Titomic, an Australian company, unveiled on Wednesday what it said was the world’s largest and fastest metal 3D printer — a development it said that could revolutionise the advanced manufacturing industry.
The bus-sized printer is capable of making complex aircraft wing parts of up to nearly 9m in length. It can also print metal bike frames in around 25 minutes. The technology has attracted overseas interest with Italian shipbuilder Fincantieri partnering with Titomic this week to explore using its “kinetic fusion” 3D printing technology at its shipyards.
“Only a year ago people thought it would not be possible to use this type of printing process to make large-scale metal parts for industry,” Jeff Lang, chief executive of Titomic, told the FT. “Now we do are doing it larger and faster than anyone else.”
By utilising three-dimensional digital models, 3D printing enables the creation of more complex and lightweight structures than traditional manufacturing methods and with less waste of materials. Some experts predicted it could spur a shift away from mass production back to local manufacturing in the markets where the products were sold.
“3D printing removes the labour cost element in manufacturing by automating processes,” said Milan Brandt, professor of engineering at RMIT University, a technology and science-focused institution based in Australia.
3D printing technology is already shaking up some advanced manufacturing sectors, according to Gartner, the research company, which predicts three-quarters of aircraft will fly with 3D printed components by 2021. It forecasts a fifth of the world’s top 100 consumer goods companies will use 3D printing to create custom products by then.
Last year BP initiated a study to determine whether the rise of small-scale digital manufacturing using 3D printers would reduce the need to ship goods around the world, disrupting oil markets.
“3D printing can provide an exponential increase in the speed of production lines,” said Mr Lang, who added that one of their 3D printers can do the work of 50 people. “It could enable, for example, US bicycle manufacturers, which tend to manufacture in cheap-labour zones, to begin to bring back local production.”
Titomic’s technology was co-developed with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, Australia’s national science agency. It has adapted existing cold spray technology — a technique used in the past mainly to deploy metal coatings and repairs to existing infrastructure.
Titomic uses an additive manufacturing process, which sprays titanium alloy particles on to a scaffold, layer by layer, from a print head or nozzle, rather than by stamping or cutting metal panels on assembly lines. It does not use lasers or heat to melt metals — a method used by earlier generations of 3D printers, which have struggled to print metal components of any scale due to thermal distortion.
Mr Brandt said Titomic’s technology was probably the world’s largest commercial 3D printer, although it was possible the Chinese defence establishment had developed similar printers. He said the technology was a step forward in terms of 3D printing at scale but cautioned that the printed components might not be as strong as those made using traditional methods, and might require some post-processing finishing.
Mr Lang said Titomic’s 3D printing technology could get the metallurgy to within 1-2 per cent of standards produced by traditional manufacturing processes.
Max York, Australia chief executive of General Electric, which previously held the record of developing the world’s largest 3D printer, said additive manufacturing was poised to become a disrupting force.
Mr York said GE used the process to combine 855 separate parts into just 12 when designing a turboprop engine, adding: “It turns the whole classical design for manufacturing process on its head.”