Advanced 3D printing facility to build space, flight and hypersonic parts

Build it, and they will come. Especially if what you build is a high tech adaptable, rapid, exotic materials builder.

The Innovative Launch, Automation, Novel Materials, Communications and Hypersonics (iLAuNCH) Trailblazer program is investing $180 million in an advanced 3D printing and manufacturing facility at Camden Park, Adelaide.

It’s a cooperative project designed to make expensive but uniquely flexible modern tools available for industry, universities and startups to turn their concepts into testable realities, a critical weakness in Australia’s developing aerospace, space and extreme conditions manufacturing sector.

Hypersonic vehicles. Ultra-light spacecraft components. Extreme-performance Earth-bound machinery. All need a limited number of examples of experimental components to be built to test, demonstrate and refine their potential.

With this, says University of South Australia’s Industry Professor Colin Hall, it makes it much easier for Australian advanced manufacturing businesses to reach the point where investing in dedicated assembly lines is viable.

“It’s another tool in the toolbox, but a very specific and crucial one,” he told Cosmos. “Additive manufacture allows you to fabricate shapes that you can’t do with subtractive manufacturing.”

Such shapes can be critical for the success of a component.

The centrepiece of the Camden Park facility will be an Electron Beam Melting (EBM) printer which focuses electrons on piles of metallic dust to fuse them into the desired form.

What makes the EBM particularly useful for Australia’s budding hypersonic and space industries is its ability to melt ultra-light but heat-resistant titanium and nickel alloys into complex shapes which are not brittle.

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But it can also form copper, cobalt chrome and steel.

“It makes sense to use additive manufacturing where volumes are small, but complexity is high,” says Hall. “That makes it economically viable to go down this route”.

One simple example is printing hydrogen fuel tanks out of aluminium. A printer can print an example for testing. That testing may expose an unexpected flaw. So, the design is changed and loaded for the next print run.

“It’s not very sexy, but that’s where some gains are found,” Hall says. “You only print one object. You don’t have to produce 20 screws that must each be manufactured to precise tolerances, tested, validated, certified and tracked.

“And while you may spend more hours designing the part because it’s so complex, you’ll save so much more in the manufacturing and de-risking because you’ve got fewer components and points of failure”.

The iLAuNCH program has $50 million over four years in federal government funding and a further $130 million from partnerships. This includes The University of South Queensland, The Australian National University, the University of South Australia and the CSIRO. Adelaide-based VPG Innovation represents a collaborative group of eight Australian engineering companies, the Stärke-AMG group.

The facility is expected to be operational by March 2024.

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