The continued evolution of additive manufacturing is inspiring innovators around the world, but there won’t be many who can match the ambition of Perth-based Aurora Labs: to disrupt an entire industry. By William Poole.

Frequently asked questions about additive manufacturing (AM): Could 3D-printed parts ever match the characteristics of traditionally manufactured components? Are the parts reliable, or safe? Can’t you only print small components? Isn’t it slow? Aren’t the materials expensive? And can’t people just steal your intellectual property (IP) by copying your designs and printing them? A lot of people are working on answering one of these questions or another. But Aurora Labs aims to tackle them all.

Aurora makes 3D printers, but it brands itself as “an industrial technology and innovation company”, and Founder and Managing Director David Budge describes a number of separate divisions to the business, covering distinct elements of manufacturing process. The actual printers are only part of the story, but they’re a good place to start.

“When we first looked at 3D printing we realised there were two primary problems: the machines were very slow, and very expensive,” says Budge. “So naturally the parts produced had to be very expensive – typically $800 to $3,000 per kilogram – and most of the cost is the amortised cost of the machine. We realised there are two ways of solving that problem: produce a much lower-cost machine, or produce a very high-speed machine. We are in the process of doing both.”

Aurora specialises in powderbed machines for 3D-printing in metals. Its small-format printer, the S-Titanium Pro, can produce high-quality parts with near-net shape resolution from a wide range of metals. Already selling into international markets, the S-Titanium Pro costs US$55,000, whereas according to Budge, comparable machines cost US$200,000-US$500,000. Aurora’s next model, the RMP1 medium-format machine is targeted to print high-resolution, high-quality, complex parts.

However, Budge believes the real game-changer will be Aurora’s large-format technology, currently in development. These machines have the objective to print large, complex parts with minimal post-finishing, material properties that match traditionally manufactured components, and at very high speeds.

“By high speed, we’re talking about a ton or more in a day,” says Budge. “That’s a massive step-change in speed. Even in its current stage of development – what we call ‘simple parts at market speed’ – the technology is so fast, people look at a video of it and generally think we’re just coming up with special effects! It’s so fast you can’t actually see it forming, all you see is a flash of light.”

Budge stresses that the key benefit of AM is that “complexity is free” – the process enables levels of intricacy within single parts that couldn’t be achieved using any other process.

“Let’s say you have a 10kg heat exchanger with tens of thousands of pipes running through it. To the printer that makes no difference. It takes exactly the same time and costs exactly the same to print. So when you start to print 300kg-1,000kg per day, the primary driver for price is no longer the amortised cost of the machine, even a relatively expensive one.”

If Aurora’s technology is developed as planned, it will be scalable, allowing the printing of parts from dental crowns to large structural components for shipbuilding.

“The larger companies we’re talking to have between $500m and $4bn worth of stock just sitting on the shelf,” says Budge. “If you can print a part in a day instead of waiting 12 months, you don’t need 12 months’ worth of stock, you need a day’s worth. As soon as you use it, you print another one. Most of the large industrials we speak to are interested in reducing their bottom line, and this is potentially a pathway to do that.”

To drive adoption of the technology, Aurora has launched an Industry Partner Program aimed at identifying key partners in relevant sectors. The partners get early access to the large-format technology, to evaluate its capability and its potential impact on their operations. Aurora then works with them to get an in-depth understanding of their processes and develops solutions tailored to their needs. The Program also gives Aurora direct feedback on how its machines can be improved.

Aurora has also established AdditiveNow, a joint venture with engineering giant WorleyParsons’ wholly owned subsidary Advisian to help manage the considerable logisitical challenges in what it’s undertaking.

“The joint venture allows us to leverage off a company with 26,000 employees,” says Budge. “What we are finding is potential clients want to buy printers , convert their traditional parts into parts optimised for 3D printing, and print everything themselves. They want to be taken through the process of being able to do that. In that case we’d be able to pull in extra engineers via AdditiveNow to help manage that process, because that’s a lot of work.

