Additive Manufacturing Hub case study: Advatek Lighting

When Advatek Lighting needed to develop a housing for a new digital LED control system, it turned to the Additive Manufacturing Hub for assistance.

Advatek Lighting is a small business dedicated to developing innovative, world-class control systems for decorative LED lighting. The type of lighting is commonly referred to as “Pixel” technology, where each LED can be digitally controlled to be any colour using specially designed integrated circuits. Advatek’s control systems are state-of-the-art in the field and typically interface between lighting software using an Ethernet network interface and many different types of digital LEDs. Advatek has been operating for around five years now and has a growing customer base worldwide. Approximately 80% of its business comes from international sales.

The challenge

This project entailed the design of a plastic enclosure to form part of a new digital LED control system. The goal was to create a robust but cost-effective housing for part of the system, which would have been difficult to achieve with a typical metal enclosure. Tightly placed electronic components, connectors and fuses all needed access from multiple angles in a small overall footprint. This meant the design would be complex, heavy and expensive to achieve with folded sheet metal.

Given those constraints, it was apparent that plastic enclosures would be more suitable. However, the costs and processes involved with a typical injection moulding set-up presented a significant barrier to entry. Additionally, it was uncertain whether Advatek’s key markets would be receptive to the product being made in a custom plastic housing, when traditionally the industry favours the use of very robust metal enclosures for rugged, commercial applications.

Therefore, it was deemed risky, as well as expensive and slow, to move directly to an injection moulding set-up without first exploring how the physical product might look and feel.

The solution

In undertaking the project, the Additive Manufacturing Hub (AM Hub) engaged the assistance of registered service providers Cobalt Design and GoProto. An additive manufacturing (AM) program using current 3D printing techniques (including the more specialised Multi Jet Fusion process) was identified as an excellent way to mitigate many of the above concerns.

The project started off with a design concept phase, which explored various aesthetic concepts. Advatek aimed to keep the product physically strong, with an appearance that showed that to the end user.

Once the initial CAD design was completed, the first prototypes were complete the following day after an overnight 3D printing run. This rapid process allowed Advatek to iterate the concept multiple times in a short period and make key decisions related to size, features and aesthetics. For example, the first prototype felt too large for some of the intended applications; it was decided to focus on size reduction, including an external DIN rail clip system instead of an internal one. The result was a reduction in volume of approximately 30%. These drastic changes were only realistic because it was quick and cheap to simply try again with a new design.

While the initial prototypes were useful to quickly narrow down to the best overall concept, they weren’t suitable for customer feedback or determining which features would work best for the fuse cover lid. This is where the Multi Jet Fusion (MJF) process took over for the remainder of the project. It was a fast way to 3D print prototypes at a quality that is production-ready.

Using the MJF process, Advatek could test retention features for the fuse lid, which involved features to hold it closed and open, as well as allowing it to pop on and off if the end user accidentally knocks it too hard while open. These concepts were relatively complex compared to the main enclosure and required experimentation and multiple iterations. Various rib types and chamfers were tested to see how they held up in real-world testing using MJF prints.

The MJF process also allowed Advatek to show prototype versions to customers for feedback about the design concept without undermining their overall opinion regarding the quality of the parts.

How the Additive Manufacturing Hub helped

It was predicated that the project would make full use of a $20,000 Build It Better (BIB) voucher co-contribution through the AM Hub. The estimated breakdown amounts for this project were:

  • $28,000 to Cobalt Design ($14,000 to be contributed via the BIB voucher)
  • $12,000 to GoProto ($6,000 to be contributed via the BIB voucher)

In the end, a total of $46,047.60 was spent with the two registered providers (ex GST). Of this amount, $20,000 was contributed by the BIB voucher and the remaining $26,047.60 was paid by Advatek Lighting. The following were the breakdowns per RSP:

  • Cobalt Design $44,697.35
  • GoProto $1,350.25

The cost of GoProto’s services was lower than expected because Cobalt was able to take care of 3D printing many prototypes in-house directly, and because fewer MJF prototypes were needed for customer feedback than initially estimated. The cost of Cobalt’s services was higher than expected because of increased complexity as the project scope changed during the development.

According to Luke Taylor, Managing Director of Advatek: “The Build it Better program gave the perfect opportunity to take advantage of this technology. The program allowed Advatek to design, experiment with and ultimately create a high-quality product out of plastics. Where the alternative was going to be a cumbersome, heavy metal box, the AM capabilities available in Victoria today enabled a rapid development of a superior product.”

