Wire AM– A new additive technology

Additive manufacturing is a field where groundbreaking innovations are emerging all the time. One particularly promising new technique is wire-fed additive manufacturing, writes Alex Kingsbury.

Metal additive manufacturing (AM) has certainly taken the world by storm. With the ability to create shapes not previously thought possible, this revolutionary, Industry 4.0-enabling technique has backers from a range of different industries all over the globe. However, when metal AM is mentioned, the first thought is usually of a laser-powered machine fusing metal powders layer by layer.

Certainly, this has been the predominant technique with a vast amount of machine sales dedicated to laser powder bed fusion (LPBF) since the advent of commercially available AM. But new and intriguing metal AM technologies have been making headway of late and offering a point of difference to the commonly accepted LPBF systems. One such technique is wire-fed additive manufacturing.

The concept is very simple: it is based on traditional welding, but rather than welding components together, a weld bead is laid upon another weld bead. This process is repeated until there is a series of weld beads welded successively, such that they create a three-dimensional shape. The process is controlled by a robotic arm and the shape is built up on a substrate material (a base plate) that the part can be cut from once finished. The shape is considered a ‘near-net shape’: it is close to the final part shape but usually requires additional machining to achieve final part shape and tolerance.

This process has many benefits over both LPBF and more traditional manufacturing techniques such as casting, machining and forging.

Wire feedstock

As the name suggests, welding wire is the sole feedstock for wire-fed AM, meaning established supply chains can provide a feedstock source. Numerous certified alloys are readily available to build parts with. Often this means that moving to wire AM from a traditional manufacturing process does not need to involve a change of alloy, as the same alloy of the exact specification can be sourced through a global supply network. If an alloy can be welded, it can be used in a wire AM process.

Operationally, using wire as a feedstock makes life in the workshop much easier. Changeover time between alloys is straightforward as a new wire is inserted and there is minimal clean-up after the previous build. Additionally, working with wire is inherently safer than other AM feedstocks such as powders. It is not reactive, nor can it be inhaled or irritate the skin.


Parts made via wire AM have been proven to be stronger than parts made via forging or casting. As the wire feedstock is a 100% dense input material, there is negligible porosity induced in the fabrication process, leading to a very dense final part. Additionally, the wire AM process enables better control over deposition rates, and therefore has better control of cooling rates, enabling processing to be tailored to the working alloy. Improved material properties mean parts that once had to be constructed of solid material can be built as thin-walled parts. This reduces material consumption, improving the cost basis and overall competitiveness with traditional techniques such as casting.

For parts of medium complexity that are forged and machined, wire-fed AM can be an excellent alternative process. Typically, a wire AM part undergoes a final machining step to remove surface irregularities and ensure a smooth surface. The material machined away usually amounts to 2% to 10% of the total material deposited. Compared with high ‘buy-to-fly-ratio’ parts – where in some cases up to 90% of the original starting material must be machined away – this presents a significant material and cost saving. This is especially true for high-value materials that are difficult to machine such as titanium and nickel superalloys.

Like most AM processes, wire AM is most suitable for low to medium-volume production, as set-up and tooling costs are minimal. This lack of tooling also increases speed to market as lead times are significantly reduced. Increased speed to market assists with product development, allowing in-field testing to feedback to further design iteration, which the wire AM process can very flexibly accommodate. This lack of tooling can also assist with reduction of lead time for critical spares. Using wire AM, lead time can be reduced from months to days, meaning a business no longer needs to maintain large inventories of critical spares.

Using wire AM, part size becomes virtually unlimited. The process is only constrained by the size of the workshop and the reach of a robotic arm. As the process utilises a gas shroud, reactive materials such as titanium and aluminium can be easily processed. Of course, just because you can, does not mean you should. Exceptionally large items (in excess of 2m) tend to require excessive fabrication times and can make wire AM uncompetitive. Likewise, very small items (less than 20cm) tend not to be cost-competitive. However, like most manufacturing technologies, this is material and part-requirement dependent. Wire AM has a sweet spot where the technology is best put to use; usually for medium size parts of medium complexity. This applies across all metals and part functions.

Made in Australia by AML3D

Andy Sales knows this value only all too well. With a background in welding technology, Sales went to Cranfield University in the UK to complete his Masters in 2012. Cranfield had been developing a wire AM process and this inspired Sales to return to Australia to establish AML3D, a service bureau based on wire AM technology. In addition to commissioning its own wire AM-based system, AML3D has also developed a software package that integrates material-processing parameters with its robotic cell. These sets of material-specific parameters have been developed in-house by AML3D, and the team has been rigorous in ensuring they can achieve repeatability and reliability in their process.

But far from being content with that, Sales has ambitious global plans for AML3D. The company is planning a production facility in Singapore in the near term, with the ability to further expand that capability. This is driven by demand from the Singapore marine hub, as the location is a strategic hub for commercial shipping routes.

Sales recognised the applicability of wire AM for shipping early on. Ten months after establishing AML3D in Adelaide he secured certification from Lloyd’s Register, the global shipping industry accreditation body. Being a certified provider gives customers the assurance that work is being performed to stringent quality standards. With certification in place, AML3D was quick to deliver its first part to a marine customer: a set of martensitic stainless steel wear rings.

The rings were normally fabricated via a forging process, but this required an additional heat treatment post-processing step. The total lead time was six-to-eight weeks, which as a long lead item was either held in a spares inventory or replaced prematurely. Using wire AM, AML3D was able to manufacture the rings for the same cost, but was able to reduce the lead time to a few days. This is a real game-changer for ships in dock for a limited time.

In addition to the marine sector, AML3D is also engaged with Boeing. For the aerospace industry, reducing material wastage is key to profitability, particularly with expensive, high-value material such as titanium, where as much as 80% of the starting material ends up as chips or swarf – a low-value titanium waste stream. Boeing in particular has had a long-standing interest in pursuing wire AM, and has been working with Norsk Titanium, a company that uses a wire AM process that employs plasma as a heat source. Working with Boeing, Norsk Titanium has received Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certification for two structural aircraft parts in the US.

An aluminium jet engine cover plate manufactured by AML3D for an unnamed client showcases the benefits of wire AM when compared with machining. The cover plate was ordinarily machined from a 30kg billet and took four days of non-stop machining to produce. Using wire AM, a final machine of the near-net shape took just six hours to finish. Likewise, an aluminium wing rib, machined from plate, saw a 70% reduction in waste and a 60% reduction in cost. With those figures it’s hardly surprising that aerospace players across commercial and defence sectors are taking note of wire AM.

A new machine

To address the need for onsite production, especially in remote locations where spares inventories can be a real pain point for companies in the resources sector, Sales has created a packaged wire AM turnkey solution. Being guided by Industry 4.0 principals, the system integrates wire AM with machining and is controlled via AML3D software developed specifically for this hybrid solution. It means that customers can develop a digital inventory and produce a fully finished part onsite in days if not hours.