“On the other extreme, another group, with more than $4bn worth of parts on the shelf, said ‘We don’t want to have to worry about that. We want a parts inventory that’s all digital, we can click on a part and have it turn up in three days.’ In that case, there could be a print bureau with a small engineering shop tied to it, and basically convert this customer’s entire inventory into a digital inventory.”

The potential applications for this technology are numerous. However, in the initial stages Aurora is focusing on a specific set of markets, with an emphasis on large-scale manufacturing and heavy engineering.

“We’re looking at oil & gas, mining, marine, automotive and aerospace,” says Budge. “We’re trying to target these specific industries because, to be honest, when you look at the industries that can be impacted with this, it’s basically every sector. If you can print car bodies instead of manufacturing traditionally, you get rid of $1bn worth of plant. If you want to change a design, instead of costing $100m to retool that plant, you literally put in another CAD model and press ‘print’. If you want to make motorcycles, put in a different model and press ‘print’.

“That’s our goal – to be able to truly disrupt traditional metal manufacturing. The market we’re going after is not a trivial one. The metal manufacturing market is around about $3 trillion, and that’s quite different from the 3D printing market.”

Building an ecosystem

When you total up the the size of the parts and the speed at which Aurora’s technology is planning to print them, a fresh problem quickly emerges: the powder that provides the raw material for the printers.

“We did an analysis of the global powder market for AM,” explains Budge. “And we realised with machines that can print a ton a day, that’s about 300 tons a year. The problem with that is we would use up the global powder supply by the time we got 10-20 machines on the market. That’s a problem.”

Ramping up powder production isn’t easy either. According to Budge, a powder production plant currently costs $25m, takes about a year to build, and can produce just 700 tons of powder a year. So Aurora is also in the process of developing its own technology for producing powder.

“Our Powder Production Unit (PPU) has got a couple of unique things to it,” continues Budge. “First of all the capital cost to build it is expected to be significantly lower. The other major benefit is it produces a higher yield. We’ve built the prototype and we’re currently testing it. It’s not there at this stage, we’re still proving out the technology, but we have a timeline in place and we’re looking to have a full-size plant built.

“Our ultimate aim is to build an assembly line for full-sized PPUs, each capable of producing up to five tons of powder per day.”

While the powder technology sees Aurora broadening its scope to the inputs that go into the printers, the company is also addressing the outputs. A further arm of the business is devoted to digital rights management (DRM) and certification – effectively tackling all those questions about quality, reliability, and protection of IP.

“With the Industry Partner Program, the second example basically wanted to convert all their parts into digital parts,” says Budge. “AdditiveNow can pull in resources from WorleyParsons to convert that entire inventory and into a digital inventory. And there’s a definite process we go through to basically convert all those parts to certified parts. Essentially they can print anything anywhere in the world and know that when it comes out, it will be certified.”

Eventually Aurora aims to establish a database and online store of digital parts that can be purchased and downloaded for print. The critical point is that certification of the digital parts encompasses the process whereby it’s printed. With each digital part, Aurora will have printed, tested, modified and reprinted it, until it prints perfectly every time on any Aurora Labs machine. Therefore when it is actually printed, the physical part comes out fully certified.

“What we are aiming for is a digitally certified part that has internal processes built into it, checking every single layer within the print,” Budge explains. “It is designed to print one layer, check it, go: ‘Okay, it’s got one area of porosity here, a slightly raised area here, a small deviation here. They’re all within acceptable parameters: that’s a tick.’ The next layer’s got nothing: tick. The next, nothing: tick. It goes through a checklist till it’s ticked off everything. If it hasn’t, it’s a fail. Additionally we would seek to ensure that if, say, a forklift runs into it and throws the print out, the machine stops the print and lets you know.”

Aurora has also engaged international certification body DNG VL to provide its own third-party certification, meaning parts in Aurora’s database would be independently certified for use on oil & gas platforms. Apart from aerospace and medical, this exceeds every other layer of certification, including for automotive or mining.

