RMIT’s Advanced Manufacturing Precinct was the venue on 6 December for a breakfast seminar exploring ‘Global Trends and Opportunities in Additive Manufacturing’, including a presentation from Terry Wohlers, the globally renowned expert on additive manufacturing (AM).

The seminar was part of a special three-day course on Design for Additive Manufacturing (DfAM), run by RMIT in partnership with Wohlers’s consultancy Wohlers Associates. The course addressed issues including DfAM guidelines and best practices, explored AM’s capacity to consolidate many parts into one, and focused on methods to reduce material and weight. Targeted at designers, engineers, and managers, the course offered participants hands-on experience in designing real parts and building them on industrial AM equipment.

“Design for Additive Manufacturing is design for manufacturability as applied to AM,” explained Professor Milan Brandt, Technical Director of RMIT’s Advanced Manufacturing Precinct. “It is a design methodology that captures the benefits of additive manufacturing technology when considering product characteristics such as its  manufacturability, reliability, and cost.

“The RMIT course addressed this through a number of sessions, which included examining the complete AM process chain, from CAD part creation, to part production, and specific issues and guidelines around designing for metal AM, including topology optimisation, lattice structures, anisotropy, process constraints, post-processing and material properties. Also covered was where AM and design software tools were headed in the future, and the implications they will have on DfAM.”

The breakfast seminar was held in collaboration with the Innovative Manufacturing CRC (IMCRC) and the Additive Manufacturing Hub (AM Hub) administered by AMTIL. David Chuter, CEO and Managing Director of the IMCRC, got proceedings underway with the opening address.

“Additive manufacturing is not a new technology,” said Chuter. “However it’s never been more readily accessible for commercialisation, and the technology is moving at an incredibly fast rate. We’re seeing changes that are enabling making mass production possible. We’re seeing this technology emerging across a whole range of industries, from medical to aerospace to defence. And we’re also seeing some fantastic companies being born out of Australia that are becoming relevant and competitive across the world.”

In his keynote presentation Wohlers offered detailed insights into the current state of play for AM worldwide, and the trends that will shape its development going forward. He focused in particular on the growing array of industrial applications of AM, the ongoing surge in take-up for technology for the production of parts in metal, and the increasing profusion of support systems and software. Wohlers also provided a wealth of interesting case studies; one notable example involved the manufacture of a hydraulic manifold for Atlas Copco mining equipment, where the use of AM cut the part’s weight by 91% and consolidated 13 parts into one.

“There’s a lot of strong growth, especially in metals,” said Wohlers. “A lot of systems and applications are developing. The future possibilities are almost endless. What we know is really exciting, but I think what we don’t know is even more exciting. For the younger generation and people of all ages to come up with new ideas and try new ways to apply the technology. We have a great technology, bridging that gap into new market opportunities is so exciting.”

After his presentation, Wohlers was joined for a panel discussion by three local experts in AM: Mike Brown, Managing Director of Renishaw Oceania; Michael Fuller, CEO of Conflux Technology; and Alex Kingsbury, AM Hub consultant. They engaged in a wide-ranging discussion on AM, the opportunities the technology presents, and the challenges associated with its adoption.

Based in Geelong, Conflux is an AM applications company specialising in thermal and fluid engineering. Fuller spoke about some of the issues that a business like his faces in embracing a breakthrough technology such as AM.

“Supply chain management, IP protection, cyber-security: these things are particularly important with regard to AM because of the lack of tooling, which was an inherent barrier to theft,” said Fuller. “These machines don’t have any tooling implications, so the data security is particularly important, and how that data is exchanged and how value is exchanged. This is a really fascinating frontier and it’s going to be interesting to see how it plays out.”

Responding to a question from the audience, Brown stressed that manufacturers contemplating bringing AM into their operations needed to have a clear understanding of the technology and what they intend to do with it before committing to what can be a significant investment.

“If you were a manufacturer of a traditional part, if you want to do a traditional part in a traditional way, or have a part that resembles the outcome of a traditional process, I wouldn’t recommend 3D printing,” said Brown. “I wouldn’t recommend additive methods. The point being though, if you can take your part and modify it, change the design… If you can give that part functionality that you can’t get from anywhere else, people will pay for it, and you’ll have a market. So it’s not a question of saying ‘Do I do it additively or in a traditional way?’ Take the part, figure out where you can make it better, and then use 3D printing to produce that better-performing part, and then you’ll have a revenue.”

Wohlers picked up on this point, stressing the array of opportunities that exist around AM for offsetting the risk by establishing collaborative relationships with external partners.

“One solution is that you can do everything you want to do but not own the equipment,” said Wohlers. “Outsource it. Form a partnership with someone else. And then as these other machines develop, maybe then you can consider investing. That would be a way forward; let someone else take the risk. There are a growing number of companies that are willing as a service provider or a contract manufacturer to have you as a partner.”

Finally Kingsbury shed some light on the current patterns in the adoption of AM  technology, both globally and here in Australia.

“Anyone who’s seen me talk before knows that I go on a lot about adoption of technology and the different types of adopters we have through the adoption cycle,” said Kingsbury. “What we know is that we had that tipping point in 2012 for AM globally when things really started to take off. That tipping point tends to occur when we have that the transition through the early adopters into the early majority. And that’s when you start to have an inflection point where your adoption starts to slope up and the train just starts taking off. Here in Australia we are about six years behind; my reading of the landscape is that we’re at the tip of the early adopters and just starting to cross into the early-majority stage.”