The outcome

Over the course of the project, new features could easily be added along the way, allowing innovation without disruption to business goals and deadlines. Final product weights were minimised, reducing logistics costs and emissions into the future and aiding in cost-effective international trade.

During the design concept phase the idea was raised of having a plastic lid cover over the fuse area. It would not have been possible to produce this in metal, and the features required to make it work reliably in plastic were complicated and required experimentation. However, the AM process that Advatek used for prototyping allowed it to conduct those experiments easily. Therefore, the feature was added to the concept and made its way through to the final product, resulting in an improved design.

Another noteworthy feature that was added in at a late stage was LED fuse indicators. Previously considered complex and risky, this feature was added as a last-minute feature after the use of AM had proven itself a successful approach in the project. With the rapid development processes in place to allow another change without significantly impacting the cost and timeline, Advatek worked on the feature and was able to include it on the final product.

Advatek is already planning to use the AM processes employed in this project in the near future and on an ongoing basis. Currently planned processes for future development are standard 3D printing and MJF for plastics only at this stage. There are other AM concepts that can be explored for future projects, such as for the prototyping of printed circuit boards (PCBs) and for the manufacture of injection mould tooling.

Since MJF technology is available in Victoria, Advatek was able to keep more of the project in Australia, which created more opportunity for the local economy, reduced emissions from freighting products back and forth with international partners, and importantly, allowed much faster experimentation and ultimately time to market. Support for local business and employment has been increased by keeping the prototyping in Victoria and increasing sales opportunities for Advatek with a more innovative product. There has already been great reception to this product internationally and export sales are expected to increase by at least 30% by the middle of 2020. New employment opportunities at Advatek are expected from the increased revenue, mainly in production roles initially. The intellectual property developed in this project is also being leveraged as part of a new product line that will result in increased sales, support and engineering capacity and employment at Advatek.

Led by AMTIL and supported by the Victorian Government, the Additive Manufacturing Hub has been established to grow and develop additive manufacturing capability. To find out more, contact John Croft, AM Hub Manager, on 03 9800 3666, or email

Konica Minolta helps EGR with rapid prototyping PPE

Konica Minolta Australia has worked with the EGR Group in the rapid prototyping phase of the company’s shift to personal protective equipment (PPE) for sectors including healthcare and retail in response to COVID-19.

EGR produces thousands of tonnes of plastic sheeting a year for the automotive industry in Australia and globally. However, with COVID-19 slowing the automotive sector, EGR saw an opportunity to use its resources to help with PPE while at the same time keeping its business financially viable for the employment of its 800 local staff.

EGR enlisted long-term partner Konica Minolta to assist with rapid prototyping of the face shield design. Konica Minolta was on hand to 3D print design iterations the same day or overnight, for the quick transition to mass manufacture. Capacity is now at 50,000 face shields per day in EGR’s Brisbane manufacturing facility.

John Bartley, Group General Manager at EGR, said: “EGR is by nature an innovative company that can recognise new opportunities and the need to adapt to market conditions. For an Australian manufacturer, this speed and agility is critical to survival. We saw the opportunity to deploy EGR’s resources to address a critical need for PPE while keeping our people employed and our factory open.

“The definition of the prototype produced by the Markforged X7 printer used by Konica Minolta as well as the ability to print with flexible material made it the right fit for this project. It produced a prototype that represented the end product, which assisted with the overall speed to market. Having Konica Minolta as an innovation partner was extremely important and the commitment the team showed in getting this off the ground was second to none.”

Nathan Pallavicini, 3D Manager at Konica Minolta, said, “Konica Minolta is proud to have helped EGR’s rapid change of direction to deliver PPE to essential workers. Through 3D printing, Konica Minolta can assist businesses like EGR with rapid prototyping solutions as well as with 3D printing solutions that are capable of producing end-use parts to ensure their survival and success into the future.”

Bartley added: “Throughout this process EGR has seen the benefits that commercial-grade 3D printing can have on the business and we are definitely keen to continue down the PPE route into the future, as well as explore other potential use cases. The lesson here is that Australian manufacturers need to be adaptable, diverse and able to produce materials quickly and easily with less resources.”

Triple Eight revs up production with HP MJF technology

By 3D printing customised parts for a race-car steering wheel, Triple Eight Race Engineering has been able to accelerate production while decreasing costs.

Triple Eight – also known as the Red Bull Holden Racing Team – is an Australian motor racing team that competes in the Virgin Australian Supercars Championship, Australia’s premier motorsport category.

