Partnership will help kick-start Australia’s 3D printing future

A boost has been given to additive manufacturing/3D printing in Australia’s engineering and manufacturing sectors, with a new partnership established between GE Additive and The University of Sydney late last year.

General Electric is a company with a massive pedigree in the world of manufacturing and processing engineering. Founded by Thomas Edison and J P Morgan among others in 1892, it has a range of interests in many industries including aviation, renewable energy, oil, gas and additive manufacturing.

With revenue in 2017 of $170 billion and assets of $526 billion, it is company that was once ranked number one in the world and now sits at number 14 in the US according to Forbes. In other words, if you are a university looking for a collaborative partner in the additive manufacturing space, they are a good starting point.

Two years ago, GE decided to set up a subsidiary aimed at additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, thus, GE Additive was born. It was looking for a partner in Australia that complements its hub-and-spoke strategic approach to research and development. The approach encourages non-competitive partnerships with leading universities and research organisations on joint initiatives.

This is why a partnership with the University of Sydney was sought. A Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed on Wednesday 12th December 2018 between the American- based company and the tertiary institution.

The 10-year MoU supports the creation of the first metal additive manufacturing “total ecosystem” in Australia – with the critical technology and people in place to drive commercial and economic opportunity, education, skills and job development, underpinned by a capacity for fundamental research.

The University of Sydney will receive a $1 million grant annually over the next 10 years, which will go towards not only research and development, but will also help foster adoption of metal additive manufacturing in Australia and the region.

“This MoU builds on [our] world- class expertise in the disciplines essential to advanced manufacturing such as materials engineering and integrated digital systems,” said the university’s vice-chancellor and principal, Dr Michael Spence.

“By partnering with GE Additive, we can set the agenda for this disruptive technology and ensure that Australia is primed to contribute to this exciting next phase of the industrial revolution. “The collaboration will drive the research and development needed to learn how this disruption to manufacturing can be harnessed for economic benefit.”

At an event held at Sydney’s Bangaroo precinct in early December, members of GE Additive’s US-based executive, the University of Sydney’s manufacturing/research/engineering faculties, as well as New South Wales business interests, talked about the partnership and what it will mean for the state, and country, in the long term.

Collaboration was the main buzzword of the event, and is something that all parties were pushing as additive manufacturing starts to make a name for itself as the new norm in the engineering and manufacturing spaces.

Currently, additive manufacturing makes up about three per cent of the $50 trillion in global manufacturing enterprises. And it is the other 97 per cent where the growth will occur, according to GE Additive’s chief commercial officer Debbra Rogers. And it’s not just within the realm of 3D printing itself that will trigger the increase.

“It is in the software. It is in the material. And these ecosystems that develop around it that will bring out the other [possibilities],” said Rogers. “With regards to the materials and metals that are here in Australia in terms of mining, this can lead to a strong advantage especially in complying with education levels [in the country].”

Rogers has a fervent, almost evangelical, regard for additive manufacturing, but that is because although it is now entering the mainstream, General Electric (GE) as a company has been involved in the development of the process for more than a decade. And all the positives it brings to the sector excite her – the possibilities are endless. GE has already proven that with some of the products it is also making, she said.

“With regards to the challenges facing Australia, it’s daunting in a sense,” she said. “GE has spent 15 years concentrating on additive manufacturing. Aviation is well on its way to production – we’ve built 30,000 parts and we’ve built engines that are almost 75 per cent additive, which represents massive savings for us in that market. I think a combination of the New South Wales government and the university system, with its educating of engineers, will bring about a closure in the gap of knowledge faster.

“GE’s had a long journey. It’s been 10-12 years since we put out the fuel nozzle, which was our very first additive product.

“We now have a catalyst engine that is almost made from 25 per cent additive. As well as cost savings, it is also light in weight, which means less fuel use when it is in operation.”

The University of Sydney’s Professor Simon Ringer.

Michael Sharp, the NSW director of the Advanced Manufacturing Growth Centre, is looking at the bigger picture this opportunity will afford – and he’s not thinking just in terms of NSW or even Australia.

“We have a company in Brisbane that is 3D printing orthotics for shoes,” he said. “So, it is more than just the work and machinery, it is the collaborative effort that goes into that. We would much rather see them have a global audience of seven billion people than just the 25 million people here in Australia. Collaboration is the key word you will hear over and over again. To build this ecosystem that we are creating right across the nation now is a terrific time for manufacturers to get on board. The orthotics is more than just the orthotic itself, it is the algorithms that go into the software. It is the sales and service. How do you talk to your global customers? How do you get your brand out there and be recognised for the work you do right here in Australia and value add?”

From the University of Sydney’s point of view, it’s not just the grant money that will help put the university on the map. It’s also the long game – to help put Australia on the additive manufacturing map, according to the tertiary institution’s academic director of core research facilities, Professor Simon Ringer.

“I’ll give you a peek into the crystal ball that we have at Sydney Uni. It’s a crystal ball that shows the way we are playing a leadership role in helping our SMEs to enter into these global supply chains,” he said. “If you think about the Australian aerospace industry, which is flourishing right now there are 830 companies with 14,000 people working in that industry. It has $4 billion in revenue, and 25 per cent of that – $1 billion – is export oriented.

“You can see there is a way a partnership with the university/GE Additive can help Australian companies penetrate those global markets and supply chains and actually succeed,” he said, “either transitioning their business into additive or other areas they are entering into. Specifically, when [a company like GE Additive] comes to us, we’ve got research facilities, we’ve got have capability, engineers and scientists doing materials and so on that we talked about today.

“We want to help people design. We want to help people do the business supply modelling. We want to help people look at the legal aspects – a sort of total enterprise solution is what we can offer. And we know simply hanging our shingle out as an individual university is not going to cut it. But we think in partnership we can actually be there to facilitate it – to help with those new supply chains.”

Vice-president and chief technology officer for GE Additive, Christine Furstoss, also makes it clear that there is nothing revolutionary about 3D printing, though it will be a new way of approaching manufacturing. To her, getting on board now is a must for those who want to be part of manufacturing’s future.

“I call additive manufacturing a revelation, not a revolution,” she said “I know it is often referred to as the next industrial revolution. To me, a revolution is a group that is saying ‘we are going to take over, we are going to change everything’. That is not what additive manufacturing is all about. It’s about embracing technologies that we have today. It’s not one group that is going to make a change, it’s going to take all of us. It is going to take a true community to make sure that we can impact change in how our customers, our industries, our students, our teams, our businesses – think about growth. Think about being able to manufacture different. Thinking about being about to make new types of components. Being able to serve new industries in new ways. It really is a revelation to say that we have that opportunity to be able to drive growth in a new way.”

There were several universities in the running to become partners with GE Additive.

So, why did they decide to go with the University of Sydney? There were two main reasons.

“With the University of Sydney, I know that they have the strength of materials, which are key because you are forming properties at the same time,” said Furstoss. “However, with the University of Sydney, another reason is that they take a whole system view. They bring together automation, plus design, plus knowledge, and I like taking that system view and running with it.”

The MoU comes on the back of the university’s commitment to establish a new 1,000sqm Additive Manufacturing and Advanced Materials Processing research facility that will serve as a focal point for the partnership. The development of this laboratory is the initial phase of a plan to build greater capacity and capability at its Parramatta/Westmead campus.