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Op-Ed: Additive manufacturing shifting the ground for local defence supply

For the first time since World War II, Australians have been forced to live in virtual isolation – borders have been closed to non-essential travel and restrictions imposed on people movement as the nation confronts the worldwide coronavirus outbreak, explains Amaero International chief executive Barrie Finnin.

For the first time since World War II, Australians have been forced to live in virtual isolation – borders have been closed to non-essential travel and restrictions imposed on people movement as the nation confronts the worldwide coronavirus outbreak, explains Amaero International chief executive Barrie Finnin.

With airfreight and ocean freight restrictions disrupting the importation of goods, businesses have been suddenly forced to reassess the status, dependability and responsiveness of supply chains.

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Domestic defence providers are now being challenged to respond efficiently, economically and securely.

For federal and state governments, COVID-19 has swiftly highlighted the importance of sovereign control of strategic resources and production capability, including defence manufacturing.

In the aviation, defence and space sectors, the emergence of additive manufacturing also known as 3D printing is changing the domestic landscape for the sourcing of specialist components.

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Using the 3D printing process, a metal component can be built three-dimensionally by adding material layers of alloy powder and selectively melting the powder onto the previous layer, guided by a computer-aided model. 

The digitisation of component designs, coupled with the metal 3D printing equipment, enables a distributed digital manufacturing model in which the printer can be located at the site of the intended market, while the engineering can take place at a different location.

Because of its technical complexity, higher labour input, high capital intensity and the application of expensive alloy powders, additive manufacturing is generally not cost competitive for the mass production of low-cost components or metal products.

The additive manufacturing process is competitive in its ability to enable design complexity and parts consolidation, giving rise to new, high-performance designs for specialist applications. It is suited to applications where superior performance enables a competitive product. That includes the aviation, defence and space sectors.

Aerospace components, in particular, are an obvious niche application for additive manufacturing, which can produce components that are both light-weight and high-strength.

Amaero, for example, has successfully 3D-printed a helicopter gearbox for a large international aviation, space and defence company.

Additive manufacturing offers Australian defence providers the prospect of being able to domestically source, manufacture and deliver high-quality components.

Australia can play a leading role globally in the emergence and commercialisation of additive manufacturing technology for a number of reasons.

First, Australia has access to globally competitive digital manufacturing capability and know-how.

Amaero has demonstrated that major Australian research institutes, such as Monash University, can transfer their technological and innovative strengths to new forms of manufacturing in essential industries. Indeed, the university established the Monash Centre for Additive Manufacturing (MCAM) to specifically develop the technology for commercial use. 

MCAM takes fundamental research from a broad range of disciplines – including materials science, alloy design and processing, surface engineering, corrosion and hybrid materials and applies them to manufacturing challenges.

The Monash centre is one of the leading metals additive manufacturing institutes in the world, with around 50 full-time researchers, PhD students and professors dedicated to additive manufacturing processes. And it is right next door to Amaero’s Melbourne facility. 

Amaero collaborated with French aerospace manufacturer Safran, MCAM and the CSIRO to make the world’s first 3D printed jet engine in Melbourne, in a project funded through the CSIRO-managed Science Industry Endowment Fund. The additively manufactured components all matched or exceeded historical performance data from conventional manufacturing processes.

Co-located with MCAM is AmPro Innovations, another start-up, involved in the design, development and manufacturing of machines and equipment for additive manufacturing and the safe handling of metal powders.

In addition, CSIRO’s Lab 22 is literally across the road in the same precinct. Amaero collaborates with CSIRO on X-ray non-destructive testing and virtual visualisation tools for metal components, as well as modelling and simulation of product performance and in particular additively manufactured tooling.

The high concentration of engineering competence, digital manufacturing and characterisation facilities enables rapid product development cycles, as exemplified by the aerospike rocket motor project Amaero undertook with NextAero (a group of engineers and PhD students from Monash University). This project went from clean-sheet design to test firing in just four months.

A second major element is access to markets. Australia benefits from the long term diplomatic relationships with allied nations and the Global Supply Chain program.

Boeing, BAE Systems, L3, Lockheed Martin, Northrup Grumman, Raytheon and Thales, for example, have applied the Global Supply Chain model to identify Australian SME targets with critical technology and advanced manufacturing capability and facilitated access to offshore programs.

Additive manufacturing plays to the inherent strengths of Australian-based production.

Finally, and in the context of market access, Australia has the advantage of being able to access domestic raw materials; however, there remains a gap in the market for domestic sources of alloy powder, which is the key input to the additive manufacturing process.

In times of conflict or diplomatic tension, it is vital that Australia can access a reliable supply of alloy powder, either domestically or within the allied or ‘Five Eyes’ nations with whom Australia enjoys established defence relationships.

A local supply chain enabling the production and recycling of critical alloy powders would benefit Australian defence manufacturers as well as add substantial value to critical resources.

With potential for reduced weight, lower production costs and shorter time to market, additive manufacturing offers aviation, defence and space manufacturers a new range of (local) options. It has also demonstrated the substantial logistical advantage of being able to print designs in one step, rather than having to assemble multiple parts.

In summary, additive manufacturing gives Australia a major opportunity to develop, enhance and grow domestic supply chains based on high-technology production processes, replacing offshore sourcing and the associated risks of a disrupted supply chain.

Barrie Finnin is the chief executive of Amaero International. The company was established in 2013 with the support of Melbourne’s Monash University to take advantage of commercial opportunities identified by the Monash Centre for Additive Manufacturing.

In the seven years since its formation, Amaero has worked with many of the world’s leading manufacturers of aviation, defence and space products in both research and development and in manufacturing meeting performance specifications for a range of 3D-printed alloy components.

The principal activity of Amaero is the provision of end to end additive manufacturing solutions in terms of services, equipment and technology to its key clients in the aviation, defence and space sectors and the tool and die industry. Amaero has supports its customers out of facilities in Melbourne, Adelaide and at El Segundo, in California.

Amaero International listed on the Australian Stock Exchange in late 2019.

Op-Ed: Additive manufacturing shifting the ground for local defence supply
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