Additive manufacturing processes – in particular 3D printing using metals – are already having a huge impact in industries such as aerospace and defence. However, this groundbreaking technology is also revolutionising design and production processes across a much wider array of advanced manufacturing sectors, and delivering demonstrable benefits.

“Within 20 years, there will be a seismic shift in how we manufacture for the aerospace and defence industry,” states Brian Neff, a major investor in Sintavia, an advanced manufacturing company using SLM Solutions 280HL dual laser system for the production of parts for aerospace and defence.

A recent study funded by the US Department of Energy’s Advanced Manufacturing Office demonstrated that aircraft weight can be reduced by 7% by replacing conventional means of manufacturing with additive manufacturing — an astonishing number for an industry where the majority of weight efficiency improvements are one or two percentage points. However, this is not the only industry that can benefit from smart uses of 3D printing techniques in additive manufacturing, finding more opportunities presents an exciting challenge for Australian manufacturers.

Beyond the hype

3D printing has become a household concept – the public’s fascination in the subject boosted by eye-catching media coverage such as the recent news about an allegedly fully functional 3D printed handgun designed by an Australian journalist. Would-be developers, designers and educators have driven the hype as they have launched into experimentation with notions of desktop 3D printing that would revolutionise one-off production.

This initial ‘hobby’ period of embracing 3D printing technology has provided valuable lessons about the manufacturing process, such as the relationship of design change with iteration, and the specific CAD requirements of structural concepts. Meanwhile the occurrence of obsolescence demonstrated the real need for exacting quality control standards. Now that the dust is finally settling on this initial stage, it is manufacturers who are embracing the opportunities offered by 3D additive processes, and we are now witnessing a real game change with the expanding use of metal powders.

Light-weight benefits

One of the game changers contributing to this seismic shift is the availability of aluminium and titanium in powder form. Aluminium and titanium have long been regarded favourably for the production of items where weight is a critical factor in the finished goods.

Aluminium is used for the construction of items including aircraft fuselages, beer cans, window frames and kitchen foil, due not just to its light weight but also on account of its low cost. Titanium also has light-weight properties, but in addition it boasts the highest strength-to-weight ratio of any metal. It is used, for example, to produce critical parts in high-end racing cars and portable computers, for sports equipment such as bicycle frames and ski poles, and for medical applications such as hip joint replacement. Even the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, is covered in titanium panels!

While examples of products manufactured using titanium and aluminium can already be found across a wide range of markets, the process of selective laser melting has the added value of reducing overall product costs. By using powders to ‘build’ a product layer by layer in a 3D printing-type process, wastage is reduced and the need for tooling is omitted.

For Australian companies interested in exporting their goods for overseas applications, weight-critical products offer an attractive proposition. Using metal powders in a selective laser melting process offers opportunities of identifying new ways to manufacture known parts at a reduced cost, particularly when compared to the current processes used in the manufacture of titanium. However it also opens the door to finding new product applications.

The selective laser melting process also offers considerable scope for component design because parts can be produced without the need for tooling. Just as an architect draws up plans before building a house, 3D additive manufacturers draw up CAD plans before production. This allows for cost-effective changes to be made during the design phase, and for cost-effective alterations to be made during the iteration process, prototyping and testing phase. Infinite design possibilities mean new product solutions are possible as well as improvements on current products, particularly those that comprise many machined parts, which may all be joined in a single production process.

Drone technology partnership

In June 2015, SLM Solutions partnered with US firm Aero Kinetics to bring metal additive manufacturing processes to commercial unmanned aircraft, perhaps better as ‘drones’. Headquartered in Fort Worth, Texas, Aero Kinetics holds FAA-type certification for multi-rotor unmanned aircraft and produces products for use in critical infrastructure, disaster or emergency response purposes, border security, agricultural applications and electronic news gathering. Demand for vertical takeoff and landing unmanned aircraft systems is growing, with Aero Kinetics’ products sold internationally.

“We are thrilled to have SLM on board with our program,” commented W. Hulsey Smith, founder of Aero Kinetics. “The safety, speed, and quality of SLM’s machines are well suited to produce ultra-lightweight structural components for unmanned aircraft. When coupled with Aero Kinetics’ subject matter expertise in design for additive manufacturing for the aerospace industry, we will reduce weight in our critical structural components.”

Aero Kinetics uses both aluminium and titanium powders for prototyping and within the final product. The SLM Solutions laser system allows the company to rapidly produce complex parts including fully optimised, aerospace-grade components. The partnership between SLM Solutions and Aero Kinetics in the development and production of unmanned aerial drone technology should result in a significant leap forward, as 3D printing enables more affordable as well as lighter production components.

Research collaboration

Across the globe, universities and research institutes are working to assist industry in taking up the challenges presented by additive manufacturing technology by offering prototyping opportunities, training and advice. Centres exist in RMIT, Swinburne University, Monash University, the Advanced Manufacturing CRC, as well as CSIRO’s Lab 22 in Victoria. A new university centre is scheduled to open in New South Wales (NSW) late in 2016.

The Direct Manufacturing Research Centre in Padderborn University, Germany, aims to develop key technical advancements to enable direct manufacturing in series production, to identify ways to integrate and transfer additive manufacturing technologies to commercial companies, and to promote the corresponding paradigm shift from product-based design to function-based design.

As fast as this new 3D advanced manufacturing technology is developing, it is being trialled and tested in universities and research centres, and is fast finding its way into the manufacturing sector. There is a worldwide push towards smarter, ecologically sustainable and economically beneficial production processes and products. If advanced manufacturing using laser-based 3D metal printing moves industry in this direction, everyone stands to benefit.

On 24 February, RMIT’s Centre for Advanced Manufacturing in Melbourne will hold a seminar addressing the possibilities and opportunities for Australian industry in 3D metal applications for all those keen to move into the future of additive manufacturing.