Selling this system, and the wire to be used in it, eases the pressure on the AML3D facilities in Adelaide and Singapore, and optimises the manufacturing-on-demand capabilities of wire AM. The machine is the first of its kind to be offered on the market.

Despite the outstanding possibilities of wire AM, AML3D is part of only a handful of wire AM-based businesses around the globe. RAMLAB in the Netherlands is the only other active service bureau, notable for its wire AM-produced ship propeller. MX3D, also in the Netherlands, uses a similar concept and in 2015 showcased an eyecatching demonstration of a robot 3D printing a bridge in mid-air. Norsk Titanium and Sciaky Inc. both produce wire AM systems – the former with a plasma-based process, Sciaky with an electron beam solution.

Like any new technology, it takes time for applications to develop and the benefits to proliferate through industry. Yet it is encouraging to see a small company in Australia with global connections taking the lead. No other wire AM companies around the world have made quite the progress that Sales and the team at AML3D have, with an established global presence, high-profile partnerships in place, and a business model poised for growth. Australia is fortunate to have a company right on our doorstep taking on this next frontier of additive manufacturing.

Alex Kingsbury is an Additive Manufacturing Industry Fellow at RMIT University.


Sevaan Group taps into IIoT with ZoomFab

Based in Minto, New South Wales, Sevaan Group recently took a big step towards the digital transformation of its manufacturing operations with the installation of the ZoomFab Smart Factory machine monitoring system.

Founded in 1997 by husband and wife team Jim and Artemis Tzakos, Sevaan Group is a cutting-edge metal manufacturer that delivers complete, end-to-end metal fabrication and machining solutions for a range of industries including defence, aerospace, medical, mining, energy, transport and retail. Along the way, it has also played a part in some interesting one-off projects, from helping in the development of an armoured wetsuit to protect commercial divers, to the restoration of the iconic Anzac Memorial in Sydney’s Hyde Park.

Sevaan Group has always been quick to adopt the latest manufacturing technology, with a state-of-the-art workshop boasting capabilities such as CNC machining, laser cutting, marking and engraving, welding, sheet metal and steel fabrication, CNC punching, finishing and assembly. Therefore it’s no surprise that the company was one of the first in Australia to embrace Industry 4.0, the revolution currently sweeping manufacturing.

“We talk about Industry 4.0 as something very new, very contemporary, but we probably started the journey at least seven years ago, without even knowing it,” explains Artemis Tzakos, Director of Leadership Development & Marketing at Sevaan. “We’ve implemented small changes that are already making a positive impact in terms of workflow and better efficiency.”

One more recent change has been the installation of ZoomFab. Distributed in Australia by Complete Machine Tool Services, ZoomFab is a comprehensive Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) platform that uses automated machine data collection and advanced analytics to provide manufacturing businesses with critical operational and strategic facts. It can monitor machines of any type or brand, using non-invasive sensors to monitor machine operation, energy requirements and other important parameters.

For each type of technology, ZoomFab uses a different combination of sensors to collect the data. Installation of sensors is simple, with no need to collect data from machine controls, making them safe from computer viruses. Moreover, there is no need for operators to input data by hand – manual data entry is the most common source of discrepancies that can make monitoring efforts unreliable.

ZoomFab brings into focus key indicators that affect a business, helping to achieve budgeted machine utilisation and identifying the actual hourly rate for each manufacturing operation. This information, significant though it is, is not routinely available from a typical MRP/ERP system. Being cloud-based, ZoomFab can be accessed from any computer or mobile device, providing vital business information instantly, wherever the user is.

Supported by powerful analytics, ZoomFab provides real-time information about machine and work centre utilisation. Users can instantly see when machines are switched on or off, the delay between turning the machine on and starting the first job, and how much time the machine has been running and idling. With operational facts instantly available, ZoomFab enables managers to take a proactive approach in eliminating problems before they appear and potentially become a source of confrontation or crisis. This approach in turn allows continuous business improvement, resulting in better organisation, improved machine utilisation, resource savings and substantially increased profit.

With ZoomFab, users can see the revenue and profit generated from each machine and work centre. The system accurately calculates each operation’s hourly rates and compares budgeted and actual results, showing the user where money is being made or being lost. ZoomFab’s powerful analytical and modelling capabilities allow the user to model the effects of changing working hours, improve machine utilisation, and remove or add machinery. This information is instrumental when making decisions about reducing or increasing working shifts, timing investments or purchasing the right equipment.

For company owners, plant and equipment often represent the biggest investment they will make. ZoomFab Asset Module is a comprehensive management tool for storing and maintaining records about company assets, their acquisition, finance, insurance, warranty and disposal. Attaching notes, documents, files and images to each record is easy. Machine wear and tear is inevitable, and well-maintained machinery has a direct effect on profits; Asset Module also monitors warranty periods and supports scheduled maintenance and calibration.

ZoomFab sensors and gateways have a range of 400m and are pre-configured in ZoomFab’s technology centre prior to shipment. This makes installation at the customer’s site straightforward, without the need for on-site configuration and interruption to machine operation. Sensors and gateways communicate using 128-bit encryption on designated, region-specific radio frequencies. Gateways are connected to the internet using an Ethernet or cellular connection inside the factory.

For Sevaan Group, the installation of ZoomFab is helping the company streamline its operations and maintain its competitive edge. Artemis believes there’s a bright future ahead for companies who embrace Industry 4.0.

“We understand change can be difficult, but it also brings so much opportunity,” she says. “Industry 4.0 is innovation. It’s about solving bigger problems in creative ways. And that really excites me for the world.”


BioAnalytics and Romar - Changing the lives of sleep apnoea sufferers

Sleep apnoea is a serious medical condition that affects about 10% of the global population. However, a recent collaboration between Romar Engineering and BioAnalytics could offer some relief to sufferers.

The Federal Government recently released a report called ‘Bedtime Reading’, in which it was estimated that sleep apnoea costs the Australian economy $26bn annually due to lost productivity, accidents and shorter life spans. It’s more than just feeling tired all day and keeping your partner awake with loud snoring. If you have sleep apnoea, the walls of your throat come together while you sleep. This blocks off your upper airway and stops you from breathing properly.

Airway blockages mean you can stop breathing for 10 to 60 seconds or until your brain registers this and tells you to wake up. This is often followed by a snort or gasping sound as your upper airway opens. Most of the time you won’t notice; however your partner certainly will. The pattern of waking can repeat itself hundreds of times per night, leaving you exhausted the next day. Not only that; it affects your overall health.

How sleep apnoea affects your health

It’s important to know that sleep apnoea affects more than your sleep. Untreated sleep apnoea has an impact on your health and is associated with many medical conditions. These include diabetes, heart disease and fatty liver disease.

Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) and Automatic Positive Airway Pressure (APAP) are considered the most effective treatment for obstructive sleep apnoea. CPAP delivers one level of pressure continuously throughout the night, whereas APAP automatically adjusts using an algorithm. Both CPAP and APAP devices work by delivering a gentle flow of air to the back of your throat using a mask. This flow of air creates positive air pressure, which forms an air splint that stops your airway from collapsing. This eliminates snoring and sleep apnoea.

