The South Australian node of the Australian National Fabrication Facility (ANFF-SA) in Adelaide is helping academics and industry bridge the gap between research and commercial prototypes with a blend of high-tech equipment and world-class staff. By Andrew Spence.

ANFF-SA is one of eight university-based hubs around Australia, which are funded by the Federal and State Governments, CSIRO and participant universities. Complementing the University of South Australia’s Future Industries Institute’s research infrastructure at its Mawson Lakes campus, the South Australian node started out a decade ago, specialising in microfluidics. While this remains a key strength, its expertise has grown to include lab-on-a-chip technology, advanced sensing, functional coatings and separation science.

It is now attracting highly specialised work from around the globe with many services in high demand.

Products developed in the past couple of years at the node include a microfluidic device offering gene-modified cell therapy, a non-invasive device to test urine for the presence of bladder cancer cells, a micro needle for an in-home blood-testing platform and a microfluidic chip for high-value mineral extraction.

Associate Professor Craig Priest is the Director of the South Australian node. He says the success of the facility in recent years has coincided with the maturation of the microfluidics industry. According to Priest, the node is playing an important role in advancing research to higher Technology Readiness Levels (TRLs) through the development of working prototypes that help researchers engage industry in serious commercial discussions.

“I see us as a de-risking site for industry product development and on the flipside we can help fundamental research travel further along the TRL scale to create a device that can then be taken to an industry partner,” says Priest. “We’re certainly not just microfluidics; we’re everything to do with interfaces and structures and materials on those surfaces, often controlling fluids, but it could be other things such as energy or biomedical devices.

“That’s the beauty of these sorts of facilities, you have a cluster of tools that work together and expertise with them but if we get a researcher who makes a new type of satellite that needs a micro-electro mechanical system in it and they want to do it here then that’s fine with us.”

More than $12m worth of state-of-the-art equipment is split between the Mawson Lakes campus of the University of South Australia and Flinders University. ANFF-SA engages with industry and end-users through three models:

  • Partnership Model – Leading advanced manufacturing companies partner with ANFF-SA to enable knowledge-transfer and world-best practice in both academia and industry;
  • Consultancy Model – Industry directly request preparation and characterisation of unusual samples and devices for their business needs;
  • Research Model – Infrastructure access for academic researchers who conduct their research for an industry partner.

“A lot of our industry-linked work is through researchers because we are well connected with the research community, but increasingly we are getting industry coming to us directly – we have built a pretty professional outfit here,” says Priest. “We’re in a unique position to have state-of-the-art equipment in purpose-built laboratories so our users can expect a sophisticated device.

“We’re experiencing success, and more work with industry will allow us to grow further and truly help transform the economy.”

The facilities

Micro-milling: One of ANFF-SA’s most in-demand pieces of machinery is its Kira SuperMill 2M, which is the only machine of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere. The Japanese micro-milling machine offers industry and researchers outstanding next-generation high-speed precision machining capabilities for true, simultaneous three-dimensional interpretation of microstructures.

Designed specifically for single-part and small-series production milling, ranging from tool steels to Teflon and polymers, the Kira SuperMill 2M system has a positional accuracy of 0.01 microns (or 10 nanometres) with double spindles, a 50,000rpm electric spindle and a 160,000rpm air spindle which allows users to run tools down to 5 microns in diameter. The cutting-edge technology delivers one-stop-shop capabilities for the fabrication of micro-scale devices with features ranging from centimetres to microns.

Mark Cherrill is a microfabrication specialist at ANFF-SA. One of his latest projects involves a tiny titanium component, measuring 700 by 800 microns with ten miniscule 30-micron holes from different angles for the defence industry. Spares were made because the parts were smaller than a grain of sand and Cherrill was concerned they could be easily lost as they could hardly be seen with the naked eye. However, when viewed under a microscope, the precision and quality of the work is obvious.

“They 3D printed it as well and the 3D printed part couldn’t be compared to ours,” Cherrill says. “We’ve got about a 12-week backlog of work at the moment and it runs for about nine hours a day. We’ve done a lot of Lean work with it and projects with industry – there’s such high demand. When projects come along it gives us the chance to push the boundaries by accepting the challenge of making something that can’t be made anywhere else.“

Imaging and surface characterisation: Evaluating the inner workings of such tiny components without destroying them can be a tricky business. Therefore, characterisation and imaging is a key phase of most fabrication processes as a test point in the development cycle.

