Providing access to micro- and nanofabrication services to enable Australia’s innovation agenda

Starting in 2007 within the Federal Department of Education’s National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS), the Australian National Fabrication Facility (ANFF) provides access to world-class micro- and nanofabrication-related facilities and expertise in a simple open access model.

In April last year, the Commonwealth Government released the 2021 National Research Infrastructure Roadmap (NRI) outlining the Research Challenges to be faced by Australia, which included Frontier Technologies and Modern Manufacturing. With a national recognition of the importance of fabrication technologies’ ability to address these challenges, ANFF continues to support a broad spectrum of R&D.

Frontier Technologies and Modern Manufacturing (FTMM) is one of the eight research challenges identified in the 2021 NRI roadmap. The others are: Food and Beverage, Medical products, Recycling and Clean Energy, Defence, Space, and Environment & Climate. ANFF facilitates cutting-edge discovery and product development in all of these areas.

ANFF is a national enterprise, with 500 tools and over 130 experts spread across 21 institutions in a network of eight Nodes. The ANFF network achieved the following annual outcomes in 2022 despite COVID restrictions affecting normal operations. There were 25,189 supplies manufactured, 2,745 clients helped and a total of 185,321 hours of tool use.

AMT spoke with ANFF CEO Dr Jane Fitzpatrick about the scope of the Nodes within the ANFF network. Previously holding positions within the MedTech start-up space and industry-focused research entities, Dr Fitzpatrick holds a PhD in Applied Immunology and a degree in Biotechnology, and she has added technical expertise in many areas, including micro and nanofabrication, throughout her career. Dr Fitzpatrick explained how the Australian National Fabrication Facility is set up as a coordinating body to ensure value for money of Australia’s investment in micro and nanofabrication technologies and expertise, putting the right tools in the right locations, to support Australian priorities.

“What fabrication does is allow you to create structures,” adds Fitzpatrick. “We’re creating those structures at the scale of micro and nanometres. These tool sets are very specific and detailed, so they’re expensive and complex and fabrication is not a one-step process. These processes start from patterning, then you’re usually taking something away or you’re adding bits on, to end up with the required structure. ANFF is dedicated to ensuring that we provide complete process train (the ability to do all the required steps) at our facilities, so new devices can be built in a single place.”

“So depending on what your application is, you may need very similar tools, but they won’t be exactly the same set of tools,” Fitzpatrick continued. “The process train will be very specific for what you’re trying to do. This is what we’ve tried to do across the country so that you’ve got the right process trains in the right places to support the kind of research and development being done in those areas. In our Melbourne Centre for Nanofabrication at Monash University, it has the most different types of tooling. It’s kind of the Swiss Army knife. ANFF can do a lot of different things, whereas a lot of the other nodes have more specificity in their application focus.”

“Around the country, we have split our capabilities into nodes of specific expertise. Several of our nodes have a particular focus of fabrication technologies,” said Dr Fitzpatrick. “Just for instance, we have our Optofab node; and they specialise in devices that manipulate light. So optical fibres, laser technology, laser engraving and welding. Also production of precision optics, mirrors and low transmission coatings can be accessed.”

“At that scale of nanotechnology, we’re able to manipulate light. Visible light has a wavelength in the hundreds of nanometres. Being able to manipulate these physically is what you can do with nanoscale structures. Another area that uses control of items at the nanoscale is quantum technologies. You’re literally taking parts of an atom, holding them in place and manipulating them.”

The ANFF also has a Materials node. They produce materials as well as manipulate those materials for applications such as smart conveyor belts or 3D-printed bioscaffolds.

Nanotechnology, while amazing, is also very accessible. Think about emulsions or sunscreen, and you see nanofabrication. Modern-day cosmetics have nanoparticles in them, but they’re manufactured in a fully chemical setting. “When you’re talking about nanofabrication, this is creating structures that have a function at that scale,” Fitzpatrick describes.

Clean room characteristics

Deep within many ANFF facilities are specialised environments with their own foundations: rooms built within rooms. With filtered air, light, sound and power. Basically, cut off from the outside. These are the clean rooms.

In here, a huge range of processes might be run. Patterning of nanostructures using an electron beam lithography system or coating a new device with a metallic coating.

“These teams are working at the level of micro and nanostructures,” explained Dr Fitzpatrick. “The more dust you have, the more chance you have dust landing on your project and ruining it. We have to eliminate dust. So, to enter these rooms we have to put on what we call bunny suits, a full coverall made of very low-shedding material. Hair is covered, beards are covered and the mouth is covered because your mouth is a terrible source of contamination. The air in these rooms is cycled at very high rates through very small pored filters to remove as much dust as possible. Depending on the work being done, different classes of dust free is needed. ANFF has Class 100, 1,000 and 10,000 rooms. This number refers to the number of dust particles you can measure in the air. Class 1,000 has less than 102,000 particles of 300nm or greater per cubic metre.

As a key facility in the NCRIS system, ANFF is tasked not only with supporting research excellence in FTMM, but also to promote innovative, world-first technologies that solve real-world problems in diverse fields such as health care, communications, clean energy and climate change. Users rely on ANFF for open access to Australia’s world-class micro- and nanofabrication infrastructure and the key expertise to make it work.

ANFF is well-positioned to meet the three key strategies laid out in the NRI Roadmap. First, the launch of ANFF’s commercialisation arm ANFF-C will help increase the commercial impact of Australia’s science research and technological innovations. Second, ANFF is taking the initiative to develop a highly skilled workforce in the science sector. It has partnered with TAFE-SA, South Australia’s largest vocational education and training provider, to define technician-level courses in micro- and nanofabrication. In addition, ANFF is designing nanofabrication short courses to be delivered in its open-access, online learning platform, ANFF Enlightened. Third, ANFF’s Client Engagement Facilitator Team is smoothening the engagement pathway for industry clients.


“Stable Commonwealth funding over the last five years has allowed ANFF to start moving into areas it wasn’t capable of working in before because we were so busy worrying about the next cheque,” says Dr. Fitzpatrick. “We’ve managed to stabilise and consolidate what we do and how we’ll be doing it over the next five years is the extension of that. We are asking questions; what are the other things that the ANFF can support? What are the other things that our cohort industry and academics are looking for? How can ANFF further push research infrastructure and what is it capable of doing? How do we define and provide translational research infrastructure.”

“In the immediate future, we’ve got a five-year funding cycle and the NCRIS 2023 Guidelines will provide us with capital investment. We now need to look at the next steps. Where do we tweak our model, to provide more services that are required so that we get more innovations to translate into real benefits? We will always stay at the cutting edge of fabrication infrastructure because that’s what we do. If we don’t have that, we don’t have anything. So that’s where the baseline is. Then it’s down to what we can enhance on top of that to ensure that Australia is developing great ideas and actually being able to produce them here. That’s kind of the next step.”