The Bioanalytics device – An alternative to CPAP

BioAnalytics is an Australian start-up, headed up by Owen Morgan, who has been working closely with an experienced team of engineers at Romar Engineering, based in Sefton, New South Wales, to develop a new device that is set to change the lives of sleep apnoea sufferers.

While CPAP is the standard form of treatment for sleep apnoea patients, for approximately 30% of patients this method is not suitable. Primarily, this is down to comfort, both physical and psychological. In conjunction with Romar, the BioAnalytics team developed a new sleep apnoea device that is just one tenth the cost of current therapies and more comfortable to use. It will monitor patients’ quality of sleep and can be used by those 40% of patients who can’t use traditional therapies.

“This product is a real game-changer in the sleep apnoea market,” says Morgan. “It’s a world first.”

BioAnalytics connected with Romar through a product design firm. Morgan was seeking a manufacturer with silicone and product development expertise. Ideally, the start-up wanted a manufacturing partner who could help it develop a product from concept to production reality. Moreover it didn’t want to work with a variety of firms to achieve their product goals.

“Romar is very unique in the Australian landscape because they have engineering and product development capabilities,” Morgan adds. “This includes tool design, tool manufacturing, prototyping and production.”

BioAnalytics will soon begin a six-month clinical trial of its new sleep apnoea device. It is fully tooled and the design is complete. Following this trial, Bioanlaytics will seek regulatory approval both in Australia and the US. Romar will be with them every step of the way, manufacturing every device for the trial, and from there on into the future with its global product release. The partnership with Romar has been crucial in allowing BioAnalytics to reach this point successfully.

These are certainly exciting times for both Romar and BioAnalytics. For companies that have a new product that is broadly defined and is ready to go from concept to prototype phase, Morgan believes Romar is an ideal partner. He describes the relationship BioAnalytics has with Romar as a very collaborative and innovative one.

“Neil Wilson (Romar’s Chairman) and Alan Lipman (CEO) both have a genuine interest in products that make a difference,” he concludes. “Their engineering team is very responsive and open to innovation and problem-solving.”


Takumi Precision takes off with hyperMILL

With a name derived from ‘Takumi’, the Japanese term for craftsman or artisan, Takumi Precision Engineering has been delivering these attributes for more than 20 years.

Based in Limerick in the Republic of Ireland, Takumi Precision has been investing heavily in the last few years. The company recently completed a factory expansion that has taken floor space to  4,645sqm and invested more than €5m in new machine tools and CAM software to further extend its market-leading position on the Emerald Isle.

Takumi Precision is a prominent figure in the medical device, pharmaceutical, aerospace and precision engineering sectors in Ireland. The company manufactures orthopaedic implants and instruments, cardiovascular assembly aids, medical grade rasps, balloon moulds and delivery system components, as well as aluminium wing brackets and fuselage components for clients in the aerospace industry, and electrical, electronic, mechanical and optical engineering parts for the industrial precision machining sector.

Over the years, Takumi Precision has invested in turning centres from Tornos, Doosan and Miyano with three and five-axis machining centres from Doosan, Spinner and most recently Matsuura adding to the plant list. One of the company’s core investments has been hyperMILL CAM software from OPEN MIND Technologies, in a move that was driven by the onset of barrel tool technology, an influx of five-axis machines and challenges with previous CAM systems.

“Only five years ago, 90% of our work was in the medical industry with the remaining work being across a number of sectors including the aerospace market,” says Gerry Reynolds, Managing Director of Takumi Precision. “We had an opportunity to enter the aerospace market in a more positive way, increasing volumes from one-to-three offs to continuous batches of 10 to 15 on the Airbus A220, previously known as the Bombardier C-Series. We had to invest in five-axis technology to accommodate the ramping up of complex aerospace work, and we have bought 13 five-axis machines in the last five years to support this.”

The investment has paid dividends, with aerospace work increasing from 5% of turnover to almost 60% in less than five years. However, this has not been to the detriment of the medical business.

“Our business has doubled in size in the last three years due to the increased aerospace work, but the medical sector remains crucially important to our business,” Reynolds stresses. “Medical components are now 40% of our business – the volume of work has not reduced, it just hasn’t grown at the level of aerospace work. We now have 87 staff and are targeting a monthly turnover of €1m.”

The influence of CAM

“Ten years ago, I didn’t understand CAM and would have argued against it,” says Reynolds. “However, there was a necessity for CAM to run our machines, and at the time I called it ‘finger CAM’, as we were programming at the machine. We progressed to a more comprehensive CAM system and eventually installed eight seats of software. However, a visit to the AMRC (the University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre) introduced us to Ceratizit’s barrel tools and OPEN MIND’s hyperMILL CAM system. This changed the game for Takumi.”

After investing heavily in CAM software, Reynolds was apprehensive at the prospect of changing CAM systems.

“Over the last five to six years, we had spent a lot on CAM packages and what we had, worked relatively well,” he explains. “But there were a few issues with processing speed, occasional crashes and some feature limitations. It was the barrel tool machining features within the hyperMILL MAXX High Performance Strategy that appealed to me, but I wanted my team to take the lead, as they would be the ones using the software.”

The Takumi Precision team did their due diligence, taking in hyperMILL demos and then asking their existing CAM vendor if the barrel tool feature and the mirroring package were available. The CAM supplier, as well as several other vendors all said “It’s on its way” or “It’s in development” regarding more than just these two features in hyperMILL

“That told us all we needed to know about the various vendors in the market, but it told us a lot more about hyperMILL,” Reynolds adds. “They are clearly streets ahead of the other CAM developers. We have rapidly moved to hyperMILL. We bought our first seat 18 months ago and now we have six seats of hyperMILL. We are now phasing out our previous CAM system.”

The benefits of hyperMILL

The primary reason Takumi Precision invested in hyperMILL was the potential of barrel tools to significantly improve productivity. Reynolds comments: “The hyperMILL MAXX Machining High Performance Package and the respective barrel tools with their innovative geometry allow us to step down 5mm to 10mm, as opposed to 0.4mm to 0.8mm, when finishing pockets, walls or profiling features. This has instantly reduced finishing cycles by at least 70%, giving us a minimum overall cycle time improvement of 30% on every component.”

However, the benefit is not just the cycle time improvement: “We have historically had a number of staff undertaking finish-polishing of parts to ensure our surface finishes exceed customer expectations. Despite the increased speed and step-over rate with hyperMILL MAXX High Performance Machining, the surface finishes are much better than before. This is because the barrel tool has a higher engagement rate that keeps the tool in constant contact with the workpiece.”

Another feature that persuaded Takumi Precision to invest in OPEN MIND was the mirroring feature.

