to store parts in inventory. Another part can be printed quite easily years after creating the first one – making Additive Manufacturing the complete opposite of traditional methods of production. And it has the potential to be more environmentally friendly since the process uses only materials that are needed.
Backed by the Advanced Manufacturing CRC and utilising the research expertise of Monash University, the Microturbo Additive Manufacturing project is an example of how the Cooperative Research Centre concept functions to bring scientists and industry together to drive the commercialisation of new generation industrial technologies. ‘Additive manufacturing is an important area for developing future capability in Australian industry. And it meets the primary objective of the CRC – which is the delivery of new platform technologies across industry sectors including defence, aerospace, biomedical, fine chemical, mining, energy and fabricated metal products,’ says Mr Grey.
‘What Microturbo is doing in conjunction with the AMCRC and Monash is at the frontier of high tech production of parts for the aerospace industry,’ said Dr Black. ‘AMCRC provides a bridge between the partners, manages the intellectual property and ensures the project is progressing satisfactory and on budget.’
For Australian manufacturing, there are important benefits to be derived from supporting the development and commericalisation of high-tech products which can cut through into the global marketplace. Given that it is Australia’s high-tech sector which must drive the future of manufacturing, AMCRC’s partnership with Microturbo and Monash will strengthen prospects for subsequent developments in Additive Manufacturing. And while there is certainly still some way to go before Additive Manufacturing is a practical alternative to conventional production methods, Mr Grey believes the technology has enormous potential. ‘As it continues to gain momentum with industry leaders like Microturbo, Additive Manufacturing has the potential to become a transformational technology, one which could take manufacturing in entirely different directions and help launch new enterprises and business models.