3D printing to boost Australian manufacturing capabilities

Additive manufacturing/3D printing in Australia has received a boost thanks to a grant handed out by the United States. Mike Wheeler explains.

Just over 37 years ago, 31-year-old Japanese lawyer, Dr Hideo Kodama from the Nagoya Municipal Industrial Research Institute, patented two additive methods that allowed the fabrication of 3D plastic models. He also utilised the properties of photo-hardening thermoset polymers, where the UV exposure area is controlled by a scanning fibre transmitter or a mask pattern.

Fast forward to 2018 and the technology has moved into dimensions that not even Kodama could have imagined – from being able to ‘print’ a firearm capable of firing bullets through to manufacturing parts that are used to fit out aircraft.

Australia’s need to get on board the 3D printing/additive manufacturing bandwagon has been given a boost with a $3 million grant over three years to the University of Sydney. There is also potential for a further two-year renewal phase, for the university to lead Australia’s participation in the Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative (MURI), which is administered by the US Department of Defense.

Like a lot of technologies, additive manufacturing has the potential to take off, and take off big. And how big can it get? As big as you want to get according to Professor Simon Ringer, academic director of the University of Sydney’s Core Research Facilities. Ringer was integral in getting the grant money over the line, and is not only excited for Australia, but for the scope the technology has over the next decade.

“Think about 3D printing like a weld,” said Ringer. “Welding has changed society. There are papers I have seen showing economic analysis that correlate the capacity of welding science and technology with a country and its GDP per capita – countries that have got that capability to get things done. Welding is really complex. We all know that welding can go wrong and that we have failures along the welds and bad things happen. But we all know, and we’ve all seen that welding helps with building amazing structures that we couldn’t have made – or even though about – unless welding was available. And so welding creates so many opportunities for us to build things in an efficient and funky way. This is where we are heading with additive manufacturing. A game changer.

“What we are doing here is a bit like welding. We are taking particles and we’re doing these welds, but it’s not just one weld, its hundreds, its thousands of welding cycles we’re putting in there. Therefore, these materials are experiencing residual stresses, thermal cycles we don’t normally see them experience. That is why we need research to see what is what.”

The money is going to be spent on the ground to build up the academic and industry capacity in additive manufacturing, said Ringer. “We’re on the hunt for some very ambitious, bright engineering students who would want to do PhDs,” he said. “We’re on the hunt for materials scientists and engineers who want to do PhDs, and post-doctoral research fellows, and research assistants and stuff. We are at that point now of starting to create Australia’s new work force – the new expertise.”

How does an Australian academic institution marry with its American counterparts to gain funding to take advantage of one of the most promising pieces of technology that could take Australian manufacturing to the next level?

“Australia had a scheme called AusMURI, because we saw what the US folk were doing with the MURI scheme,” said Ringer. “We noticed there was a huge programme brewing in the US with different academic institutions. These institutions talk to each other, so we said, ‘let’s get in on that and let’s sync up our capability developments’. The call went out to people like me and my colleagues. We thought, ‘if we can hitch our wagon to a MURI application in the US, then we can have an AusMURI application, which is like a companion application to that, and it should be threaded and be congruent and collaborative with that programme’.”

And that was how they got the funding. The university got Australian money and the US universities obtained US money. Ringer said they got the funding because the body who was responsible for giving the grant outright stated that Ringer’s proposal got its nose over the line because of the integration of the Australian capability with the American’s. The body said that the international aspect gave the application a little sparkle. It was great for Ringer and his colleagues, because the American folks were there and they were thinking ‘yeah, it was really great to have you Australians in on this bid because you helped us get over the line, too’.

But if you really want to see Ringer excited and animated about the funding and what it can do, start talking about the types of materials that can now be used. Especially when it comes to using the elements on the periodic table. Ringer believes we are in an era where scientists are going to be driven to discover more element combinations than ever – something that will benefit adherents of additive manufacturing.

“When you go to the periodic table, people think we know pretty much all that we need to know about all the elements?” he said. “But, if we think about the binary combinations of all the elements in the periodic table, funnily enough we haven’t explored them all – many but not all. If I say I want to make a binary or alloy of two things, I’m going to one of each elements – how many combos have we actually explored of the binaries where we take two out. We actually haven’t done them all. Now, what if I add the possibilty of ternary (three) elements of the periodic table into the equation?

“What about all of the ternaries on the periodic table. We’ve done a tiny slice of all space – the quaternary, the quinary – the six, the seven, the eight.

“We have not even touched on it. This technology will invite us to revisit all of those questions. We land on materials that work and then we incrementally develop them and so on. This almost sends us back to the periodic table and explores what can really be done with these things. It’s extremely exciting from an engineering view point.”

There are two other aspects of this technology that need to be addressed – both that will have a positive effect on the economy – wastage and the kind of products that will be produced on a micro and mass scale.

“Waste is a big issue,” he said. “Take titanium for example, which is used in TI64 – a well-known aerospace alloy and bio implant alloy. Typically, we’re making those in a lathe. Titanium is pretty expensive and you look at the final part you have made and then you look on the ground. You get a broom out because you have started out with a section of a billet, and most of the billet is on the floor in shavings. There’s a tiny bit here that ends up being the final component. In the case of additive manufacturing, the powders go in, the sintering occurs, and you’ve got a near net funnel shaped product. There are no shavings on the floor and you have near zero loss. That’s very attractive and that’s very disruptive. This is doing good things in the terms of the manufacture.”

And smaller manufacturers doing bespoke products for consumers? Surely, when it comes to economies of scale doing such things might not be a profitable enterprise and not worth doing in the long run?

“The kind of designs you can make in 3D metal printing are literally limited by our imagination,” said Ringer. “There is disruption about low volumes being okay and manufacturers will be able to do bespoke manufacturing and that is exciting. Especially in Australia. You can do hi-tech, low-volume stuff and keep your shirt. There will be a lot of little factories opening up. Even to the point where you could have a high-end, $3 million metal 3D printer and you can do your jobs from home, but rent the printer for an hour to punch out a few jobs and get Amazon to deliver it to you.

“There were things that were entirely impossible – like double re-entry angles for example – that will now be possible. If you were trying to make these items with a mill or lathe, it was almost impossible. Now, if you can draw it, you can make it.”

And the future for Australian manufacturing. If Ringer was looking into a crystal ball, what would be the end game for one of the country’s primary industries?

“Ten years from now, I would say this: ‘Many engineers would look back and say after WWII Australia had a great capability in manufacturing’,” he said. “‘We really did. In the decades after WWII, our capability diminished but with one thing and another we got into the early part of the 21st century and some disruptions happened and all of a sudden with this additive manufacturing disruption Australia’s time came again. Australia was able to build outstanding world-class manufacturing capability because we were positioned well to harness this disruption’. That’s what I see.

“‘And so when you go into the future western suburbs of Sydney we’ll see global supply chains that are done in manufacturing in Sydney and other parts of Australia’. I would also say this: ‘the Australian academic community – people like myself, took our responsibility to take Australia, as did policy makers at state and federal level and the governments, to position Australia to be able to capture this special opportunity’.”