For all the hype surrounding 3D printing and what it could offer Australian businesses, there’s a fair bit of caution around investing in expensive, industrial-grade machines, and in finding what applications it might suit.
With this in mind, Williams United, a six decade-old engineering firm, has added a new business unit, Williams 3D. It hopes to capitalise on a curious yet cautious environment, providing a holistic group of services related to additive manufacturing.
“It’s a matter of educating what’s possible before we can get a proper understanding of what industries are going to take up this technology first,” explained managing director Dean Williams.
“There’s a lot of interest in 3D printing, but people are still quite tentative,” he told Manufacturers’ Monthly.
“Because it’s early on in the Australian market and it’d require them changing their designs to suit additive manufacturing a lot of the lot of the designers and engineers are kind of stuck in their ways and being constrained by designing for manufacturing in the past, and I think we’ve got to kind of convince them to step over.”
Changing the way companies think about design is one of the goals for businesses like Williams, who are operating in a business-to-business market, where the market might not have considered the ways additive manufacturing can be made to work for them.
And what – with a little guidance – could a business hope to gain from a consideration of 3D printing in the way it designs its products?
“We have the ability with additive manufacturing to add complexity into the design, so with that we can reduce the number of parts required to make a full assembly. Also, we can reduce the weight of the part without affecting the strength of the part.
“We’d sit with them together to do that and then we might go through a few design iterations where we might print it – there’s no better way of communicating than having a physical product to hold and then make modifications from there.”
The company has recently invested in a Fortus 400mc machine from Stratasys (through Tasman Machinery). The machine prints in nine types of thermoplastic through fused deposition modelling (“polycarbonate and ABS are the two main families we use” said Williams), with a build envelope of 400 x 400 x 400 mm, allowing several parts to be produced during print times that can take longer than 12 hours.
Williams is targeting areas such as consumer products, industrial products, and the automotive and architectural industries, as well as encouraging its existing client base to think about what additive manufacturing could offer them.
The company also offers precision 3D scanning, using a CreaForm EXAScan handheld unit, which allows them to go to a customer rather than the other way around.
“They don’t have to bring the product to us for us to scan it,” said Williams.
“For example, we have a customer which wanted to do a left-hand drive to right-hand drive conversion for a car, so we’d go out on the site instead of having them bring the whole thing to us.
“And it’s much more convenient for the customer. Then we take that data, a point cloud, and then we fix up the data to make a watertight model of it. And from there in SolidWorks we can modify the design, if needed, tidy it all up, and then press print.”
Williams plans to be a part of the CSIRO’s Additive Manufacturing Network, which will hold its first meeting on August 20, and hopes that this and his own companies efforts will help the industry learn more about how they might get some mileage out of the much-hyped technology.
He believes that the caution around adopting 3D printing will disappear with time, as more and more engineering and industrial design degrees are awarded.
“These graduates will be comfortable with the technology because it is now a core part of their industrial design courses.”
“When they find employment we will see a significant uptake in the use of additive manufacturing,” he said.