“In the aerospace industry, almost everything is manufactured with a left- and right-hand component,” says Reynolds. “The mirroring feature in hyperMILL is remarkably comprehensive and with just a touch of a button, we are reducing our programming times on most components by 50%. We have eight programming staff and the mirroring feature in hyperMILL is effectively doubling the productivity of this team.”

A better overall system

While hyperMILL has reduced cycle times on the shop floor by more than 20% and reduced programming times by upwards of 50% in the office, the benefits reach much further.

“hyperMILL is much faster than previous CAM systems and it handles ‘big data’ much better than we have previously witnessed,” says Reynolds. “This has eliminated unforeseen PC crashes and massively improved the reliability, processing and delivery of our data to the shop-floor.

“Furthermore, hyperMILL has so many ‘obvious’ features and short cuts that generate savings for the end-user; these ‘obvious’ features don’t appear on other CAM platforms. One feature that simplifies the throughput of programs and parts is hyperCAD. The OPEN MIND CAD system that is integrated into hyperMILL is an excellent platform that has now eliminated our reliance on CAD packages like Inventor. We can now expedite jobs through hyperCAD to hyperMILL with seamless ease – yet another feature that is making life easier for our programming team.”


Australia’s first robotics hub to drive advanced manufacturing jobs

The Queensland State Government plans to invest $7.71m over four years to establish the nation’s first robotics manufacturing hub to create and support more jobs.

According to State Minister for Manufacturing Cameron Dick, the Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing (ARM) Hub, would be developed in partnership with Queensland University of Technology (QUT) and global leading-edge company Urban Art Projects (UAP).

“The Hub will attract more than $10m in additional investment from QUT, UAP, and other partner organisations to bring the total investment to almost $18m,” Minister Dick said. “Few things are reshaping the world faster than the emergence of robotics and autonomous systems. But the good news is that for every robotic system that UAP acquires, new high-value jobs are created, often entirely new jobs or jobs that would have otherwise been off-shored to other countries.

Dick cited a report, ‘The robotics and automation advantage for Queensland’, commissioned by QUT which found the most likely economic benefit from the adoption of robotics and automation in Queensland over the next 10 years would be 1.5% added growth, a $77.2bn boost to Gross State Product and 725,810 new jobs. The Queensland Government’s Advanced Manufacturing Roadmap identified that the adoption of leading-edge technologies requires a highly skilled and capable workforce.

“The ARM Hub will provide practical production and manufacturing advice in a real-life factory environment, enabling Queensland manufacturers to learn cutting-edge robotic technologies and techniques, and develop industry skill and expertise to apply to their own businesses,” Dick added. “This is a facility for all of Queensland. All manufacturers across the state will be able to access the ARM Hub, across sectors as diverse as aerospace, biomedical, beef and food processing, defence, mining equipment, technology and services, rail manufacturing, and space.”

QUT Vice-Chancellor Professor Margaret Sheil said Queensland’s strong reputation as a robotics leader was based on a solid suite of capabilities including those developed at the Australian Centre for Robotic Vision, headquartered at QUT.

“QUT will invest over $4m to implement the ARM Hub, including support from the University’s Design Lab, which will provide expertise in high-value product development and the integration of new technologies into the manufacturing process,” Professor Sheil said.“The Hub will allow Queensland industry and research institutions to build the advanced capability that will enable manufacturers to be more competitive, bring manufacturing jobs back to Australia and generate new jobs here.

Minister Dick added that, while the ARM Hub will initially be in Brisbane, its services will be delivered across the state: “Regional manufacturers will have the opportunity to access these services through the Queensland Government’s Manufacturing Hubs in Cairns, Townsville and Rockhampton and the Defence Hubs in Townsville and Ipswich. The ARM Hub will further embed Queensland as a global leader in advanced robotics and design-led manufacturing.”


AmPro Innovation – Production-ready printing

Additive manufacturing is evolving fast, with new breakthroughs happening all the time. But questions persist over its potential to have a truly disruptive impact in a production setting. That’s where AmPro Innovations comes in. By William Poole.

AmPro Innovations designs and manufactures 3D metal printers, including the critical powder management systems required for the production of advanced metal parts. Established to bring fast and lower cost printers to market for industrial and research applications, AmPro Innovations was founded three years ago by Professor Xinhua Wu, currently Director of the Monash Centre for Additive Manufacturing. Since long before her time at Monash University, Wu has been building an impressive record of achieving in materials science and additive manufacturing, most notably her pioneering work in developing the first 3D-printed metal parts certified for use on commercial aircraft. Operating from a small facility on Monash’s campus in Notting Hill, in Melbourne’s south-east suburbs, AmPro designs and manufactures metal-based 3D printing technology, drawing on the expertise of Wu and her team.

AmPro Innovations identified several key gaps in the emerging 3D printer market: a fully inert system for printed part compliance; printers designed for industrial applications where the full ‘powder to part’ process speed is critical; and capabilities for emerging materials demanded of advanced applications.

“Professor Wu is a world leader in understanding metallurgy and its relationship to laser-build strategies,” says Anthony Lele, who runs Commercial Operations & International Sales at AmPro. “That’s really important: understanding that 3D printing is a relationship between material and process. If you don’t understand that, it’s hard to push the boundaries of materials, process and speed. A key thing about 3D printing is that you can make the unmakeable, but you can also blend powders to create materials you couldn’t machine from a billet. So it’s not just about the printer, it’s about understanding the inputs.”

That focus on the material inputs ripples through every aspect of AmPro’s work. Its ambition is not just to make 3D printers, but to utilise additive manufacturing to develop technological solutions in an advanced production environment. So along with a range of printers, it produces a whole raft of supporting technologies aimed at optimising productivity and efficiency, while drawing on all the potential that additive manufacturing has to offer.

The company currently has three metal printers on the market: two single-laser models and a twin-laser version, with a smaller model due to be released by the end of the year. All AmPro’s printers are based around the selective laser melting (SLM) process, with parts produced layer-by-layer from a bed of metal powder.

“A key objective of the printer is to be one of the fastest printers on the market using the powder-bed process,” says Lele. “Another aspect is to keep that printer running all the time. If it’s not printing, you’re not making money. And a lot of printers have a significant amount of downtime, where you’re trying to dig out the part from the powder and removing build plates from the printer. That downtime requires an operator at a reasonable skill level, and it also stops your printer from printing the next part.”

To solve this problem, AmPro’s printers are equipped with a removable build chamber. Within minutes of finishing printing, the chamber can be decoupled from the printer and a new one can be inserted. The machine operator can immediately get the printer back up and running, while a less-skilled colleague can finish work on the printed part after it has been safely cooled in the removable chamber under inert environment.

“And that allows the part you’ve already printed to slowly cool down under an inert environment, same as in the printer,” adds Lele. “That’s all part of metallurgy and efficiency; you’re really trying to take the 3-4 hours or 1-2 days of cooling time away from your production whilst maintaining product quality. But this way, your printer is still going. So that’s a really important part of the system.”

