Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Additive Manufacturing: Collaboration Trumps Complexity

By Mike Heard

Subsidies are required to provide industry-wide access to additive manufacturing technologies.

Additive manufacturing is a generic but advanced manufacturing technology that’s essential to any diverse complex manufacturing economy. Successful adoption of additive manufacturing is itself a complex undertaking and, for other than very large businesses, prohibitively expensive and risky if attempted in-house and alone.

Manufacturing in Australia is comprised of a few relatively large organisations and many small-to-medium enterprises (SME). Economy-wide adoption of additive manufacturing requires models of collaboration between governments, industry and research institutions. Such collaboration, initially government-subsidised, can provide access for individual businesses to additive manufacturing knowledge and physical capability at reasonable cost.

Additive manufacturing is applicable to the manufacture of complex tooling, components and finished products in many materials, including various metals and plastics. It may be utilised for modelling, prototyping, short runs, mass customisation and, in specific circumstances, long production runs. It is an essential generic technology for a diverse manufacturing economy and is valuable to small, medium and large manufacturers across virtually all manufacturing sectors.

Strategic thinking about the end-use objective opens new design options that may be uniquely implemented using additive manufacturing. “Can this part be made more economically by additive manufacturing?” is usually the wrong question. The right one is: “What do I need to do, and why?”.

A first-principles design approach and a technology that can implement highly complex designs leads to the interrelated evaluation of various additive manufacturing materials, manufacturing processes, layering dimensions and machinery brands and models. Optimisation of the outcome is an iterative process involving several variables.

All of this points to a collaboration model between governments, research institutions and businesses – an important step in reversing the culture that sees Australia near last among OECD nations in collaboration focused on innovation.

Overcoming Cost and Risk

National and international expert presenters at a recent Adelaide workshop organised by ATSE and the South Australian government)agreed that SMEs adopting additive manufacturing (where it is the right technology) must have economical access to the necessary facilities and expertise to conduct the required iterative design and process experimentation and testing.

All of the models they presented incorporated a centre of additive manufacturing capital facilities and operational and research expertise available to various manufacturers on a fee for service or annual subscription basis.

It was apparent there are three key requirements for such a centre:

  • it needs a relatively broad range of additive manufacturing materials, process and equipment capabilities;
  • it requires ready access to the sophisticated research and measurement facilities and expertise demanded by the iterative optimisation process; and
  • it should be readily accessible to the manufacturers it seeks to serve.

Such a centre, taking South Australia as an example, would:

  • partner with and be the local gateway and facilitator of access for manufacturers to additive manufacturing capability, rather than duplicate existing equipment and expertise;
  • invest in the most needed additive manufacturing processes and equipment not held by partners, then provide them with reciprocal access; and
  • enable and encourage universities to provide access to their research, measurement and analysis capability, materials science, nanotechnology and other skills that already exist at the universities and are vital to the iterative optimisation process.

The fees for service and/or annual subscriptions for manufacturers using the centre would fund research projects for the universities involving materials and process optimisation, and universities would have the right to publish generic outcomes from research projects under guidelines agreed with industry partners of the centre.

Government subsidies would be required to establish such a centre but, over time, as additive manufacturing became established in industry, demand for the services of the centre would grow and the government subsidy could progressively diminish.

Federal and state funds are rightly available for projects to mitigate the very serious impacts of the loss of South Australia’s automotive industry and vital supply chain. Use of a portion of these funds to establish a generic advanced manufacturing capability in the state – of potential value to the majority of existing manufacturers – would seem to be a wise investment.

This is especially the case given the structure of South Australia’s manufacturing industry, with many SMEs employing a wide range of manufacturing processes to service a variety of markets.

It would also seem to be a model that would prove valuable to Australia.

Mike Heard FTSE is a prominent advocate for additive manufacturing, convenor of the Adelaide workshop and former CEO of Codan Limited, which he transformed from a small Adelaide radio manufacturer to a diversified technology product business with worldwide sales.