Additive Manufacturing an Exciting Future

June 12, 2015

You may have seen the recent news article about a girl on the Sunshine Coast who received a new hand. She was born with no fingers on her right hand but is now able to catch a ball like the other kids thanks to an affordable 3D printed prosthetic hand. This is just one recent amazing event in the world of 3D printing also known as additive manufacturing.

Additive manufacturing was developed in the 1980s and it is a process where layers of material, for example plastics, metals or organic materials, are built up into a three dimensional shape via a computer controlled machine. Regular CAD software files provide the instruction to the printer. Some of the more basic and affordable 3D printing machines use plastic filament which is applied through a moving nozzle and heated to flow to the shape required. More advanced machines use electron beams to heat metal powder to form metal objects in intricate shapes. Others use a cold but very high speed blast to dynamically add metal to a surface. This is especially suitable for high value metals due to low waste in the process. In China, even full scale buildings have been 3D printed in concrete. The advantages are in being fast to produce unique products, minimal raw material waste and no regular tooling cost.

With all this varied capability, additive manufacturing will be a key innovative feature for many industries manufacturing now into the future. In the medical field limbs and even organs may be produced in exact fit for the patient. Only last year the University of Sydney announced their work with US researchers had produced the necessary blood vessels to allow printed tissue to survive on its own. This is a major breakthrough that progresses researchers towards being able to create “spare parts” for patients.

In the Geelong region, additive manufacturing may assist industries developing products in small production runs, even one-offs and allow some tooling to be produced cheaply and quickly. Some local companies are already investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in additive manufacturing hardware and technology. Many more will follow as technology matures and costs reduce.

Currently, additive manufacturing is in its early days compared to volume manufacturing. This is due to the speed of current machines and so the process is often suited to prototyping. One promising development into a faster higher quality result may come through “growing” 3D products. The photo-curable resins needed for this new process are relatively expensive now but are likely to become lower cost as the technology develops and is more widely used. If you would like to know more take a look at the online TED Talk by Joseph DeSimone.

Many industries in Geelong can benefit from adopting additive manufacturing in addition to the traditional high cost tooling solutions which suit high volume manufacturing. It is well reported that innovation almost doubles the likelihood of productivity growth in Australian businesses. Moreover, more than 80% of Australian business owners believe innovation is the main driver of a creative economy and the best way to improve productivity.

With the upcoming opening of Deakin University’s Centre for Advanced Design in Engineering Training (CADET) Geelong’s capability in this sector will be dramatically increased and opportunities to deliver new products will be available. That is a big incentive for engaging with Deakin University through the Industry Innovation Program. The IIP works to create multiple linkages between industry and Deakin University that develop our region’s manufacturing.

Mike Williams is the Industry Innovation Manager at the Geelong Manufacturing Council, ph 0439 882366