A further key area of focus lies in the management of inert environments. Two of the primary materials that AmPro works with – titanium and aluminium alloys – are highly prone to oxidisation on exposure to air, which can inherently reduce the material’s properties and limit the number of times for the powder to be recycled. To prevent this, the interior of a laser printer’s build chamber will normally be flooded with inert gas during printing. However, this still leaves a lot of variables for manufacturers in some of the most demanding industries.

“Managing that process is actually a quality requirement for a lot of medical and aerospace products,” says Lele. “So we extend that right through, from the powder preparation right through to the last point at which you separate the part from the build substrate.”

This is where AmPro’s full product portfolio starts to deliver benefits. Prior to any printing taking place, the storage and preparation of powders is critical, and AmPro has developed technologies for materials to be decanted, blended, sieved and recycled, all in a controlled, inert environment, ready for use in the printer. At the other end of the process, a closed-loop powder recovery system means unused powder can be drawn out of the build chamber for recycling, while AmPro’s Residual Powder Removal equipment ensures any last traces can be removed, again while still in an inert environment.

As well as saving on material waste and machine downtime, this also brings occupational health & safety (OHS) benefits, given the hazards of working with metal powders; AmPro’s system means all those risks are contained, eliminating the need for safety masks or other measures.

Ultimately this amounts to a comprehensive ‘powder-to-part’ production system, which has interesting implications for industry. While there is a lot of excitement out there about additive manufacturing, there is also a considerable degree of scepticism within the industry. 3D printing is still widely seen as an exotic, expensive novelty, capable of doing amazing things, but difficult if not impossible to integrate into an efficient modern production line. AmPro is tackling those concerns head on, developing the most cost-effective process and the machines that can compete with more traditional manufacturing processes and existing machine suppliers, and thereby laying the ground for additive processes to really be adopted in production settings.

“The adoption requires a full understanding of the process, the requirements of aerospace and biomedical industry, and that’s been a really important dialogue with our customers,” says Lele. “It’s what really drove us to identify how to build a cheap, effective and efficient printing system. Our parts are very cost-competitive on the basis that we’re keeping it simple and easy to operate. We’ve really been very ruthless on what features ensure this can meet the needs of the broadest customer base, without all the bells and whistles, but that still meets expectations around quality and complexity.”

Aiming high

As it has embarked on bringing its products to market, AmPro has been specific in aiming at high-end, high-value-add manufacturing sectors. Given Professor Wu’s background in the industry, it comes as no surprise that aerospace has initially been earmarked as the primary target.

“That really drove a lot of our design decisions,” Lele explains. “We understood the requirements to get something on an aircraft. How do we meet those requirements in the engineering of a process to get it there? There’s a lot around the process and the laser strategy and the build strategy; all these little nuances. And unless you’ve done it, you kind of don’t understand the implications of it.”

Alongside aerospace, the medical sector has also been identified as an area offering significant potential, which has provided the impetus for the development of the smaller printer. A third key market is schools and academic bodies, as the challenges of designing products for additive manufacture create new specialised training requirements.

One key aspect of AmPro’s initial strategy in targeting the aerospace industry has been to focus primarily on the Tier One suppliers, rather than the Primes. The likes of Safran, Airbus and Boeing have got the financial resources to establish their own capabilities and processes. Those smaller manufacturers supplying them, however, have more limited budgets and are looking for ways to adopt these innovations more economically and incrementally – an area where AmPro can provide assistance. In this regard, having such a diverse range of products creates opportunities for AmPro to ‘get a foot in the door’.

“Quite a few people in industry who might have a printer already have seen our solutions and said ‘That’s a brilliant solution. Can we adapt it into our existing system?’ So AmPro has become this really unusual business where we provide either a printer and associated powder handling systems, a complete process, or our solutions have been ‘plug-and-played’ in units. It’s an interesting mix, the way the business has evolved.”

Given the industries it’s targeting, AmPro’s customers are almost entirely based overseas, with most clients in Europe and the US, as well as in China. The latter market is catered to by AmPro’s partner manufacturer in China. Other than that, however, the company’s products are manufactured by a team of around 14 engineers and designers at the Clayton worksite. According to Lele, maintaining a manufacturing base in Australia is important for AmPro, with the search already underway to find a larger facility as the business expands.

“Utilising all our suppliers locally, we’re drawing on some fantastic skills that we can’t actually get in China,” he says. “And we will be scaling up that manufacturing, mainly because we recognise the importance of quality coming out of Australia – the knowledge is good. Also, not every customer wants exactly the same thing, and we can actually accommodate nuanced changes here. So Melbourne’s always going to be our manufacturing base for a lot of our export markets.”

Indeed, the company’s Australian origins have proven to offer certain advantages, as shown at last year’s FormNext additive manufacturing exhibition in Frankfurt.

“One of the best compliments at FormNext was ‘I can tell this had been designed and engineered in Australia’,” Lele recalls. “We got that message daily; that classic idea that we solve complex problems with very simple solutions. So I think there’s a wonderful place for Australia in this. Our manufacturing here, utilising smart, efficient, but very simple approaches to solutions, will continue to allow us to grow.”

Breaking new ground

As a company that goes so far as to include the word ‘Innovations’ in its name, AmPro is intrinsically geared towards developing products at the absolute cutting edge of current technology. One factor that has been crucial in this has been its links with academic and research bodies. Founded to build on Xinhua Wu’s ground-breaking work, the company continues to work in close collaboration with the Professor and her colleagues at Monash, and for Lele this is essential.

“I couldn’t underestimate the value of being able to walk upstairs to 50 pre-eminent scientists in material science and say ‘Why does this do this?’, and have a discussion with them,” he says. “That’s been really critical for us. If we didn’t have that collaboration, having that understanding would be something we would have to build up, and it just takes too long. So collaboration is really critical in my mind.”

This collaborative approach is not just confined to academia either. AmPro works closely with its clients, adapting and updating its products continually to address specific problems that they need to overcome.

“You’ve got to work with industry. You need to go and spend time in a place, with a production worker, asking questions, learning first-hand and gathering insights. You need to get that insight in an emerging industry like this where you’re still finding your feet across a whole manufacturing system. You need to immerse yourself in it. And I love doing that because you build a relationship, and then you’ve actually got a customer because you’ve shown them a solution built on the insights of something that they can get a benefit from.”

This puts the company in an enviable position as additive manufacturing continues to evolve and mature, with ongoing technological breakthroughs opening the way for new potential applications.

“I think the applications will come usually through part complexity,” says Lele. “But it needs to start at the design. It’s not about someone saying ‘I’ve got this part we make using machining processes. Can we make it cheaper using additive manufacturing?’ That never works out. The real benefits come when you start looking at the full value chain of a product, and you actually say ‘This part might cost twice as much using additive manufacturing, but let’s think about what we’re holding in inventory.’ You can probably get four times a reward by removing inventory rather than by removing cost in a part. You need to look at it as a full value chain process. That for me is where the future was going in this area.”