Parts inside Triple Eight cars need to be structurally fit-for-purpose and durable enough to endure the harshness and vibration that come with racing. High temperatures inside the cars can exceed 65 degrees Celsius. During racing, these cars reach speeds in excess of 300kph and generate g-forces up to 2.5 times gravity.

In early 2017, EVOK3D, a Melbourne-based 3D printing solutions company and HP partner, visited Triple Eight’s workshop to show HP Multi Jet Fusion (MJF) parts.

“We were blown away with the part quality and strength, compared to what we were used to,” said Mark Dutton, Race Team Manager at Triple Eight. “We realised we needed to have access to this technology to improve a whole host of components”.

This aligned with a broader discussion with HP and resulted in a joint partnership with EVOK3D, HP, and Triple Eight.

The team collaborated with HP 3D Printing and EVOK3D to produce three main pieces for the race car steering wheel: a two-part mould to form the soft polyurethane exterior that wraps around and cushions the steering wheel; lightweight cores that sandwich the armature plate and form the bulk of the steering wheel rim; and the housing for the mounting of switchgear and lights to the hub.

Triple Eight wanted to 3D print these pieces to accelerate the manufacturing process and allow for light-weighting and customisation to enhance driver ergonomics.

The design freedom that comes with using HP MJF technology has allowed Triple Eight to reduce the weight of the parts and customise the steering wheel grip based on the driver’s anatomy. By tailoring the grip to the driver’s individual needs, drivers can achieve better control of the vehicle, execute more precise steering inputs, and benefit from enhanced comfort.

UTS ProtoSpace – Enabling access to additive technology

Businesses of all sizes and sectors can access the most contemporary additive manufacturing (AM) equipment and knowledge at ProtoSpace, a dedicated facility at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) driving digital transformation in Australian manufacturing.

ProtoSpace is unique in offering access to both high-end equipment and technical advice and expertise beyond the reach of many manufacturing businesses. It encourages direct, hands-on experimentation, and offers training and consultation alongside access to AM capabilities supported by operational and engineering teams.

“We want to collaborate with industry partners by providing access to cutting-edge expertise in 3D printing technology, software, engineering and design,” says Hervé Harvard, Director of both ProtoSpace and UTS’ Rapido facility. “We have assembled a highly advanced suite of printers, with eight individual AM machines on-site, and provide guidance on how AM technologies will best fit a business. And we can bring together multi-skilled teams from across UTS drawing on specific discipline areas including artificial intelligence, Internet of Things (IoT), robotics and automation to work closely with businesses to develop their best solution.”

As AM has matured from design/prototyping and tooling, a new era in bespoke 3D printing promises great potential for further innovation, says Hervé. Mining services company Mineral Technologies (part of the Downer group) and UTS have been working together for almost two years, examining the use of composite polymer for equipment manufacture, and exploring 3D printing technology to create economic benefits and competitive edge. A 2m-high mineral-separating spiral is being printed at ProtoSpace, and the partnership is developing a bespoke 3D printer for on-site equipment parts at Mineral Technologies’ remote locations in Australia and overseas.

Alex de Andrade, General Manager – Metallurgy, Equipment and Technology at Mineral Technologies, says: “It is often very difficult to build new advanced capabilities from the ground up in a very short window of competitiveness, and we look to expedite this process through external collaborations with universities and cooperative research centres (CRCs).”

He says the collaboration delivers technical diversity and skills that would otherwise take decades to build internally: “Our AM spiral technology enables us to connect all of our metallurgical test results (big data), print a bespoke shape without capital-intense tooling, and drive multiple iterations of a new spiral shape or profile on a digital twin before deploying the production cells to the project/construction site.”

Harvard says UTS is not promoting any particular machine or technology: “We’re advising on AM and providing equipment for industry to use. We want businesses to walk in to ProtoSpace and explore how to leverage it.”

ANCA develops hybrid additive-subtractive platform for machining tools

ANCA Australia is expanding its in-house manufacturing capabilities, developing a hybrid additive-subtractive manufacturing platform to manufacture Tungsten custom-designed cutting tools.

The platform is being developed alongside CSIRO and Sutton Tools, and is supported with matched funding from the Advanced Manufacturing Growth Centre (AMGC). Successful completion of the project will allow ANCA to commercialise the new hybrid additive-manufacturing machine platform while growing its workforce and revenue while fulfilling a gap in the global tooling market, to which it already supplies Airbus, Boeing, Renishaw and Fraisa.

The project builds on previous research & development (R&D) between ANCA and CSIRO through a six-month pilot program funded by the Victorian Government’s Boost Your Business voucher scheme. Together, ANCA and CSIRO have demonstrated that the tungsten-carbide tools could be made cheaper through improved production efficiencies compared to traditional tungsten products.

