Crafting A Future For Additive Manufacturing

Small Caps | Jul 28 2021

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Additive Manufacturing is emerging as a promising, technology-driven, future growth avenue and Australia is playing its part. An introduction…

-Additive Manufacturing is an industry of immense promise that’s often been misunderstood
-Australia’s AM industry is growing with many businesses nationwide, yet the greatest success of the sector will come with more engagement in the global economy
-Covid-19 and emerging geopolitical economic competition are expected to have a significant bearing on the future of the AM industry locally and globally

By Ed Kennedy

Anyone expecting an overnight economic revolution in Additive Manufacturing will be disappointed.

AM – often interchangeably called 3D printing – is commonly cited in many quarters of the media as a futuristic ‘cure all’ to a range of current manufacturing woes and challenges.

Given AM was invented around 40 years ago, if it was going to deliver an overnight revolution it surely would have occurred by now.

But AM can certainly be a source of evolution in future, both within Australia and the wider global economy.

Ultimately, the story of AM isn’t about what it has failed to achieve so far, but instead the groundwork its businesses have laid to position it as a sector of consistent growth, and enduring value in advanced economies.

What it requires for its potential to be realised is a proper understanding of what it can do, and why the market needs it. 

Defining the Differences

Given the shared space that AM and 3D printing occupy, it’s useful at the outset to define a distinction between the two. This is necessary as while the technological process both fields offer is broadly similar, there is nuance within them, and in turn their end-goal varies.

AM is commonly utilised to describe the field where serious and substantial commercial and industrial pursuits occur, utilising processes such as Selective Laser Sintering (SLS).

Conversely, 3D printing is commonly used to describe the use of simpler processes to get a result, making use of approaches such as fused deposition modelling (FDM).

Additionally, from a procedural perspective, the 3D printing process will see an object created layer by layer.

This occurring via the use of a 3D printer, and computer-aided design (CAD) software. Because a typical manufacturing process effectively sees layers of material removed from an object – someone manufacturing a wooden door would do so carving its parts out of a bigger piece of wood – AM acquires its name for its processes that instead add material.

Although in this respect AM can also be classified as a form of 3D printing (and it also uses CAD software) as AM can feature a range of materials and processes that don’t arrive via the layering process exclusively, it’s here that the distinctiveness of its processes to 3D printing is seen.

The History of AM at a Glance

AM was invented in 1981 in Japan at the Nagoya Municipal Industrial Research Institute.

Later in the decade, Charles Hull patented Stereolithography (SLA), followed thereafter by Carl Deckard’s development of SLS.

The central value proposition of AM in comparison to other forms of manufacturing is multifaceted. AM can provide very complex constructions, and highly customised parts.

It can also produce goods in a unitised method, and as a result of this production costs can be saved as parts that were previously joined can be made into an individual unit. 

AM’s Development in Australia 

Regardless of whether a push for growing AM in Australia is driven in future by economic opportunity or sheer necessity (as discussed further below, most likely a combination of both), there’s a number of promising elements that provide the groundwork of the industry’s next chapter.

The strength of the AM sector in Melbourne has been especially strong, but operations like Sydney’s Breseight Engineering and Perth’s Aurora Labs ((A3D)) illustrate the appeal of AM to businesses and markets nationwide.

At the same time, overcoming two challenges which have historically proven profoundly difficult for countless Australian industries will be key to the sector realising its full potential.

The ‘tyranny of distance’ between Australia and other nations, and the difficulty of accessing capital locally have previously been two major barriers to the greater growth of AM locally. Also, ones that persist today in many respects.

The path of progress for the AM industry in other countries looks easier, with some nations serving as obvious candidates for Australian businesses to target for export.

Given the size of America’s aerospace, automotive, and defence sectors – interwoven with the Biden administration's ambitions to reinvigorate the nation’s manufacturing sector under its “Build Back Better” platform – AM has been cited as having the potential to turbocharge this progress. 

For Australia, tapping into this growth in the short term will have its difficulties given the ongoing restrictions surrounding border closures due to covid-19, but a noted advantage comes with AM’s capacity to see designs created locally, then dispatched globally for production elsewhere.

This process would effectively see a design purchased from Australia, then once the file is sent to the client, it could be manufactured in their country on-site. As with the local industry, this method is still developing, but it’s indeed seen as profoundly promising. 

Industry Leaders on the Future

In a recent webinar Future of Additive Manufacturing held by the Research as a Service (RaaS) Group, a number of leading figures in the Australian AM industry offered their insight into the current challenges and opportunities the sector features, with an eye to the future. 

It featured presentations from Alex Kingsbury, Additive Manufacturing Industry Fellow & Engagement Lead at RMIT University, Barrie Finnin and Stuart Douglas from Amaero International ((3DA)), and Andy Sales from AML3D ((AL3)).

