Additive manufacturing: Australia embraces 3D printing revolution

Additive manufacturing has taken large strides forward over the last few years, as numerous innovations bring exciting new developments to the world of 3D printing.

Recent Gartner figures show that 3D printer shipments will reach more than 217,000 units in 2015, over twice as much as the 108,151 delivered this year. Not only this, but the analyst firm predicted volumes will continue to double every year until 2018.

Pete Basiliere, research vice president at Gartner, said the market is currently at an inflection point, with interest in additive manufacturing set to dramatically surge. 

"As radical as the forecast numbers may seem, bear in mind that even the 2.3 million shipments that we forecast will be sold in 2018 are a small fraction of the total potential market of consumers, businesses and government organisations worldwide," he explained.

So what is driving the 3D printer market? Well, Gartner noted that the primary factor spurring growth in the commercial realm is the viability of the technology for prototyping and manufacturing purposes. More affordable printers, a wider variety of materials and the improved quality of the overall process are also encouraging more organisations to take the plunge on additive manufacturing.

Where does Australia fit in?

Australia is at the forefront of many manufacturing innovations in 3D printing, with research and development departments working hard on a number of breakthrough technologies across various sectors.

In recent months, governments, top universities and industry leaders have announced new additive manufacturing projects that could revolutionise key areas of the Australian economy, including medicine, engineering and science.

On November 19, the Australian Research Council (ARC) announced the launch of a new hub that aims to establish the country as a world leader in metal-based additive manufacturing. The facility, located at Monash University, has been awarded $4 million for a five-year period in an effort to find new ways of producing components from metal alloy powders or wires.

Professor Aidan Byrne, ARC chief executive officer, said the hub will explore selective laser and electronic beam-melting techniques.

"This technology makes it possible to produce components from computer design files without the need for tooling. This can lead to components being made more efficiently, cost and time-wise, while achieving equivalent or better performance," he explained.

"Technological advances in additive manufacturing also bring significant environmental benefits, allowing the creation of more lightweight products, which require reduced energy to produce and a significant reduction in material waste."

According to Professor Byrne, the developed components could be used across many different industries, including aerospace, automotive, defence and biomedical.

Developing 3D printing education

The launch of the ARC hub is just the tip of the iceberg in Australian 3D printing research. In recent months, there have been various announcements that show the country's future promise in this area. 

For example, the Victorian government revealed in October that it aims to put a 3D printer in all state secondary and special schools to bring science education into the 21st century. The $2.2 million initiative would result in over 400 academic institutions receiving a printer worth up to $3,750 in the hopes of creating a "new generation of cutting-edge scientists, designers and manufacturers".

Similarly, budding engineers studying at the University of Wollongong recently praised the institution's 'introduction to additive manufacturing' course. Subject Co-ordinator Dr Steven Harvey said today's manufacturing industry is about rapid prototyping and sophisticated customisation.

"This is really a revolution in engineering, which has opened up a wealth of opportunities in the production of fully customisable, non-uniform objects that were previously impossible to manufacture conventionally," he stated.

Students on the course have worked on various products with commercial potential, including oar grips for disabled people, modular bicycle mounts that hold mobile devices and customisable skateboard kick-guards.

Recent breakthroughs

As the country looks to build its pipeline of additive manufacturing talent, existing organisations continue to release innovative products into the market. The medical device industry is pioneering the technology in particular, offering key solutions to improve patients' quality of life and care provisions.

CSIRO, the government's national science agency, recently unveiled the world's first 3D titanium heel bone, which was implanted into a Melbourne man in October. The 71-year-old was facing amputation of his lower leg due to cancer of the heel bone, but CSIRO's work with biotech company Anatomics saw the production of a device that was able to hold the man's weight and save his mobility. 

John Barnes, CSIRO's director of high performance metal industries, said the organisation is keen to collaborate with companies across the country to develop additive manufacturing capacity.

"3D printing is a local manufacturing process, meaning Australian companies produce implants for our own patients for our own doctors to use," he stated. "We would no longer have to rely on imported parts that slow the process down and is less personal for the patient."

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