Amid all this, Lele is bullish about AmPro’s future prospects: “We’ll be a very, very big company; I have absolutely no doubt about that. We’re growing at such a phenomenal rate. We’ve got international agreements already underway with the US and Europe. We’ve got distributor arrangements in place – they are already actively selling on our behalf.

“I see us growing massively here in Melbourne. And I think the company will always have the philosophy that what we started off with: that we just continue to do it better, faster, and smarter, and always challenge why we are doing it and how we are meeting the needs of the customer.”



Customer satisfaction depends on reliable machining processes

When planning and implementing machining processes, manufacturers generally focus on manipulating elements of their internal operations and may lose sight of the end purpose of their work: assuring customer satisfaction. By Patrick de Vos, Senior Consultancy Specialist & Technical Education Programmes Manager at Seco Tools.

To a great extent, customer satisfaction is based on minimising the time between the placement of the customer’s order and delivery of the finished product. In the past, manufacturers minimised lead times by machining thousands of identical parts and creating large inventories from which they could ship products immediately. This low-mix, high-volume production (LMHV) scenario enabled manufacturers to meet customer needs in a timely way throughout gradual development of the machining process and unanticipated production errors and interruptions.

Today’s market requirements, however, are radically different. Customers increasingly order small batches of products tailored to specific needs. As a result, manufacturers rarely make long production runs. Groups of duplicate components are not produced in the thousands, but rather in hundreds, tens or even single units. These high-mix, low-volume (HMLV) scenarios leave no room for ongoing process development or unanticipated interruptions. Manufacturers are under pressure to develop machining processes that are totally reliable beginning with the first part. Immediate speed, consistency and predictability are paramount.

Nevertheless, many manufacturers continue to focus on what they call “efficiency,” developing manufacturing processes aimed nearly exclusively at maximum output and minimal cost. Consequently they unintentionally ignore “the elephant in the room” – the crucial priority of satisfying their customers, especially customer demands for timely delivery.

Quick Response Manufacturing

Conceived in the early days of the HMLV era, a concept called Quick Response Manufacturing (QRM) underscores the critical role of time in the manufacturing process. QRM strategies, along with zero-waste and process optimisation efforts, provide a roadmap that can put manufacturers on a path to minimise lead time and thereby maximise customer satisfaction.

Rajan Suri, a professor of industrial engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the 1990s, recognised looming changes in manufacturing markets, particularly the trend towards HMLV production. In 1993 he founded the Center for Quick Response Manufacturing. The Center’s purpose is to create partnerships between the university and manufacturing companies to develop and implement ways to reduce lead times. QRM strategies are often applied in addition to Lean, Six Sigma and similar process improvement initiatives.

The traditional approach

Production managers in traditional machining environments seek maximum machine utilisation above all. If a machine is standing still, it is not efficient and is costing money, not earning it. The goal is to produce large batches for inventory. Parts in stock buffer fluctuating customer demand.

In HMLV manufacturing, however, a job is put into production not for stock, but to fulfil a customer order for a limited number of specific components. There is no buffering inventory.

Further complicating the situation are factors such as so-called “hot jobs” that arrive unexpectedly in response to emergency circumstances or special requests by important customers. If all of a facility’s machines are running, other jobs will be delayed to deal with the hot jobs. Then the delayed jobs themselves become hot jobs, lead times increase, and chaos begins to creep into the production process.

Another issue is the tendency of manufacturing staff to concentrate on finding ways to meet internal goals, such as achieving 100% on-time delivery. Planning often is carried out with those internal goals in mind. For example, shop personnel may know that completing a certain job takes one day, but will allocate two days to account for interruptions by hot jobs or other possible delays.

Planners add a time cushion to avoid incidents of “acoustic management” – being reprimanded by management. However, if similar behaviour is common throughout a shop, two weeks of lead time can grow to perhaps seven weeks. On-time delivery performance as measured internally may be 98%, production personnel are happy to meet internal goals, but the customer who needed the product in two weeks is not happy at all.

The traditional manufacturing environment has systemic limitations. A highway with minimal traffic represents underutilisation of resources and, as applied to manufacturing, high production cost per finished workpiece. An over-utilised highway that is jammed with stopped vehicles represents the chaos and extended lead times that result when errors occur or unexpected jobs vie for space on the production highway. The free-flowing highway a balanced and cost-efficient approach to output and utilisation of resources.

Roadmap for HMLV production

In a HMLV production environment, first-time part yield and consistent quality in production of non-identical workpieces is key. The objective is to provide customised products where the part in a one-piece batch costs the same as a part in a million-piece batch and immediate delivery is assured.

Producing good parts from the start depends on establishing a trouble-free and reliable machining process. It is currently fashionable to point to the newest production techniques and digitalisation technologies as solutions to machining problems. However, speed, consistency and flexibility always have been, and still are, based on a foundation of operational excellence as well an educated manufacturing staff with a positive mindset and motivation.

Before discussing digitisation and optimisation, it is necessary to look at the workshop operations overall, determine where waste of time and resources occurs, and develop methods to minimise it. After that, the emphasis shifts to process quality or reliability.

A zero-waste workshop

Reducing lead times requires elimination of waste in the manufacturing process. A zero-waste workshop does not over-produce parts, fully utilises workpiece material, and does away with extra movement for semi-finished parts. Wasteful and time-consuming activities in the machining process itself include production of burrs, bad surface finishes, long chips, vibration, and machining errors that create unacceptable parts. Bad parts must be reworked or rejected and remade, either of which adds waiting time to the production process.

Even producing part quality that exceeds customer requirements represents wasted time and money. Shops must realise that it is necessary to achieve only the lowest possible workpiece quality that meets customer specifications and functional requirements.

If a part tolerance is five microns, achieving three microns is wasteful. Higher-quality tooling and more precise operating processes will be required to meet the tighter tolerance, but a customer will not pay for the unrequested higher quality. The job will be a money-losing proposition for the shop.

Respecting constraints

The first phase in establishing a balanced machining process is choosing tools with load capacity that meets or exceeds the mechanical, thermal, chemical, and tribological loads present in the metal-cutting operation.

Phase two involves selecting cutting conditions that recognise the constraints put on a machining process by real-world factors. A cutting tool possesses broad capabilities, but specific realities constrain the range of effective application parameters.

For example, tool capabilities change according to the power of the machine tool in use. Machining characteristics of the workpiece material may limit cutting speed or feed rate, or complex or weak workpiece configurations may be prone to vibration. Although a vast number of cutting condition combinations will work in theory, reality-dictated constraints will narrow trouble-free choices to a certain selection of parameters.

Applying cutting conditions outside the constraints of the specific situation will have negative consequences, including higher costs and lower productivity. The majority of the problems experienced during machining result from a lack of respect for the constraints that physical realities place on the cutting process. When cutting conditions do not exceed real-world constraints, the operation is safe from a technical perspective.

However, not every technically safe combination of cutting conditions will produce the same economic result and changing cutting conditions will change the cost of the machining process. Aggressive but technically safe cutting conditions will speed output of finished workpieces. After a certain point, however, output will slow because the aggressive cutting parameters also will result in shorter tool life, and multiple tool changeovers will consume excessive time.