In 2015, ANCA began exploring the potential for additive manufacturing to disrupt the tungsten cutting tool market, worth an estimated $2.2bn globally. Following significant research and the development culminating in a report with CSIRO, both parties entered a six-month pilot program.

Dean McBain, ANCA’s Research and Technology Manager said: “Such a complex project and process wouldn’t be possible without the support of trusted partners such as CSIRO, Sutton Tools and AMGC. We rely on organisations like CSIRO who have the laboratory, equipment and knowledge that we do not have. Sutton Tools is also hugely important as they provide practical input from the end-user perspective. Collaborating with others is vital and it makes sense to partner with organisations like them.

“Similarly, AMGC is pretty much the only organisation that can provide funding assistance for a business of our size, apart from the much larger CRC-type projects, which need to run for two to three years. In terms of balancing what is applicable, AMGC works out perfectly for us.”

Jens Goennemann, Managing Director of AMGC, said ANCA’s successful pilot is a great example of collaboration and technology combining to solve a complex problem: “ANCA’s project is a perfect example of how collaboration can find solutions to complex issues. In this instance the collaboration of two leading Australian companies and the country’s preeminent research institution to deliver an innovative solution to a multi-billion dollar global market.

“Australia’s future prosperity lies in advanced manufacturing, in making complex things. It is the answer to many of the challenges that face us – be it energy, efficiency, resources, productivity and value. What ANCA, CSIRO and Sutton Tools have developed is a better value product that uses less raw material, is more durable and is manufactured here.”

CSIRO project leader Dayalan Gunasegaram added: “We’re looking forward to continuing to work with ANCA to refine and develop their additive manufacturing platform for new tungsten carbide tools, given the value that this could create for Australian manufacturing.”

SPEED3D: 3D-printed ACTIVAT3D copper proven to kill COVID-19 virus on contact surfaces

Bosch Australia

The process, known as ACTIVAT3D copper, has been developed by modifying SPEE3D’s world-leading 3D printing technology, using new algorithms for controlling their metal printers to allow existing metal parts to be coated with copper. Copper parts are difficult to produce using traditional methods and thus 3D printing may be the only tool available to rapidly deploy copper. SPEE3D technology makes it fast and affordable.

Australian NATA-accredited clinical trial speciality laboratory 360Biolabs tested the effect of ACTIVAT3D copper on live SARS-CoV-2 in their Physical Containment 3 (PC3) laboratory. The results showed that 96% of the virus is killed in two hours and 99.2% of the virus is killed in five hours, while stainless steel showed no reduction in the same time frame. Stainless steel is currently the material typically used in hygiene environments. With laboratory testing complete, it is hoped the Australian-developed breakthrough can be applied to common touch items like door handles, rails and touch plates in hospitals, schools and other public places.

SPEE3D CEO Byron Kennedy said the company has focused on developing a solution that can be rapidly deployed and is more efficient than printing solid copper parts from scratch: “The lab results show ACTIVAT3D copper surfaces behave much better than traditional stainless, which may offer a promising solution to a global problem. The technology can be used globally addressing local requirements, be they in hospitals, schools, on ships or shopping centres.”

SPEE3D developed the unique technique to harness copper’s proven abilities to eradicate bacteria, yeasts and viruses rapidly on contact by breaking down the cell wall and destroying the genome. This is compared to traditional surfaces like stainless steel and plastic, with recent studies showing that SARS-CoV-2 can survive on these materials for up to three days. Stainless steel and plastic surfaces can be disinfected; however, the problem with these surfaces is that, even with rigorous protocols, it is impossible to clean them constantly. When surfaces become contaminated between cleans, touching them may contribute to superspreading events.

Touching contaminated objects, known as fomite transmission, was suspected during the 2003 SARS-CoV-1 epidemic and analysis of a nosocomial SARS57 CoV-1 superspreading event concluded that touching contaminated objects (fomites) played a significant role.

To validate its abilities to combat COVID-19, copper samples printed by SPEE3D have been lab tested and shown to kill SARS-CoV-2. The SPEE3D team developed a process to coat a stainless-steel door touch plate and other handles in just five minutes. The digital print files were then sent to participating partners around the globe, allowing the simultaneous installation of newly coated parts in buildings in the USA, Asia and Australia. In a matter of days, copper fixtures were installed in buildings at Charles Darwin University (CDU) in Darwin, Swinburne University in Melbourne, the University of Delaware in the USA and in Japan.

