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Published 29 November 2012 05:16, Updated 29 November 2012 07:03
Head start: RMIT’s Alexandar Subic Photo: Luis Ascui
Brisbane-based Ferra Engineering said in September it intends to be the first contractor in the world to use additive, or 3D, manufacturing to mass-produce aerospace components.
The two-metre-long titanium parts for Lockheed Martin’s F-35 joint strike fighter will be made under a $200 million agreement, Ferra owner and chief executive Mark Scherrer says.
But additive manufacturing, a process by which an object is created layer by layer, as a material – plastic or metal – is deposited by a laser or ion beam, also offers Australian industry the chance to manufacture niche, high-value, customised products, the head of RMIT University’s School of Aerospace, Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering Aleksandar Subic says.
While the opportunities are great, however, Australia has only a short window – Subic puts it at five to 10 years – in which to develop its use of the technology and become a world leader. Europe and the US, not to mention China, are aware of the technologies and are working to develop them. Further investment and greater industry involvement are crucial. “We have a five to 10 year head start,” Subic says. “Given 10 years, if we haven’t advanced sufficiently, forget about it. It’s a race for time. This is one of the most promising scenarios for economies such as Australia – [it] could be lost if it’s not harnessed.”
The government so far has failed to sufficiently support the growth of this technology, an August report by the Prime Minister’s manufacturing taskforce says. “Emerging value chains in areas that bridge industries and regions – such as the extended resources sector, Asian food markets, the cellulose fibre ecosystem and additive manufacturing – receive little systemic support,” it says.
Additive manufacturing is so called because it builds an object up from nothing – in contrast to historical methods which subtract from existing material, carving out pieces or leaving off-cuts to shape a finished piece. The process can be performed on a range of machines, from simple ones for home use, or advanced units in the $20 million facility RMIT has built that uses titanium dust as its base material.
It’s not always a clear path to commercial application, however. While the technology offers possibilities in industries such as sporting goods, for customisation of equipment, it takes time to work out the business model for it.
“Personalisation of protective equipment is where the focus is,” the chief executive of cricket helmet maker Albion Sports, Brendan Denning, says.
“The hard part is, I don’t know how difficult that’s going to be. There are degrees of personalisation you can try and achieve – rather crude forms and advanced forms.”
One opportunity for Australia is to create an industry for medical implants and medical parts. RMIT is working with the University of Melbourne and St Vincent’s Hospital’s limb reconstruction program to create prototype implants for treating cancerous growths within bones.
“As they cut out the cancer, we provide them with a titanium implant to substitute where that cancer was,” Subic says. “Now, you just order a prefabricated standard part that doesn’t have the exact shape.”
As manufacturing is a process that can easily be replicated, the trick for a high labour-cost country such as Australia is in developing and safeguarding product design. Australian businesses must own the design and develop the intellectual property, Subic says.
“Digital design and manufacturing are inseparable,” he says. “Without that strategical linkage . . . we’re buggered as an economy, as is every other Western economy. These are the strategies to move away from that labour-cost paradigm. It’s a marriage made in heaven.”
Where additive manufacturing permits the creation of an object, computer aided engineering (CAE) allows the design. Advanced software that allows virtual testing of load-bearing objects permits designs to be tested and refined before they ever reach physical form.
Subic’s school is working on side intrusion bars for cars – the bars that protect a passenger from the side in the case of a collision – and is trying to develop bars that resemble human bone in structure.
“Bones in humans and animals are light, porous structures,” he says. “We’re trying to copy that and develop side intrusion bars based on bone structure. That would reduce the weight significantly while still fulfilling the crash-worthiness requirements. That’s why we have to test them virtually.”
In the aerospace and vehicle industries, reducing the weight of components to cut down on fuel use and carbon emissions is crucial and offers the potential for whole new industries to design and produce new parts. Additive manufacturing can be used for high-value repair of expensive components found in the aerospace, vehicle, defence and energy industries.
If such possibilities take off – as Subic hopes the intrusion bar will – it will throw up new challenges. Australian manufacturers will need to manage production elsewhere to make sure higher value-added items are produced in sufficient number at suitably low cost.
“If we need to move to high volume, we don’t have to manufacture here,” he says. “If we own the design, let’s step up the manufacturing in China.”