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Australia can create more value from titanium ore says CSIRO expert

Australia’s titanium wealth holds great potential. Additive manufacturing might play a part in creating more value from ore in the future.

Titanium is the fourth-most common metal element there is, but processing it is difficult and thus expensive and it is generally only used for specialist applications.

The element with the atomic number 22 is also incredibly useful for reasons including its strength, biocompatibility and light weight – less than 5 grams per cubic centimetre – as well its excellent resistance to corrosion.

As you may already know, Australia is blessed with world-beating reserves of titanium ore. Many – including John Barnes, Titanium Theme Leader in the CSIRO’s Future Manufacturing Flagship – will tell you that with a little focus, we could be playing a bigger role in the global market for the precious metal.

This would include investing in the means to process ore into metal and working with this, rather than exporting raw material or selling it as just titanium dioxide (the ubiquitous, highly-useful non-toxic substance used for purposes ranging from colouring toothpaste and paint to coating self-cleaning windows).

“If we want to be number one, we can be,” Barnes told Manufacturers’ Monthly, ahead of his speech at the Inside 3D Printing conference on July 9. All that’s needed is some focus.

According to the scientific research organisation, at current rates, the country’s titanium stores will be depleted in 90 years. However, by harnessing the full value of processed titanium, the same export earnings could be achieved and sustained for 9,000 years.

“If I was a king for a day and could make everyone here sort of row in the same boat, that’s what I would probably prefer people to do,” offered Barnes.

The CSIRO’s Titanium Theme has been trying to develop cheaper and better ways of processing and working with the metal – such as its TiRo process and thermally assisted assisted machining – and exploring additive manufacturing, including with electron beam melting and coldspray technologies.

In 2012 the CSIRO’s Lab 22 became the first southern hemisphere location with an Arcam machine, which melts titanium on a powder bed using an electron beam.

High profile uses have included creating lugs for Perth company Flying Machine’s 3DP-F1 bike, a sleep apnoea solution, giant bugs, and a blue dragon for a seven-year-old girl from Brisbane named Sophie.

Organisations that have expressed interest in titanium additive manufacturing have been diverse, with the first application a tag to track fish, and the second a vet wanting a horseshoe specially designed to treat lameness.

“Really that was just something where the 3D printing made something affordable, which really wasn’t affordable before,” explained Barnes of the first application, for fish tags.

“The design concept was there, but it just couldn’t be done for a cost that anybody was willing to pay and that’s where 3D printing came in and altered that equation. So that’s a good example – an non-traditional manufacturer that can now offer some additional services, if you will.

“And that kind of followed through through the sleep apnoea for the dentists.”

Barnes believes being able to 3D print in titanium and its alloys can alter the equation for a number of businesses, and the CSIRO will be explaining its technologies and talking about design with SMEs attending the expo or visiting Lab 22 in Melbourne.

The CSIRO has noticed visitor numbers at the lab increasingly sharply in the last six months.

Barnes and others argue there’s a potential to do more with metal 3D printing if Australia acts quickly, with the technology growing briskly but less mature than the market for plastic 3D printing.

“And Europe and the US have quite a head start because that’s where the companies that make the equipment exist and they’re larger markets,” said Barnes.

“They’re also spending a lot more money. Just in Europe alone I think they spent something like $300 million on R&D and most of that was spent on metallic additive.”

One of the areas where metal 3D printing has been of interest in Australia and elsewhere has been aerospace. A landmark event was GE Aviation’s announcement last year that it will beincluding 19 nozzles in its next generation LEAP engine with plans to ramp up production to 45,000 units annually within three years.

For titanium in aerospace, additive manufacturing offers huge potential material saving advantages over making parts from a billet. It’s been said that one kilogram worth of parts made for aerospace take 11 kilograms’ worth of titanium with subtractive manufacturing (the “fly to buy ratio”)

In Australia, the CSIRO’s longstanding partnership with Boeingfor whom they have been named Supplier of The Year – has led to the creation of a tool to predict distortion in larger parts.

Barnes describes the innovation as world-leading, potentially a huge cost and time-saver, and something that turned heads at the AeroMat 2014 conference.

“It’s a really powerful tool that allows the manufacturing engineer to build the part virtually before they go into the chamber,” he explained.

Barnes believes that as metal 3D printing matures, machines will get bigger and faster and the demands for better process monitoring and control will also increase. The cost of materials will also need to and should come down.

“There’s lots of capability buried in those machines that still hasn’t been been tapped in terms of being able to inspect while you build,” he explained.

He added that at the moment a lot of machines available have a capacity of around 200 cubic cm – a great impediment to making many of the parts that need to be created.

“And with that [increase] comes the need to have this technology like what we’ve developed with Boeing, to be able to predict how the things are going to build and the stresses that are going to build up in it.

“So at 200 cubic mm, it probably doesn’t matter a whole lot. Once we move to 400 cubic mm or 500 or 600 or 700 and it starts to matter a lot.”

Barnes will be speaking at the Inside 3D Printing
on the topic “3D Printing in Metals: Where
It’s At, Where It’s Going and What Australia’s Doing About It!” at 11:45 am

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