Accordingly, the third phase of achieving a balanced machining process involves determining the optimal combination of cutting conditions for a given situation. It is essential to establish a working domain where combinations provide the desired levels of productivity and economy. After the combinations are put into production, episodes of troubleshooting to solve specific problems are usually required, as well as ongoing process analysis and optimisation.

Versatile tooling

While high-performance, specialised tools can boost output speed, recognising process constraints may prompt the choice of tools developed for versatility. When tools are selected for maximum productivity and cost efficiency in machining a specific part, a change from one workpiece configuration to another may require emptying the machine turret completely and replacing all the tools. In HMLV situations where smaller runs of different parts change frequently, that changeover time can consume all of the productivity gains resulting from use of maximum-productivity tooling.

In cases where tool performance is stretched to the maximum, some operators will reduce cutting parameters in fear of tool failure and disruption. Versatile tooling, on the other hand, is applicable across a wider range of cutting conditions than productivity-focused tooling, although at less aggressive parameters. When versatile tooling is applied to process a variety of different workpieces, actual machining may be somewhat slower or more expensive, but the reductions in setup time, scrap, and lead time make up the difference and then some.

Customer satisfaction is the goal of any business relationship, and a key element of customer satisfaction in manufacturing is timely delivery of machined components. HMLV production scenarios put pressure on manufacturers to optimise their operations to reduce lead times and speed delivery. Applying the concepts of QRM and zero-waste and optimisation initiatives enables manufacturers to achieve the speed and reliability needed to fulfil customer demands for timely delivery while also assuring manufacturing profitability.


JAWS hunting down new opportunities

JAWS is a privately-owned Australian company that designs and manufactures earthmoving equipment and attachments for the mining, construction and material handling industries.

Started by father and son Mike and Barry Koster in 1972, the business has steadily grown with an increased workforce and a quest for new revenue streams such as repair work in the earthmoving industry. During its nearly 50-year history, there has been some important milestones along the way. It wasn’t until the 1980s, as it moved into the bucket and attachment market for construction and mining, that the sub-brand name JAWS became commonly known.

From humble beginnings this Queensland-based company now employs more than 120 staff, with a stronghold across Perth, Mackay and the Hunter Valley, and an increasing global footprint with the export of OEM parts worldwide. Incredibly, the company’s export sales now equal its national figures. JAWS has also added several new complementary products to its portfolio, including tyre handlers, high production coal dozer blades, water tank modules, service modules, truck bodies, mining buckets, face shovels and a vast array of construction and mining class equipment.

The continued successful evolution of JAWS can be attributed to many things: innovative leadership, entering new markets at the right time; viable service offerings; and the ability to rely on external providers for gear and support.

“As an industry leader, we depend on quality machine tools and that’s the reason why we use Okuma,” says Barry Koster. “We’ve used eight machines across 30 years and they’re yet to fail us. We’re excited to introduce our new acquisition, two Okuma LB3000 EXII model CNC lathes.”

For JAWS Operations Manager Adam France, Okuma delivers a degree of reliability that supports his company’s custom engineering and allows for the facilitation of global customers.

“The primary advantage of Okuma is the efficient production planning to optimise the return on investment,” he explains. “Okuma really is the best product, with best practice and support readily available. They help get the best out of our staff, factory and for our products. With Okuma it’s a turnkey solution – from the procurement process, combining both machine tools and JAWS CADCAM part models, to simulating machine set-up and cycles.”

JAWS has a continual program to invest in new technologies, facilities, R&D and the acquisition of companies to broaden and complement its product range. Okuma is seen as an integral part of the company going forward, as its quality is guaranteed and its customer service is second to none.



Increasing automation in the construction industry

The construction industry is grappling with issues pertaining to productivity and meeting project deadlines. To overcome these challenges the industry is borrowing heavily from the manufacturing sector, and embracing increased automation. By Prathmesh Limaye.

About two million construction workers were let go in the United States alone between 2007 and 2011, and the industry has not been able to fill this vacuum during the recovery period. Additionally, with the impending Brexit in Europe, the industry faces huge gaps in terms of skillsets. Such macro-economic trends hamper the growth of the construction industry as numerous timelines may be extended, leading to overall project delays.

How is the industry responding to these challenges?

The industry is adopting innovative techniques to overcome productivity challenges, borrowing heavily from the manufacturing sector. The construction industry is now open to building homes in a factory off-site and installing the built homes onsite. The industry stakeholders are increasingly adopting such buildings, known as modular or prefabricated buildings, as these help them in completing projects in about half the time as traditional construction practices, leading to high savings.

The growth in adoption of modular and prefabricated building practices paves the way for increased automation in the construction industry, which otherwise relies on manual processes such as bricklaying, installation, and carpentry that depend heavily on skilled labour.

How is automation achieved?

The adoption of modular and prefabricated buildings has also led to the adoption of principles hitherto unutilised in the industry. One such principle is the Design for Manufacturing Assembly (DfMA). The DfMA process, which is increasingly being adopted by prefab manufacturers, enables them to have a stronger design plan compared to traditional construction. This, in turn, helps in achieving a shorter construction period.

This approach has also led to increased adoption of the Building Information Management (BIM) systems that typically generate 3D design models for a building. The BIM systems effectively compute the time, materials used, and cost of materials used in constructing a building. Thus, BIM acts as an effective project management tool that allows industry stakeholders to better track and manage construction projects. Apart from tools such as DfMA and BIM, other tools are also being adopted that aim to make construction projects more effective in terms of cost and time parameters.

How does automation benefit the industry?

Automation helps in processing and installation of a variety of construction materials, including wood, composites and plastics. These materials, when compared with traditional ones such as concrete and steel, are considered more sustainable. For instance, wood emits a lower amount of CO2 to the environment when compared with concrete and can also be replenished through afforestation and reforestation activities.

Thus, manufacturing and automation in the construction industry are also enabling sustainable building practices, which is a primary challenge.

What is next?

With the advent of new technologies such as additive manufacturing, one can witness the increasing use of 3D printing in building prototypes for homes. This will help in gaining a better understanding of designs among stakeholders and enable better change management while executing projects. In fact, the Swiss design firm Fuseproject and the construction technology firm Icon have developed a joint venture named New Story in Latin America to develop housing solutions for the homeless using 3D printing and developed a 33sqm concept model in May.

As a result, the industry is experiencing a transformation of traditional business models, where design companies are becoming the construction companies of the future. For instance, software company AutoDesk recently acquired the US-based prefab company FactoryOS and has initiated its use in the construction industry.

Prathmesh Limaye is a Senior Research Analyst – Chemicals, Materials, Food at Frost & Sullivan.


New design processes revolutionising 3D metal printing

Although the history of SLM Solutions, headquartered in Lübeck, Germany, is relatively short, the company’s founders may never have imagined how far the technology they helped pioneer would advance in such a short time.