Budge likens the concept to what happened with Napster at the turn of the century, when the arrival of digital file sharing almost bankrupted the music industry. AM is provoking similar concerns, as it becomes easy to replicate manufactured parts by scanning and printing them. Aurora is therefore positioning itself as something analogous to the iTunes store, formalising and legitimising the process, while underwriting the quality of the parts, and protecting IP.

The iTunes comparison is compelling, because within its specific niche, what Aurora is doing bears strong resemblances to what Apple did so successfully: creating and monetising an entire ecosystem of hardware, software, consumables, and DRM.

“You’ve got the printers, the supply of powders, the digital parts and the certification, all tied in with the ability to scale with our relationship with WorleyParsons. Together these separate components form a powerful eco-system,” says Budge. “That’s very deliberate. You take any one of these legs of the business out and it falls over.”

Rocket-powered innovation

Aurora has been in operation for four years now, but its origins go back a year or so earlier, when Budge posted a link on Facebook saying he was starting a rocket company. A small group of old associates and friends came onboard and began work on designing and building liquid-cooled rocket motors.

“Building a rocket motor is not a trivial exercise,” Budge recalls. “If you get it wrong, it blows up. We spent a year and a half working out the maths and physics, developed some software, and started building our first motor, when I came up with an idea for our first printer. I asked everyone if they wanted to get involved in a start-up manufacturing 3D printers, they said yes, and now here we are!”

With a background in materials science, Budge already had some experience in AM. Around 20 years ago, he designed a large gantry-based system for printing houses. The technology then was immature and prohibitively expensive, so the idea was mothballed, but Budge kept an eye on AM. About 15 years ago he moved into heavy engineering, where he spotted huge potential if it became possible to rapidly print large metal parts.

“I was running a robotic welding company, basically using robots to make parts for the mining industry. I saw how I could utilise some technology there, develop some new technology, and we could manufacture a 3D printer.”

Today, Aurora’s machines are made almost entirely at its plant in Bibra Lakes, with various parts produced by contractors based around Perth. Inevitably some components are sourced overseas, but Budge is committed to manufacturing in Australia.

“We’ve got all the things we need here,” he says. “Certainly we’re expanding globally at this stage, but there was a very deliberate decision to stay an Australian company. We had options in the early days – one group made us a crazy offer to ship everything offshore and live in the Bahamas. I talked to the team about it and we were like ‘No… we don’t want to do that’.”

There is also a heavy emphasis on creating a culture of innovation. While the bulk of Aurora’s existing IP originated with Budge, a growing number of people within the team have now taken out patents. Staff are incentivised through an employee share option plan and bonuses to come up with ideas that are worth patenting.

“An innovation-based culture is something I’m really pushing for,” says Budge. “We’re getting more and more staff into the headspace where they’re inventing things. It’s outstanding, absolutely where I wanted to get this company to.

“We’re quite an innovative company. We’re good at doing things differently. You need an extremely talented group of people to turn the ideas into reality, and we’ve got that here.”

Budge is bullish about Aurora’s prospects over the coming years: “Given the potential cost benefits, we think uptake of this technology will be high. We think within the next five to ten years, we’ll have some significant impacts on the way manufacturing is done. If things go the way I plan, we could be doing all sorts of interesting things.”

Budge also sees great benefits for Australia and its manufacturing industry: “Instead of buying parts in from China or Germany or the US, all those parts will potentially be manufactured here, and will need some post-finishing. Somebody is going to be employed to do that. It means a lot of manufacturing can be brought back here.”

Given the promising outlook, it seems likely the team at Aurora will be keeping pretty busy for the foreseeable future. Does this mean the original plan to build rockets is on hold for the time being?

“Well, this is the thing,” says Budge. “Once we’ve developed this technology as far as we plan to go, it will be a trivial thing to print rockets. It changes the game entirely.”

Watch this space…