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.