Additive manufacturing: trends and opportunities
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Additive manufacturing: trends and opportunities

Aug 14, 2023

As the director of CSIRO’s Lab 22, Australia’s centre for additive innovation, I have witnessed the rapid and impressive growth of the additive manufacturing (AM) industry.

Author: Dr Daniel East – group leader, Advanced Manufacturing and Metals, CSIRO

When we established Lab 22 in 2015, our primary goal was to introduce the pioneering technology of 3D printing to Australian companies and demonstrate its potential benefits.

Since then, AM has evolved into a mature and thriving industry, embraced by Australian businesses across diverse sectors for its efficiency and effectiveness in production.

Aerospace companies have used AM to create lightweight and intricate parts, reducing costs and improving fuel efficiency on the way. In healthcare, AM has been instrumental in producing personalised implants and prosthetics, leading to better patient outcomes. Automotive businesses have adopted AM for rapid prototyping and parts manufacturing, expediting the design process.

And consumer goods companies have leveraged AM to offer unique and customisable products, differentiating themselves in crowded marketplaces.

All these companies have benefited from AM’s ability to fabricate complex geometries, reduce lead times, minimise waste, and enable mass customisation, thereby driving efficiency, fostering innovation, and enhancing customer satisfaction.

These processes also open up the design window for components that may not have been manufacturable or economic through other processes.

A great example of this is metallic AM which has carved out its own market niche producing geometrically complex small parts, such as heat exchangers, biomedical implants, custom sporting goods, mixers, and production dies featuring conformal cooling channels.

In the past few years, the growth of AM has accelerated even further, catalysed by disruptions caused by COVID-19 which exposed vulnerabilities in conventional supply chains.

Amidst the chaos, AM emerged as a versatile and modular production system, gaining recognition for its potential in distributed and point-of-use manufacturing which can eliminate single points of failure. Here, AM offers resilience, reduces dependency on global supply chains and has become increasingly valued as an enabling technology.

This decentralised model of working is especially advantageous for Australian companies, given our remoteness from major manufacturing hubs in Asia and Europe. Remote sectors, such as defence, mining, resources, and agriculture, particularly stand to benefit. These industries often face logistical challenges in accessing traditional manufacturing resources and spare parts.

The growth of AM has been supported by technological improvements and the capabilities of available equipment.Of note is the expansion in the capabilities of larger format printers – particularly those leveraging robotic techniques. Such advancement has significantly impacted the size and complexity of the parts that can be manufactured, opening up many new applications and benefits.

Larger format printers with robotic armatures equipped with deposition heads allow us to produce much larger components than traditional AM systems. This enables structures that previously couldn’t be produced in a single piece.

The result is an increase in structural integrity and quicker assembly times.

However, it’s not just about size. These printers are ideal for creating less geometrically complex parts, which can be beneficial when functionality and structural strength are more important than intricate design.

We have also seen a notable expansion of solid-state based techniques – or those that transform materials from a solid form into the final part without passing through a liquid phase. Benefits include reduced thermal stresses, less distortion, and the ability to process materials that are hard to melt or mix.

Fused filament printing is a very interesting solid-state process. It works by pushing a thin strand of heated plastic, called a filament, through a nozzle to build objects layer by layer. This technique is commonly employed to produce intricate models, functional parts, and detailed prototypes.

Another innovative solid-state technique is friction stir AM which combines the principles of friction stir welding and AM to create strong and defect-free metal structures.

With advancements in AM, we’ve seen a surge in interest in simulation and quality assurance methods. These are critical in ensuring the parts produced via AM meet the required standards of performance and safety, especially in high-stakes industries such as defence and for biomedical applications.

Techniques such as real-time monitoring of the AM process and advanced software tools for simulation are becoming more commonplace, which is promising for the continued growth of AM technologies.

CSIRO continues to drive innovation

Here at CSIRO, we played a significant role in the driving the adoption of AM in Australia, and we continue our commitment to innovation in the industry to this day.

On the research front, CSIRO is spearheading various initiatives. Our large-format AM work, for instance, could allow mining companies to manufacture parts on site, unlocking productivity gains through reduced downtime. We’re also working on a range of software tools which could streamline and optimise the AM process.

I’m particularly excited about the software we are developing to generate robotic tool paths for repair and part manufacture. Our work on in-situ measurement is also notable, as this could provide immediate feedback on the AM process, enabling real-time adjustments and improvements to ensure the highest quality outputs.

In addition to metallic parts, CSIRO is also exploring the frontier of functionally graded materials. These are parts made from a combination of different alloys or metals and ceramics within the same component. This brings a new world of possibility for AM, as it allows us to create parts with properties that can vary according to the specific requirements of different sections of the part.

We are thrilled to be a core partner in the federally funded Trailblazer Universities Program an initiative aimed at supporting six Australian universities and their partners in becoming leaders in research commercialisation.

Here, CSIRO will play a vital role by providing universities access to specialised AM equipment and expertise essential for their projects.

For instance, for the Resources Technology and Critical Minerals Trailblazer, led by Curtin University, we will acquire Binderjet printers known for their ability to achieve high-resolution outputs in high-volume production. These machines boast a faster production rate compared to other AM processes.

The initial Trailblazer project involves manufacturing parts for the SpiroPak technology developed at Curtin. SpiroPak increases the efficiency of chemical processes by using parts with a unique, nature-inspired geometry that improves mass transfer and reduces energy loss.

CSIRO will support this work by researching methods to reduce the cost of manufacture of parts that can reliably be produced with the Binderjet process.

Another technology CSIRO will obtain with the Defence Trailblazer – Concept to Sovereign Capability, led by the University of Adelaide in partnership with UNSW, is the robotic laser wire deposition equipment, which can create large structures with higher resolution than wire arc AM, while still using cost- effective wire feed instead of expensive metal powders.

Laser processes offer greater control over heat input, making for better control of material properties. The initial project will focus on manufacturing aerospace parts from titanium alloys.

Our research will explore the production of parts that are larger than a metre, using materials that are traditionally challenging to fabricate through other techniques.

CSIRO will also acquire a material SLM laser powder bed, for work with The University of Southern Queensland, through the iLAuNCH Trailblazer for space research. This instrument is particularly suited for parts operating at high temperatures, allowing the incorporation of cooling channels within the structure using a copper surface for efficient heat conduction.

Structural sections of the part can be joined with a different metal possessing higher strength. The equipment will be used for prototype production for components operating in extreme environments.

These acquisitions, along with other exciting equipment, promise to unlock more complex and diverse applications of AM, pushing the boundaries of what is achievable. We are thrilled to be at the forefront of this effort, driving innovation and propelling the industry into a promising future.

As the director of CSIRO’s Lab 22, Australia’s centre for additive innovation, I have witnessed the rapid and impressive growth of the additive manufacturing (AM) industry.Author: Dr Daniel East – group leader, Advanced Manufacturing and Metals, CSIROFrom early inception to deep integrationSupporting stronger supply chainsAdvances in large format printingSolid-state techniques gain prominenceSimulation and quality assurance advances engender trustBlazing a trail for AM’s future