Early-stage development of selective laser melting (SLM) saw the first commercial machine delivered in 1998. It met the specifications of making ‘unbreakable’ metal parts and stood as a testament to the two pioneers Matthias Fockele and Dieter Schwarze, who together worked in conjunction with researchers from the Fraunhofer Institute of Laser Technology.

Since then, 3D metal printing has evolved into one of the greatest influences on metal part production in recent history. The SLM process sees parts built in a chamber layer by layer with metal powder injected in a controlled manner then melted by laser beam to form a strong, solid structure. The technology has fast evolved from single lasers passing over the powder melting it layer by layer, to multi-lasers with high wattage increasing build speed, product quality and reliability, while reducing costs.

In a recent interview, Dr Simon Merk-Schippers, Director – Business Development for Aviation and Aerospace at SLM Solutions, said: “Lightweight construction, functional integration and production costs are ongoing topics. In addition to the aerospace industry, space travel, especially the launch market is undergoing a strong change. There is more and more rivalry and therefore more intense competition. Of course, this also leads to price pressure. It is interesting to note that smaller companies are gaining a competitive advantage by flexibly using our SLM technology.”

Fockele and Schwarze may never have imagined the advantages SLM would offer todays engineers, as the technology has presented new opportunities for changes to design specifications, and the realisation of complex parts that were once welded together can now be made as a single unit.

Recently Berlin-based engineering start-up CellCore produced a single-piece thrust chamber and injector for a rocket propulsion engine in collaboration with SLM Solutions, reducing numerous parts into one. The internal structure manufactured using SLM Solutions technology could not have been made using conventional methods. A rocket engine sustains exceptional heat levels during propulsion, so complex filigree cooling channels were integrated into the internal structure during the build process, increasing the efficiency of a combustion process that generates extremely high temperatures.

Biomimetic engineering

The thrust chamber by CellCore is another step in the realisation of 3D metal printing capability, a huge step beyond the 19-parts-into-one aircraft fuel nozzle developed by GE just a few years ago. But how was CellCore able to print such internal complexity? CellCore simply looked to the biological designs found in nature.

A dog is an amazing chemical detector. They inspect our clothes, carry-on luggage and bags for contraband items when we arrive at airports; they traverse war-torn fields planted with deadly explosives, sniffing out danger. Man-made devices have not been able to take the place of the nose that nature designed for our canine buddies. Recently, researchers ‘mapped the sniff’: the channels and breathing processes of a dog’s nose, in a bid to simulate or mimic what nature created to improve detection devices made by man.

Sharks are famed for their speed, so when engineers from Airbus attempted to understand shark speed with the aim of transferring this knowledge to improve aircraft speed, they were surprised to find that shark skin was composed of millions of small tooth-like riblets. These well-formed riblets had been adapted to serve two purposes, one of those is as a bacteria-repellent device, and the other has the purpose of enhancing the sharks’ swimming speed. Mimicing the skin structure Airbus developed small ‘riblet’ patches and fitted them to jetliners in airline service over two years. The findings revealed nature’s ‘shark skin concept’ was a highly suitable aircraft covering long-range flights.

These examples mimic nature, so why not look to natural structures surrounding us rather than invent new ones? Unlike artificial intelligence (AI) nature has been testing, trialling and fine-tuning structures, making adaptations and finding ‘best’ solutions for eons. Given this availability, bionic experts, engineers and computer software developers can imitate or mimic such biological processes and structures to optimise metal forms with the ability to make 3D printed metal parts lighter, more rigid or more stable. Today we are witnessing the emergence of a significant field known as biomimetic engineering where designs from nature are successfully leveraged into today’s product development, making for highly functional and effective products.

While a relatively new field of design, but already filling research journals, biomimetics is finding its way into a number of fields benefitting from the timely development of selective laser melting technology, 3D metal printing. CellCore GbmH in collaboration with SLM Solutions AG has developed a complex, highly functional thrust chamber for a rocket propulsion engine in a single build.

Biomimetic engineering reaches the space industry

Bionic experts, engineers and software developers at CellCore have developed software that optimises technical structures based on the internal structure of bones. CellCore believes there is no limit to the application of bionic engineering principles to optimise products across a range of industries. Already they have developed parts for racing cars with exceptional success, winning the BASF’s “Best Use of Fibre Reinforced Plastics” design.

Having reviewed the manufacture of office chairs, tram cars and orthopaedic products, CellCore have now applied the geometric design principles of biomimetic engineering to a groundbreaking structure in the form of a rocket propulsion engine: a single-piece thrust chamber and injector. By using SLM, the engine was manufactured in nickel superalloy IN718 to satisfy the aerospace industry’s strict requirements for materials.

IN718 is a precipitation hardening in nickel-chromium alloy with exceptional tensile, fatigue, creep and breaking strength up to 7,000 degrees Celsius. This hard material is difficult to process using conventional methods, but melting nickel-chromium powder based in a geometrically proscribed design in an SLM280 laser machine, reduced the inherent difficulties and costs of conventional manufacturing, while resulting in a more complex structure never before achieved.

Recently, Rolls Royce has sought the help of SLM Solutions by implementing quad-lasers that use multi-laser optics together with a bio-directional recoating mechanism for the development of aerospace components. The SLM500 laser systems have four lasers and can achieve build rates of up to 171 cubic centimetres, suitable for high-volume processing. The company aims to implement its expertise and knowledge of building 3D metal aerospace components to a system that offers far more opportunities for product optimisation.

Biomimetics in the automotive industry

Car part manufacturers have been quick to take advantage of the opportunities on offer with SLM to create efficient and economically attractive products.

Hirschvogel Automotive Group, a producer of high-strength parts for the automotive industry with plants in three continents, has one arm of its business tasked with part development and the testing of innovative products and high-strength components optimised for series production. Fully exploiting the benefits of ‘bionic design’ Hirshvogel Tech Solutions leveraged methods and structures developed by nature to produce a car steering knuckle, the automotive part that attaches to the suspension and steering system.

Using Aluminium AlSi10Mg resulted in an overall weight reduction in the part; however, by utilising bionic engineering principles a significant weight saving of some 40% in the neck area was achieved – a saving not possible in a conventionally forged part. This came about as the team developed specific Computer Aided Technologies (CAx) allowing them to fully optimise the design.

Part variants, initially based on solutions from nature, were assessed before being selected to meet the appropriate calculations. The use of biomimetic engineering allowed the reduction of weight in targeted areas as against a constant in the overall weight. Built as a single unit in the chamber of an SLM500 system, final tests were carried out on tensile and notched bar specimens achieving the required forecast test values.

What the future holds

Predicting the future should be left to Nostradamus, however, what seems certain is a rapid uptake of 3D metal printing as industry sectors realise the potential opportunities and value of optimising design through geometries in bionic engineering. The change, or interruption to conventional manufacturing, becomes more evident day by day, as differing fields of part production realise the challenging and exciting technological potential of additive manufacturing.