Does 3D printing hold the key to the future of manufacturing in Australia?
In this article for WA Today, Professor Gordon Wallace, the executive research director at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science and Dr Stephen Beirne, the ACES additive fabrication manager, say Australian manufacturers must “grab the moment”.
Where will Australia be, as a manufacturing nation, in another 10 years? If we can reintegrate fundamental research in science and engineering with manufacturing we may have something.
In the past two decades, rapid advances in materials science and engineering have not translated into new manufacturing industries in Australia. We have lost the links between science, engineering and manufacturing.
Perhaps the most profound impact will be in education and training.
Have we forgotten that materials science led to the refining, manufacturing and fabrication processes that gave us modern planes, trains and automobiles? That polymer science gave us plastic bank notes? And advances in carbon science and electrochemical engineering resulted in high capacity batteries?
Perhaps the age of instant gratification is to blame, robbing us of the patience and the retention span for the decades often needed for fundamental discoveries to become actual devices. This is particularly so in materials science, where exciting materials and properties discovered in a laboratory need the development of processes and tools to make something useful.
The "make more, faster, cheaper" approach driven by accountants will not deliver next generation manufacturing for Australia. That trend certainly helped widen the gap between frontier research and manufacturing, making the adaptation of new manufacturing opportunities less frequent and taking longer for discoveries to be extracted from the laboratory.
But thankfully, things are changing. Perhaps the demise of traditional manufacturing in Australia – and the emergence of alternative approaches, such as 3D printing or additive fabrication – is giving us an unprecedented opportunity.
With 3D printers, ideas can become reality in a very short period of time. Taking instructions from refined digital models of the initial idea, an ever-expanding range of printers build plastic, ceramic, metal or even concrete structures from the ground up, layer by layer. Ever wanted to make a bespoke replacement for a broken oven door, or even custom jewellery? Armed with a simple Australian 3D printer for about $1200, and free open source software, you can.
Basic 3D printers use a build material, or filament, to print. The filament is heated above its melting point and shaped using a computer-controlled pattern. The complete system is a wonderful example of mechatronics, a term that has come to represent the combination of mechanical and electronic engineering. What underpins this system is mechatronics and a rudimentary knowledge of the science of thermally processable polymer.
Advances in metal processing with lasers have lead to 3D metal printers. This is no simple process: there is a raft of variables that interact at each stage of metal "printing" (which is actually a micron-scale welding process). Although the process has been adopted by the production industry, it is by no means perfect. There is continuing research into improvements, including using different materials and making it more economically viable.
The way 3D printing capabilities – made possible by advances in science and engineering – feed back into the very pool of knowledge from which they were derived means the process is getting better all the time.
We have witnessed a perfect example of this in our own labs, with the development of co-axial (double-headed) extrusion 3D printing. Our researchers designed, simulated and produced a 3D-printed stainless steel co-axial printhead, and then used it for 3D printing. This work was possible thanks to materials and mechatronics engineers, a breed of researchers being produced in Australia that can really guide the future direction of this high-value industry.
We showed how materials already being used in 3D printing could be processed through this printhead to produce new structures that have the potential for biofabrication - the printing and positioning of living cells. This technology will take us closer to medical treatments, and expand our research base.
Consider if any breakthrough other than 3D printing has had such a profound effect on our ability to make stuff over the past 20 years. Thanks to 3D printing, people understand that in order to make stuff, there are vital connections between science/engineering and fabrication. From the youngest high school student who has visited our labs, to the most seasoned engineer, there is an excitement that the ability to make stuff is back in the hands of the creative.
Perhaps the most profound impact of 3D printing will be in education and training, helping to demonstrate the inextricable links between science and engineering, and manufacturing. Encouragingly, a certificate course on 3D printing has recently been introduced for high school teachers.
Herein lies an opportunity for scientists, engineers and educators at large to reconnect the dots and get the next generation excited about science and engineering. To equip them with the knowledge needed to create the next generation of manufacturing opportunities for Australia.
3D printing is providing an opportunity to make new things using new materials. It is providing an opportunity to change our education and training in the area of design and fabrication. If we can realign the way government resources are used to support new manufacturing industries, 3D printing may just be able to bridge the great divide.