Thursday, 4 December 2014

The Next Industrial Revolution


by Professor Milan Brandt, Technical Director, RMIT’s Advanced Manufacturing Precinct

Manufacturing in Australia can survive if we simply think outside the box. 

When Holden and Ford announced they were ceasing to manufacture cars in Australia it was Victorians, along with those in South Australia, who felt the punch the hardest. Whether it’s the value of the Australian dollar impacting on imports and exports or whether it’s the fact that machines have taken over from what humans once did by hand, there has been nothing but pessimism about the future of manufacturing across the country.

I would argue that it’s as much about semantics as it is about the actual demise of an entire industry sector. Manufacturing is largely defined as the fabrication, processing, or preparation of products from raw materials and commodities - be it cars, bottles, pasta, hair ties or aeroplanes.

We need to rethink the way we look at manufacturing. Forget about the old school variety of creating something out of beaten metal. Instead, think along the lines of new ways of manufacturing.

Here at RMIT University we are investing heavily in exploring different ways of manufacturing in Australia, with a focus on additive manufacturing.  Two and a half years ago we opened the Advanced Manufacturing Precinct to help industry transition from the traditional manufacturing processes to advanced manufacturing technologies such as 3D printing. The Advanced Manufacturing Precinct houses some of the latest additive technologies in the world: both polymer and metal based. Our focus is on developing new products and processes using these technologies and high-performance materials such as titanium, plastics and composites.

Manufacturing means moving away from “rapid prototyping” to full-scale production of customised functional final products and parts directly from digital design and without the need for tooling – this is particularly suited to the aerospace, defence, medical and sports sectors.

For example, take additive manufacturing or 3D printing on an industrial scale. A couple of years ago the technology seemed space age and hugely expensive. Now it is being used to create everything from a titanium section of bone tailor-made to fit a particular patient’s damaged leg, to a state of the art titanium bicycle or spacecraft part.

We are developing new materials that can be used in additive technologies; new metal alloy powders and polymer materials. This will contribute to the growth of additive technology, which is estimated to be increasing at around 16%  per annum and will reach US$3.5 billion by 2015.

Last year US President, Barack Obama, mentioned 3D printing in his State of the Union Address: “A once-shuttered warehouse is now a state-of-the art lab where new workers are mastering the 3-D printing that has the potential to revolutionise the way we make almost everything."

Associate Professor Hod Lipson, Director of the Creative Machines Lab at Cornell University in the US and co-author of Fabricated: the New World of 3D Printing, said that technology will boost manufacturing not so much by replacing old-school products but by creating new business models “based on this idea of customisation.”

Why? Because it all comes down to cost - ask Ford or Holden. They are leaving Australia because it simply costs too much to stay and make things locally. Additive manufacturing – or 3D printing technology – is about cost as well. It’s now possible to 3D print house, a robotic arm or a crucial section of a NASA rocket – all for the cost of, yes, a small sized family car.

Australia is a leading player in developing new applications and feedstock materials for additive technology. It’s a manufacturing skill we excel at and one that could well take Victoria back to being a manufacturing powerhouse.

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