By Belinda Willis
Cutting edge 3D metal printers are keeping South Australian advanced manufacturing in the game with the innovative technology already attracting some 100 companies to the Playford region of Adelaide.
Three of the state-of-the-art printers now based in Edinburgh North are creating complex products made from aluminium, titanium and stainless steel, in what is being lauded as the southern hemisphere’s most advanced metal 3D printing facility.
Manager Piers Lincoln said the new facility would boost growth in the defence, medical device and engineering sectors with numerous projects already completed since it opened for business in April.
Work included confidential defence jobs along with work for innovative Adelaide health device company Austofix, that makes a range of specialist plates used in surgery for bone injuries.
“We’ve even had classic car enthusiasts coming with their Bay to Birdwood gems, desperately needing a part that’s no longer found and we’ve been able to make them,” Piers says.
Piers is institute manager at the University of Adelaide’s Institute of Photonics and Advanced Sensing (IPAS) overseeing the facility and where the idea for its creation originated.
The institute had been using a smaller 3D metal printer based at the university’s city campus for several years and recognised the need for more and larger printers in the state.
With the help of a $1.4 million former Labor State Government grant, the 3D printing facility is now the only metal additive manufacturing centre in Australia that’s available to companies on a commercial basis, putting SA at the forefront of additive manufacturing.
“Clients who use our current small 3D metal printing facility have had to go overseas to get access to larger printers for the manufacture of products,” the University of Adelaide’s Professor Julie Owens says.
The facility operates from a wing at Century Engineering with the printers able to quickly turn powdered metals like titanium and steel into solid gadgets and innovative devices with the help of a 1600-degree molten laser.
These products previously could have taken weeks to build.
Having three printers also meant one metal material could be used solely in each machine, Piers says, slashing cleaning time between jobs that may require a different type of metal.
The larger printers sourced from British headquartered global company Renishaw can print products 12 times the size of the city printer.
“We’ve now had 100 companies shown through the facility and we’re working with about 10,” Piers says.
“One of the real benefits is some companies have had to go to New Zealand, Europe and the United States to get parts printed and to work with those overseas companies in terms of design is difficult.
“Now they can come in and understand the process, speak to designers, and see examples to work on a project.”
The goal was to continue growing the facility, Piers says, with another seven to 10 printers installed in the next five years including one producing plastic products at the Stretton Centre in northern Adelaide.
“I think the future is going to be very bright for the facility with the number of people interested growing, it’s now a question of working with companies and understanding how to the get the most out of it,” Piers says.
He believes there are some “absolute gems of companies” in SA, including Maptek, Ellex medical and Norseld, a medical laser company that has made a world-first method for creating a thin diamond-like carbon coating at room temperature.
These companies have 200 to 300 employees which is “small by global standards” but are exporting most of their products “so no one ever hears what they are doing and they are absolutely world leading”.
The new facility was about helping these types of innovative SA companies to continue to grow.
The 3D printing hub is also central to an applied research network including the University of Adelaide’s IPAS along with Optofab Australian National Fabrication Facility, the Stretton Centre and CSIRO’s Lab 22 additive manufacturing.
It’s backed by the Innovative Manufacturing Cooperative Research Centre, which aims to help manufacturers transition from low cost to advanced manufacturing.
And supported by the City of Playford, which was also involved with making the project happen, with Mayor Glenn Docherty saying the printers represented a new era in advanced and bespoke manufacturing that would create new avenues of development.
“We’re confident these printers will help create jobs, efficiencies and future proof businesses in key industries like defence, health, mining and the rail network,” he adds.
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