ANFF-SA provides access to a broad range of instruments capable of achieving ultra-high resolution images, topographical imaging, imaging of both fixed and live cells, measurements of surface vibrations, surface steps and fluorescent imaging. These include the MicroXCT-400 – a 3D X-ray imaging solution optimised for non-destructive imaging of complex internal structures. The microtomography machine has the unique ability to reveal the internal structure with full 3D imaging of features down to <1.0 micron resolution, making it a compelling alternative for research and the inspection and control of manufacturing processes.

Micro injection moulding: ANFF-SA has recently acquired a Juken JMW-027S-20t hybrid driven vertical-type moulding machine, enabling it to deliver high-accuracy plastic components for researchers, research prototyping and industry trials. Compatible with various types of thermoplastic and specialising in polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA) and cyclic olefin copolymer (COC), the JMW HDD-system was designed to increase productivity with an innovative mechanical driving system offering precision control and faster response in high-pressure environments.

Etching: The node’s Ulvac NLD-570 deep reactive ion etcher is capable of deep etching features from the nano to the micron scale and is specifically designed for research and prototyping environments. The NLD system consists of a process chamber with three electromagnetic coils and the RF antenna is concentrically located with the middle coil. The plasma intensity is confined to the plane of the middle coil and the diameter of the plasma is proportional to the electromagnet current. This enables the etching process to provide an extremely high uniformity and the etching capabilities are specifically tuned for glass, quartz and pyrex. This makes the process suitable for use in microfluidics, lab-on-chip, microlens, and so on.

Lithography: Micro-nano lithography is necessary for the creation of the nanoscale components featured in nearly all modern technologies. Lithography is the process by which a pattern is written or transferred to a substrate. The process can be physical in nature, utilising a ‘stamp’ to press structures into a softer material, or chemical using light, ions or electron energy to write into photo- and electron-sensitive materials. ANFF-SA offers several different lithographic techniques and instruments including photolithography, hot embossing, nano-imprint lithography and PDMS soft lithography.

Microfluidics simulation: Computer simulation is helping to shorten the design cycle, increase productivity and deliver new products to market faster. Dr Moein Kashani, ANFF-SA’s Fluidics Simulation Engineer, uses Computation Fluid Dynamics to accurately predict the complex behaviour of fluids within the channels of a micro-sized device. Kashani is delivering deep insights to help solve complex fluid problems that can maximise a product’s performance and efficiency. In some cases, experiments simply can’t answer the complex questions being asked, making simulations essential.

The people

The number of technicians at ANFF-SA has doubled in the past four years. It is not just the growth but the quality of the recruits that is impressive.

Cherrill’s success with the cutting edge micro-milling machine is no coincidence. Before joining ANFF-SA, Cherrill worked in Formula 1 as a CNC Machinist/Programmer for the Honda Racing Team, for Brawn GP where he completed a BSc in Engineering Design, and the Mercedes AMG Petronas team in R&D.

Senior Process Engineer Dr Donghoon Chang has an equally impressive resume. Prior to his PhD study in fracture mechanics at the University of Adelaide, Dr Chang worked for Samsung Electronics for 12 years as a patent engineer in the field of microelectromechanical systems (MEMS). His work at Samsung also included microfabrication of optoelectronic devices, such as vertical cavity laser diodes, PIN photodiodes and micromachining of silicon optical benches.

Since 2014, ANFF-SA has run a week-long Winter School for the state’s most promising microengineering graduates and to date more than 250 students have gone through the Mawson Lakes program. According to Priest, the Winter School ensured the next generation of microengineers entered the workforce knowing about ANFF-SA’s capabilities and its potential value as an industry resource going forward. He says the node had been very strategic about how it engaged with people.

“Over the last five years we’ve seen a commitment to professional service and the recruitment of some genuine technical experts,” says Priest. “We already had the equipment so it’s the people, service and the partnerships that we’ve built with people around the world that has set us apart.

“I see us as producing engineers who will participate in the new economy. We need to get as many people aware of this capability in industry and academia so that when the graduate goes out, gets a job and finds a problem they know that we’re here to help.”