Australia is the world's largest producer of titanium at the moment, and it's sitting on the world's second-largest titanium reserves. But with virtually no local industry processing this strong, lightweight metal or manufacturing with it, the country is sending a massive amount of potential value overseas.
Put it this way – if Australia exports unrefined titanium at its current rate, reserves will be depleted in 90 years. But if the country harnessed the full value of processed titanium, it could achieve the same export earnings for some 9,000 years.
Australia's federal scientific research organization, the CSIRO, is looking for ways to kick-start a local titanium manufacturing industry and develop some of that value, and one of the most promising sectors for titanium manufacturing is in 3D printing.
"Titanium is a difficult material to machine, it really eats through tooling and it's a very reactive metal, so it can be quite dangerous if you get hot spots while machining it," says CSIRO's Research Group Leader in Additive Manufacturing, Alexandra Kingsbury. "So it's difficult to machine, but it's weldable, so that makes it appropriate for these [3D printing] machines."
CSIRO has made a substantial commitment to 3D printing research, with an AUD$6 million plus investment in its Lab 22 additive manufacture facility. You might remember Lab 22 as one of the partners in the world's first 3D-printed jet engine.
Under Kingsbury's leadership, Lab 22 is now operating four million-dollar machines, some of which have never been installed in the southern hemisphere before. These include an electron-beam melting Arcam machine, a bonded sand printer and a cold-spray plasma giken robot arm that fires cold titanium particles at a substrate surface hard enough to splatter on and bond.
And while these machines will primarily be used for research, the team has decided to take a very direct role in developing local manufacturing companies in their downtime. "We don't utilise and run these machines flat stick 100 percent of the time on research," says Kingsbury, "Research programs are expensive, materials are expensive, you don't run the machines unless you've got funding for it. There's some latent capacity there that we can allow companies in to access."
Thus, Lab 22 has taken on four initial manufacturing partners – local businesses with interest in developing their 3D printing capabilities.
The first two partners are 3D printing outsourcers Keech3D and MadeForMe. "These guys, you send them a file and they'll get it printed for you," says Kingsbury, "This service bureau model's already up and running in plastics – it can definitely happen in metals too, and that's what these two companies are doing."
The third is Nezkot Precision Tooling, which does a lot of specialist work for aerospace and defense, and the final partner is Bastion Cycles, which is incorporating 3D-printed titanium pieces as the joints in its ultra-lightweight bicycle frames.
Kingsbury says Lab 22 is an opportunity for these companies to be guided by CSIRO's expertise through the difficult learning curve of additive manufacture. "It's not quite as plug and play as the hype might have you believe. There's a lot of expertise that you need to do this properly. Sometimes you want a surface to be really smooth, even mirror finish. Sometimes you want it to be rough – this is an acetabular cup for a hip replacement, you want the surface to be rough because the bone's gonna adhere to it better. It's about working out what works better for your product. Do you want to do really fast printing, and then a bit of extra machining, or would you prefer to do a slower print and less machining, or even no machining, could you get away without machining at all? These are the subtle trade-offs that people need to consider when they start using the technology."
One of the keys is knowing where 3D printing can actually give you a business advantage at this stage of the game. "Don't print something you can make traditionally, it's not going to give you a business case. But what will is if you're increasing your complexity and light-weighting your parts, if you wanted to customize something, or do low runs without making new tooling – that's where you'll get value out of this technology."
These four businesses represent a modest beginning. As CSIRO's own research into titanium processing and printing techniques progresses, Lab 22 will expand with more machines and additional capabilities, opening up more latent capacity for more businesses to come on board.
And of course, the ultimate goal with these businesses is that they'll have enough success with the technology to go away and invest in printers of their own – an outcome that would be good for Australia and for the CSIRO team. "There's a few exceptions," says Kingsbury, "but in real true R&D land, we work with global customers, there's really no industry here to service yet. We'd like to see people in Australia, in Melbourne manufacturing using the machines. I think the not-so-secret evil plan there is that they'll need R&D work too in the future – perhaps they'll come back to us."
Lab 22 is an impressive facility with cutting-edge equipment and facilities, and goals no less than sparking a manufacturing revolution. We wish Alexandra and the team every success.
More information: CSIRO Lab 22
See the stories that matter in your inbox every morning