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.”