The aforementioned shared space between 3D printing and AM saw remarks made at times that are applicable to both fields. This said, a thematic focus across the webinar was on the wider industry growth and greater utilisation of AM/3D printing for large-scale ventures, as distinct from uses that are closer to the hobbyist and amateur area of the field.

Ms Kingsbury’s presentation affirmed AM can indeed be utilised for the creation of a variety of goods, but as she also noted, “it is not the tool to save all tools”. As Ms Kingsbury also detailed, the strong performance of the industry will be dependent upon the successful unity of technology, materials, industries, and business models.

For Andy Sales, Managing Director of AML3D, AM’s capacity to be a disruptor in delivering technological advances in tandem to its scalability serves as key pillars of its future growth.

To Stuart Douglas, Executive Director at Amaero International – an additive manufacturer formed in 2013 that today serves customers in the aerospace, automotive, and defence sectors, among others – that the AM sector is one of the fastest growing industries on earth evidences the enthusiasm for its potential.

Mr Douglas also provided a snapshot of the diverse pursuits in which an AM business in 2021 can find itself involved in. Among Amaero’s most notable ventures are a tooling agreement with Fletcher Insulation, a development agreement with a top 10 global automotive manufacturer, and multiple international patent applications in their final stage. 

Undoubtedly the industry insight on offer in this recent webinar affirms the promise of the AM sector, and the rightful enthusiasm many have for its Australian component to carve out a unique place in the global market.

But just as cementing a presence in the global economy can certainly deliver remarkable returns, the rapidly growing uncertainty surrounding the international arena’s stability in the pandemic and post-pandemic eras can be expected to play a critical role in coming months and years. 

The Trade War Factor

A key consideration surrounding the future of AM concerns the emerging faultlines of a new geopolitical competition.

Locally, Australia’s ongoing trade disputes it finds itself in with the People’s Republic of China is a vivid example of this.

Yet although this stoush has arguably been the most stark example of a post-covid-19 trade fallout in relations between Beijing and a nation abroad, even before the pandemic broke out, the first steps into ‘conscious uncoupling’ between China and other countries was well underway. 

2016’s Trans Pacific Partnership, and its 2018 successor the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), were developed in part to serve as a counterweight against Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative in Asia.

In turn, the Trump administration’s imposition of a ban on Huawei in 2019  – the tough stance on Beijing a rare continuity visible between the approach of the former administration and President Joe Biden’s team – was seen (in addition to being a move to nullify security concerns about Huawei) as part of a new gritty chapter of economic competition between Washington and Beijing.

Moves by Canberra and London to exclude Huawei from the domestic 5G network have also occurred in recent years, and these events alongside other factors give credence to economist predictions the global economy is set to increasingly fragment into two distinct camps, led by Washington and Beijing. 

If this new dynamic unfolds as expected, the desire and need to (re)establish sophisticated manufacturing capabilities in countries that saw such roles shipped overseas in decades prior, will become crucial.

For its part, with the Made in China 2025 strategy Beijing seeks to reduce reliance on foreign technology imports, while also growing the sophistication of goods its manufacturing sector can produce.

Namely by focusing on 10 key industries, with aerospace, automated machine tools, medical equipment, and ocean engineering among them. Demand across these 10 industries augur well for the growth of AM in China.

For Australia and other nations in a similar position, growing a sizeable manufacturing sector once again would offer a measure of economic security – and also biosecurity given what a strong manufacturing industry can provide as a avenue for rapid PPE production – while also delivering an opportunity to better tap into the AM sector that’s set to further increase its technological capabilities in future, and also see a rapidly growing market for its processes. 

At the same time, for Australia a necessary caveat must be acknowledged based on an assessment of present circumstances.

While the growth of Australia’s AM industry has much promise, it’s also one best-geared to not only being globally competitive, but focused on primarily doing business globally.

Anyone who identifies in AM an opportunity for Australia to rekindle the glory days that saw a landscape where major goods like Fords and Holdens were made by Australians primarily for the Australian market, are likely holding out hopes for the impossible.

The Essential Materials for the Next Era of AM

The outbreak of the covid-19 pandemic provides businesses and governments the chance to pursue a significant ‘reset’ of key goals and strategic aims.

Although falling profits and increased debt may encourage timidity initially, many chapters of history suggest such crises are commonly met with a renewed appetite for substantial private investment and substantial political reform.

These conditions would augur well for AM in Australia when it comes to attracting new interest from both the private and public sectors. 

For the private sector, the closure of borders due to covid-19 has required a reassessment of investments across the board.

For many local AM businesses, a silver lining of the pandemic is the easier path it affords to win the ear of local investors, and secure the capital they desire to more aggressively pursue their growth plans.

For Australian governments, a greater investment in AM could provide the cornerstone to begin building a new era of cutting-edge manufacturing that many in the nation crave, and indeed may ultimately come to need in the years ahead if instability within the global economy increases further as it’s expected to.


Audio-video recording of RaaS webinar The Future of Additive Manufacturing:

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