Assistant Director of Digital Design and Additive Manufacturing at the University of Delaware, Larry (LJ) Holmes, said: “Scientists and engineers at the University of Delaware were honoured to be part of this global research collaboration. We recognised the importance of developing simple, yet highly impactful, solutions that have been proven effective on COVID-19. Recognising supply chain shortfalls over the last couple of months, it was clear to this team that fabrication speed was a priority. Using this technology, we are able to rapidly transition safe options for high-touch surfaces.”

SPEE3D has worked in close collaboration with the Advanced Manufacturing Alliance (AMA) at CDU. The initial testing of ACTIVAT3D copper and future studies have been funded and supported by National Energy Resources Australia (NERA). NERA CEO Miranda Taylor said SPEE3D’s ability to successfully adapt its technology and pivot its business model demonstrated the resilience of Australian businesses and their potential to help the world combat COVID-19.

“NERA has supported SPEE3D develop market-leading technologies to help our national energy sector, and we’re committed to assisting them leverage their skills and expertise into this important new paradigm to help our country and many others curtail the devastating impact of this global pandemic.”

RMIT – 3D printers help shield healthcare workers from infection

Engineers at RMIT University are 3D printing face shields for frontline healthcare workers in a rapid response to projected shortages during the coronavirus pandemic.

A team at the University’s Advanced Manufacturing Precinct (AMP) have so far made 950 prototype face shields to help protect clinicians from airborne droplets that can carry the virus. Those on the coronavirus frontline have spoken out in recent weeks about the dire shortage of protective gear in Australia, with major hospitals in Victoria and Tasmania contacting the AMP for advice on manufacturing solutions.

Within days of receiving requests, facility technical staff had improved on an open-source face shield design and delivered the first batches to hospitals for testing. AMP Director Professor Milan Brandt said they were now printing larger batches on the facility’s bank of 3D printers, while also seeking industry partners to look at mass manufacture.

“We immediately understood the vital role of protective equipment in helping Australian healthcare workers get through this challenging time and have pulled out all the stops for an urgent response on this,” said Brandt. “This includes refocusing existing partnerships and projects to meet this need.”

RMIT’s partnership with the BioFab3D lab at St Vincent’s Hospital has focused on 3D printing medical implants since 2013, but pivoted to producing face shields as soon as COVID-19 hit Australian shores.

BioFab3D lab manager and RMIT Vice-Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Fellow, Dr Cathal O’Connell, said they were well positioned to rapidly trial and improve designs.

“Our main role, being a fabrication lab based within a hospital, is that we can try multiple designs with the clinicians themselves, get their approval, and then send out the approved design to the big 3D printing sites who can manufacture them at scale,” O’Connell said.


A simple solution

The simple, yet effective, design is easy to assemble and clean for reuse. The shield consists of an A4-sized overhead projector sheet attached to a plastic support frame produced by RMIT, and held on by hair ties or elastic bands. The team has also designed a variation specifically for Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT) surgeons that allows space for their spectacle-mounted headlights.

Melbourne-based ENT head and neck surgeon Dr Eric Levi has received 70 of these specially-adapted shields and is encouraging other clinicians to trial them. Levi applauded the responsiveness of BioFab3D and RMIT for delivering a simple, tailored solution for his profession within days.

“This is an example of how 3D printing skills are making an immediate difference to clinicians at the front lines facing the patients,” Levi said. “I’m grateful for this innovation and collaboration. We’re all in this together.”

AMP technical staff involved in this project include Paul Porter, Paul Spithill, Philip Pille and Bradley Sherwood. RMIT’s co-ordinated research response to COVID-19 includes several other projects, such as fashion and textile engineers producing medical masks for healthcare workers.

Titomic in groundbreaking agreement with Airbus

Titomic has reached a ground-breaking agreement with Airbus where Titomic’s patented TKF technology will be used to demonstrate high-performance metal parts for the giant European aircraft manufacturer.

Titomic CEO Jeff Lang said: “We are pleased to partner with Airbus for this initial aerospace part made with Titomic Kinetic Fusion (TKF), the world’s largest and fastest industrial-scale metal additive manufacturing process. The TKF process is ideally suited to produce near-net shape metal parts for the aerospace industry using our patented process of fusing dissimilar metals that cannot be produced with either traditional fabrication methods or metal-based 3D printers.”

The delivery of these demonstrator parts to Airbus, and its subsequent technology review process of TKF aerospace parts, is further validation of the extensive certification that is being undertaken under Titomic’s IMCRC project, co-funded by the Federal Government, with partners CSIRO and RMIT. Airbus installed its first 3D printer in 2012, with the first 3D-printed metal part, a titanium bracket, used in a commercial jetliner in 2014. Today, more than 1,000 3D-printed parts are used in Airbus aircraft.

