The Additive Manufacturing Hub (AM Hub) was set up by AMTIL in 2018 to promote additive manufacturing and build its capability in Australia. As it marks its first year in operation, we caught up with AM Hub Manager John Croft to get an update on its progress so far.

AMT: Let’s start with a quick outline of what the AM Hub is. How was it set up and what are its objectives?

John Croft: The AM Hub was formed to introduce Australian manufacturing companies in Australia into additive manufacturing. It’s been born from a $1.85m Victorian government grant and will run for three years. It was officially launched in September 2018, and has now been running for a year, and since its inception, we now have 153 member companies under the Hub.

I think the Hub needs to be the catalyst. What that means is, if you look at a pie, you’re going to have several segments around the pie, with the Hub at the centre acting as the catalyst. What we’re trying to do is to bring together the service providers, the technology providers, government mechanisms, industry participants, and we’re working with research institutions such as universities. Prior to this role I spent 11 years at Bosch, so I saw how industry and academia work together in Europe, and it’s wonderful how they do it. But we haven’t done that very well in this country. It just has not been up to scratch. So I see a real need for focus on that. Every institution that I’ve spoken to, every one of them is working in different areas around additive.

So we want to be the networking place – the place that people wanting help or information – getting people in additive together. We’ll have people calling us and saying “We’ve got this project or process that we’re looking at, but we really need to get help in developing it further. Who would we go to?” Well, having the institutions under our membership, we have a good understanding of what each of the institutions is doing, so we can help guide the member or company that comes to us towards the right institution, to work together collaboratively, and get the end result around their project.

AMT: So you’re essentially just trying to broker those links? So when someone needs a problem solved, and see additive as a potential solution, the Hub can put them in touch with the right people to help?

JC: Correct. We need to be the knowledge base for people to come to. Because we can steer them in the right direction, to the right place. Some companies who are coming to us may be using certain manufacturing processes, and they need to understand how additive can actually be embedded within their manufacturing operation, alongside the processes they are using. That’s where we can help them. We aim to be an open forum of communication for them. We want to be the networker for them. We want to accelerate the uptake of additive manufacturing within the country and within the manufacturing industries, and then take that right through to helping them network globally as well. We want to be their marketing arm, for these companies to market what they’re doing in the additive space, where they can offer value to the members. So that’s our prime objective. We’re a non-profit. We’re simply here to help people.

AMT: Tell us about the Victorian Government’s involvement.

JC: The Victorian government is well aware that additive manufacturing – or 3D printing as it’s known – is a game-changer as far as the future of manufacturing goes. Victoria was the very first Australian state to adopt the technology back in the early 1990s into private business. Victoria now has the most service providers and the most technology providers around additive manufacturing. The Victorian government has indicated it wants Victoria to be the hub of additive manufacturing in Australia.

In Victoria we’re also running the Build It Better voucher program, which provides small-to-medium manufacturing businesses in the state with funding of up to $20,000 to undertake projects to increase adoption of additive manufacturing technology. The voucher program has gone through three rounds to date – we completed Round Three in September. We’re now sitting at 16 companies that have got projects running through the Build It Better program, with another five that I’ve already had contact with through Round Three. The voucher program is working extremely well.

AMT: So it’s strongly Victorian-led. What about the take-up from beyond Victoria?

JC: Oh we’re getting a lot now. A lot of universities from New South Wales and Queensland through to South Australia and Western Australia. Even the Northern Territory – we’ve got Charles Darwin which has come on board. So we’re getting a good uptake of the universities, as well as other organisations which are now contacting us to have a talk on how they can work with the Hub. So it is definitely gaining momentum. Ultimately we want to be seen as the national body for additive manufacturing throughout Australia!

AMT: What kind of activities is the Hub engaging in?

JC: One of the biggest issues with additive manufacturing is that you talk to industry and they say “Oh yeah, 3D printing we know all about it.” Well in fact they don’t; that’s the biggest issue. So what we’re trying to do now is put on a series of events that will run as a roadshow around the country, where we’re going to invite companies to come in and engage and learn about the different processes, understanding what the processes are going to give you, understanding the materials that are available through the processes, understanding the pros and the cons of the processes. And looking at a few case studies from each process. This will enable them to go away and understand better how each of these processes could fit within their own manufacturing, or at least start a thought pattern of “Oh, maybe I really should look into this. I didn’t realise all of this was happening in the background. I need to know more.” And that’s where they’ll contact us.

What the Hub is also going to be working towards is looking at skills and training in the future. We want to get together not just with the universities, but also with the likes of TAFE colleges, to look at developing training courses, short courses around additive. This will be looking at design for additive, because additive manufacturing is not like traditional manufacturing. With additive you can do just about anything you can think of, whereas with traditional processes you’re bound by design-for-manufacture constraints. With this, there’s no such thing, so there’s a huge scope for people to learn how to redesign products. Instead of, say, assemblies of 10 or 12 parts, you’re coming down to one or two parts, which is going to save a lot in the costs of production, it’s going to save a lot of costs in assembly. Basically we’re going to become more efficient in the way that we manufacture in the future with this type of thing.

A major activity for the Hub has been the UNLIMIT3D conference, which we ran alongside the Austech exhibition in Melbourne in May. And which was a huge success – the conference was a sellout; feedback coming back with excellent. So we will be putting it on again in the future, with the next Austech in 2021, we will have another one. And we will be looking at maybe running some other events which will include guest speakers from around the globe.