“3D printing, of which TFK is the leading technology, has the potential to be a game changer post the global COVID-19 pandemic supply chain disruption as aircraft manufacturers look to reduce production costs, increase performance, improve supply chain flexibility and reduce inventory costs,” Lang added. “And TKF, co-developed with the CSIRO, can be an integral part of this change.

“Regulations force aerospace manufacturers to provide spare parts for long periods after the sale of an aircraft, so it’s not rocket science to assume they will be early adopters of 3D printing solutions for spare-part management.”

Titomic has invested heavily in developing additive manufacturing to progress towards a well-defined design, material and process qualification system as required by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA).

Europe’s Airbus is the world’s largest aircraft maker, delivering a record 863 aircraft in 2019.

A path to certification: Additive manufacturing and aerospace

The importance of additive manufacturing (AM) isn’t lost on the aerospace industry, with industry leaders like Boeing and Airbus long having adopted the technology to create parts. But it’s not just the giants that recognise the advantages: smaller, innovative companies like Aurora Flight Sciences also see the benefits.

Aurora developed and flew the first 3D-printed jet-powered unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), capitalising on the strength of fused deposition modelling (FDM) ASA thermoplastic for the main wing and fuselage structures. The aircraft’s main purpose was to demonstrate the speed at which a design can go from concept to a flying aircraft. It also illustrates the validity of AM for flight-capable parts, beyond the traditional role of prototyping.

While AM methods and applications may differ among these companies, the reason they use it is common: it provides multiple benefits that collectively improve their bottom line. That might come in the form of meeting delivery schedules, improving performance, reducing waste, optimising the supply chain, or a combination of the above.

From rapid prototyping to flight parts

Since its inception, a common use case for AM has been rapid prototyping, allowing aerospace companies to validate fit, form and function in addition to reducing product development time. The next step is the production of flightworthy parts for use on certified aircraft.

The reasons for this are obvious: AM helps aerospace companies attain important goals of reduced weight and lower buy-to-fly ratios (the ratio of procured material weight to the final part weight). For example, 3D printing allows the creation of organic shapes that aren’t otherwise possible with conventional manufacturing methods. This lets engineers design optimal strength-to-weight geometries, reducing weight by minimising the amount of material needed to carry the load. Aurora Flight Sciences used this approach on their UAV to achieve a stiff but lightweight structure, using material only where it was necessary.

This capability to apply material only where it’s needed also results in little to no scrap, unlike subtractive processes. AM thereby offers a much more favourable buy-to-fly ratio, using only what’s necessary to create the part. Buy-to­fly ratios for machined aircraft components can be in the range of 15-20, compared to close to one for AM parts, making material waste an important cost consideration.

Other benefits of AM include part count reduction by 3D printing multiple components as a single part. This results in fewer individual parts, less manufacturing and inventory, and reduced assembly labour. United Launch Alliance reduced the part count on an environmental control system duct for its Atlas V flight vehicle from more than 140 pieces to just 16 with ULTEM 9085 resin.

AM also enables creation of complex designs and intricate geometries without the time and cost penalty of traditional manufacturing methods. In some cases, it allows creation of parts that otherwise wouldn’t be possible. The fuel nozzle for the GE LEAP engine is a good example. The configuration engineers developed to meet restrictive performance requirements included intricate internal passages and geometries. The final design was ultimately not possible to manufacture with machine tools and could only be achieved with AM.

From a supply chain perspective, the ability to economically produce parts on-demand gives manufacturers much greater flexibility to make and locate parts when and where they’re needed. This alleviates the expensive process of producing and stocking sufficient spares to support demand scenarios that are difficult to predict. It also gives manufacturers the flexibility to overcome hiccups in the supply chain. Airbus used this strategy in producing the A350 XWB aircraft, 3D printing parts to maintain the aircraft delivery schedule.

Certification headwinds

These are just a few examples of the merits of AM for end-use aircraft parts. But the challenge faced by aerospace companies in achieving these benefits lies with airworthiness certification. Parts installed on aircraft must be certified flightworthy as part of the overall certification of the aircraft. For engineers wanting to design additively manufactured flight parts, that’s easier said than done, since unlike traditional materials and processes, there are no industry-standard “design allowables” to characterise the properties of AM materials.

Without this information, aerospace companies face either avoiding the use of AM flight parts altogether or developing the design allowable themselves. Depending on the application, the latter scenario probably requires expensive and lengthy testing. In the highly competitive aerospace industry, neither option is optimal.

Nonetheless, some companies have done what it takes to qualify non-metallic materials, such as polymer-based composites, for use on aircraft. However, manufacturers that take this approach typically view the data as proprietary due to the cost and effort involved, and they don’t share it within the aerospace community. This creates an “everyone­for-themselves” environment, resulting in a lack of industry-wide standards. While large companies may be able to justify the time and cost for this effort, it can be prohibitive for smaller companies without publicly funded support programs. At a practical level, requiring each manufacturer to duplicate the process for a material that another manufacturer has already evaluated is simply counterproductive, driving up industry costs and inhibiting innovation.

An industry solution

A solution to this was indirectly borne out of an effort in the mid-1990s to rejuvenate the general aviation market. The Advanced General Aviation Technology Experiments (AGATE) initiative involved the participation of NASA, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the aerospace industry and academia in the development of improved technologies and the standards and certification methods governing them. Part of this project involved the development of standards to qualify new materials and their production while abbreviating the certification timeline.

AGATE eventually evolved into a new process, named after the organisation that administers it: the National Centre for Advanced Materials Performance (NCAMP). The NCAMP process is now the established method for qualifying new material systems and developing a shared database of design allowables. The benefit for aerospace companies looking to certify their designs, beyond access to resultant material data, is that the certification authorities, the FAA and the EU Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) accept dataset and material process specifications for key components of the qualification process.

The initial focus of AGATE and the NCAMP process was qualification of polymer-based carbon-fibre composites, as composite technology offered benefits in the form of strong, lightweight structures. As a result, a number of different composite material systems have been qualified through the NCAMP process, providing a shared database of corresponding design allowables.

This has been a benefit to companies that want to use those materials on certified aircraft, while avoiding the long, expensive process of qualifying the material on their own. Instead, they must simply demonstrate “equivalency” – proving they can duplicate the material characteristics of the base qualification dataset, but on a smaller and less costly scale than a full qualification program.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for manufacturers looking to use AM parts on certified aircraft programs. Although aerospace companies have leveraged AM for more traditional benefits like faster prototyping and agile tooling, the barrier to certification endures due to the lack of a qualified AM material that is tested and validated using the NCAMP process. This prevents the aerospace community from fully benefitting from AM production parts, with real performance, supply and cost efficiencies.

The problem was taken up by America Makes, also known as the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute, which chartered the initiative to qualify the first AM material for certification purposes using the NCAMP process. This qualification process is what ultimately results in the establishment of design allowables that companies can use to design aircraft parts, a major piece of the certification puzzle. ULTEM 9085 resin was chosen by an industry steering group as the first AM material for NCAMP qualification. The material and the FDM process were selected because of their wide acceptance and use within the aerospace community.

Material testing and qualification using the NCAMP process is performed by the National Institute for Aviation Research (NIAR) at Wichita State University. The process begins with the establishment of a material specification to control the material manufacturing and processing quality. Next, a process specification is developed to control the build process using that material. This is necessary to remove any process variability and establish a controlled means of production.

These specifications exist because an important part of the certification process is the assurance that each manufacturer is making parts to the same standard. As Paul Jonas, Technology Development Director at NIAR, described it: “The first part you make has to be equivalent to the hundredth part, to the thousandth part, to the part you make ten years from now, to be good enough to be certified for the FAA.”

Once the production method is established, any decision to create parts using another system, process or material requires a separate qualification process for that method or material. The specifications also include controls for ongoing process validation, to ensure standards are maintained.

After the process specification was established, the ULTEM 9085 resin material qualification plan began. Around 6,500 test coupons were evaluated for specific mechanical properties and exposed to fluids typically found in an aircraft operating environment like engine oil, hydraulic fluid and jet fuel. Test results are then analysed to determine the material characteristics and corresponding design allowable dataset.

This data is currently published on the NCAMP website and findings will be incorporated into CMH-17, the composite materials handbook that provides standardised engineering data on composite and other non-metallic materials.

The Stratasys solution

The final step in the AM certification solution path involves the demonstration of equivalency to the NCAMP dataset. Companies that want to leverage the NCAMP process need to show that their AM process with ULTEM 9085 CG resin results in material properties statistically equivalent to the original data. But this is achieved with a much smaller sample size, drastically reducing the time and cost for qualification, with a ten-fold estimated cost savings. Once equivalency is achieved, manufacturers can leverage the NCAMP process for key components of the airworthiness qualification process, having established that their AM process is equivalent to the allowable database.