The other thing we’re working on is around FormNext, which is the largest additive manufacturing exhibition in the world. That’s coming up in November in Frankfurt in Germany, and at the moment we’re looking at taking some of the Hub’s members on site tours in Germany around the time of FormNext. We’re looking at Bosch’s plant in Nuernberg, which is an additive manufacturing plant but which is also totally Industry 4.0, so it’ll give a good understanding for our members of how Industry 4.0 is working alongside additive manufacturing. Industry 4.0 in Australia is still new; the uptake is very slow. We’ll also go to the Fraunhofer Institute, which is one of the biggest research organisations in Germany working in the additive field. And we’ll be visiting another couple of companies, FIT AG and MBFZ, which is a toolroom utilising additive manufacturing in the tooling industry.

AMT: You personally have got quite a long background in additive manufacturing. What can you tell us about that?

JC: Well, I remember first looking at additive manufacturing – or “rapid prototyping” as it was known back then – back in 1990 at Swinburne. They had a very early Stratasys machine sitting in Swinburne and they were utilising it. I looked at it and the first thought I had was “This is it. This is what the future of our manufacturing is going to be. We will manufacture this way into the future.”

I suppose the only problem was that I was way too early. Industry of course wasn’t ready. The company that I had started bought the very first machine into the country back in 1993. A quarter of a million dollars, which was a lot of money. I mean, we were a very small company, with a total of four employees. So it was a big investment. The biggest problem we found was that industry sort of looked at and said “Ah, it’s not gonna be around long, can’t really see much in it.” Which is so totally wrong when you look at it from this day and age.

AMT: What has been the most striking thing for you in the way the technology has evolved?

JC: Well, when I first started we had SLS (selective laser sintering), SLA (stereolithography apparatus), LOM (laminated object manufacturing), which is a paper adhesion process, and FDM (fused deposition modeling). That was it. We had no metal. And you look at it now and the changes that have happened, and alright, we’re looking at 20-odd years down the track, but the changes have been astronomical. It’s been going since the 1970s , but we’ve had a huge growth from the 1990s through to where we’re sitting now.

There’s constant innovations. Materials are changing all the time – there’s new materials coming out and being tested. We’ve now got medical-grade titanium that can be used direct in implants. This is what the future is. And we’ve got a lot more plastics. We’ve got machines that can print in different colours, where in the old days we had one colour, it was either black or white. So, it’s changed a lot.

AMT: What industry sectors are seeing the most innovation going on?

JC: Medical is huge. We’re utilising it in biomed. We’re printing human cells. I mean, where’s this thing gonna go? They believe in the next 10 years we’ll be replacing human body parts via additive. Hearts, livers, lungs – they will all eventually be able to be printed. Doctors are using anatomical models: there’s several companies in this country now that are utilising 3D printing to create anatomical models for doctors to be able to look at and plan what they can do and how they’re going to go about certain surgical procedures. That’s an amazing area. Or look at orthotics companies. We have three in this country, that we know of, that are purely manufacturing out of 3D printing.

So medical is probably one of the largest areas. Aerospace is another huge area. Defence, most definitely; they’ve already got machines onboard ships to produce parts. The Army is looking to have additive in the field, in the front line, so they can manufacture parts to fix equipment that may break down. In automotive, BMW, Daimler, Audi, right through to Bugatti have been utilising additive.

Tooling is becoming a big thing because injection moulding will change. You will not traditionally manufacture tooling because with additive you can go to conformal cooling. You cannot do conformal cooling in tooling with traditional manufacturing. Some of the cycle times for tooling can nearly be halved due to conformal cooling, which is a huge saving because you can manufacture twice as many products as you typically would with traditional tooling.

We have a lighting company that purely manufactures all their fittings out of additive manufacturing. There is not one industry that will not be touched by additive. Every industry will have some form of additive within the future.

AMT: How important do you think it is that Australian manufacturers are moving to develop an understanding and work out ways to embrace this technology?

JC: Well, it’s super important. As you know in Australia we’re a low-volume manufacturer. So this absolutely is an area for us – we definitely have to be in additive because it’s about low volume, and it’s about Industry 4.0. Australia will be left behind if we don’t pick it up and start running with it. It has to happen. But companies are waking up and utilising it.

AMT: And what’s your advice to an Australian manufacturing company that realises it needs to get more into this area but doesn’t know how to go about it?

JC: I think what they need to do is have a bit of a read up on additive, and especially look at things that are happening within the areas they’re working, in the products they’re manufacturing. Have a look on the web. You’ll find that somewhere someone’s doing it with additive and there’ll be a write-up on how it’s happening. And of course, get in touch with the AM Hub. We’re here to help.

AMT: And finally, what’s the future for the AM Hub? Where do you want it to be in five or 10 years time?

JC: Well, our funding is for three years, so after that we have to be self-sustainable. The way additive is going to grow, it will be a multi-billion dollar business in this country alone. So the Hub will grow because more and more people want to understand more about it and how it could blend into their own manufacturing processes. They’re going to need someone like the Hub, to guide them and help them understand more about additive and how it can fit within their business. Networking them with the right people, technology providers or service providers, research institutes; helping them link with all of those to help them move it into their own manufacturing.

Additive is most definitely the future, and there’s a big future in it for Australia.