The equivalency process is reliant on two factors: use of a properly configured Fortus 900mc Production System, in conjunction with certified ULTEM 9085 CG material. Stratasys developed specific capabilities for the Fortus 900mc that include enhanced material deposition, ensuring consistent, repeatable build results to produce equivalency test coupons. An AIS Machine Readiness package is available to validate the proper set-up and operation of the AM system and demonstrate a means of compliance with the NCAMP process specification. ULTEM 9085 CG resin undergoes more testing than standard ULTEM 9085 material and is accompanied by documentation that gives manufacturers full traceability back to the raw material. The certified ULTEM 9085 CG resin, the configured Fortus 900mc, and the AIS Machine Readiness package are available as a comprehensive solution from Stratasys.

AM is no stranger to the aerospace industry. The next level of efficiency involves the manufacture of interior (or other non­flight-critical) components using the NCAMP-certified material and process – a major step in defining the roadmap toward using AM in aerospace production. The NCAMP process sets the precedent for the qualification of other AM materials, clearing the path for faster, broader use of AM in aerospace.

The new normal – Metal 3D-printed suppressors for military, police

New Zealand-based specialists metal 3D printing outfit RAM3D has been scaling up its additive manufacturing production recently. By Gilly Hawker.

According to RAM3D, the world has, at long last, woken up to the benefits of additive manufacturing. For more than 10 years the company has been leading the way in metal 3D printing in the Southern Hemisphere, and prints parts for a range of industries worldwide. The sectors it serves include aerospace, defence, marine, food manufacturing, industrial and speciality.

Many of the industries that it engages with have Non-Disclosure Agreements in place, meaning RAM3D can’t usually talk about its clients or the parts that it prints for them. However it has been allowed to discuss its working relationship with Oceania Defence.

An early adopter of additive manufacturing technology, Oceania Defence has been able to secure patents on firearms suppressors made using metal 3D printing. The company supplies suppressors for defence and law enforcement clients all over the world. Health & safety regulations around the world are driving the demand for suppressors as regulators and firearm users look to reduce significant hearing risks to themselves and others.

Oceania Defence has been working in collaboration with RAM3D since 2012. The journey started with Bert Wilson, owner of Oceania Defence, sketching up some designs and deciding to try 3D printing the suppressors. RAM3D was able to develop strategies to overcome the challenges of making the very complex geometries involved, while at the same time Oceania Defence was learning what would offer the best outcome from a design perspective.

Together, after rigorous design, research and testing, they reached the most desired outcome: a suppressor that is highly efficient, lightweight, compact and most importantly, cost-effective. Military and police tactical groups put their suppressors through an extensive evaluation procedure, alongside manufacturers from Europe, USA and Australia, before awarding their contracts to Oceania Defence. The suppressors are for semi- and fully-automatic rifles.

So what does the military want in a suppressor?

  • Keep the weight low.
  • Keep the size small – minimal additional length.
  • No change to bolt velocity.
  • Hearing safe at the muzzle and shooter’s ear.
  • Flash signature reduction.

It’s impossible to achieve everything on the wish list without jeopardising other factors, but it’s important to get as close to this list as possible. According to Wilson: “You can get really good in one area and make it really bad in another area.”

Oceania Defence prints its suppressors in both Inconel and titanium. Inconel retains its strength at red hot temperatures in extreme firing schedules, and is as strong as standard stainless steel at room temperature. This suits the defence sector which has a high rate of fire. On the other hand, titanium suppressors are very light and ideal for hunters, police and sport shooters.

And why choose metal 3D printing over other traditional manufacturing techniques?

With conventional machining, the focus and cost are directly related to material removal. The machinist spends time and money removing material from a blank to make a finished part. To make the part cheaper, the designer must leave as much material in the part as possible, so the machinist doesn’t have to remove it.

The reverse applies to 3D printing. The designer starts with nothing and spends time and money putting material where it’s required without having to add it in places it’s not needed.

The potential of metal 3D printing

RAM3D knows that metal 3D printing is a competitive production technology with unprecedented potential for industry. It works with companies to improve the design of production parts, and 3D printing them makes them more efficient and cost-effective.

The diversity of parts that RAM3D manufactures ranges from titanium knives used by the Team NZ America’s Cup crew, to customised handlebar extensions for the New Zealand Olympics Cycling Team, as well as Oceania Defence’s Inconel and titanium suppressors.

Over the last three years, the company has seen a big shift from prototyping to full production work. To keep up with customer demand, it recently purchased two more Renishaw AM250 printing machines, commissioned in early January. RAM3D now has a total of seven printers in its growing facility.