Can 3D Printing Rebuild Manufacturing In Australia?

It’s not easy being a small business in the current manufacturing environment. The face of manufacturing is changing, and businesses are eager for technological advances that could give them a competitive advantage.

John Barnes is leader, titanium technologies at the CSIRO. He receives funding from CSIRO.

Maybe 3D Printing Can Help

When people think 3D prints, they might think cool-looking guitars, high fashion, dolls that look like you, and even weapons.

But that’s not all 3D printing can do. From design to finished product, 3D printing can speed up and reduce costs in the manufacturing process. Let’s have a look.

The Big Advantage

Being an additive technology, 3D printing offers significant cost savings by using lower amounts of material than traditional manufacturing methods. When you are forced to cut away from a solid block, removing more material to achieve details increases cost.

Most machines that print in metal can also recycle unused powder (the “ink” of 3D printing).

Printing in metal.

There are many types of 3D printing technologies available today. They use varying technologies and energy sources to fuse a range of plastic and metal feedstocks, with the plastic printers having the broadest capability.

Plastic printers range from “personal” units sold for thousands of dollars, to complex manufacturing units costing in the hundreds of thousands.

While 3D printing technologies for metals are more uncommon at present, applications for both materials are expanding rapidly.

Design: The time a product spends in the design cycle can affect time to market significantly. Use of 3D printing has been estimated to reduce development time by up to 96%.

After 3D printing, surplus metal powder is recovered for re-use in further manufacturing runs. CSIRO

Using 3D printing, multiple iterations of product design variations can be explored simultaneously during the conceptual stage of design, without investing in the tools to make the product.

Car manufacturers have used 3D printed mock-ups of parts for years, from rear view mirrors to front end fascias.

The design files for 3D printing can also be sent digitally to a global network of manufacturers in a process known as “3D-faxing”. It has potential to significantly reduce shipping time and costs.

Products can be created at a digital facility as they are needed, eliminating customs inspections and duties and minimising transportation costs.

Tools: 3D printing has been used very successfully to manufacture jigs, fixtures, gauges and shop tools quickly and inexpensively. These are the tools made to assemble more complex parts, and they can be expensive for manufacturers.

3D printer manufacturer Stratasys cites saving up to 90% on fabrication of fixtures, and one-year profit gain of from US$60,000 to 230,000.

A specialised example of this use of 3D printing is use in medicine by surgeons to create mock-ups of complicated surgeries, allowing them to practice before undertaking the surgery – for example, placement of drilled holes to install pins or screws with extreme precision.


Building in one: Many products need to be assembled from several parts. 3D printing enables manufacture of complex components which cannot be made using conventional methods, opening the way to unitisation. This is the ability to combine two or more simple parts, prior to assembly, into one large complex component.

Costs are reduced because both the part count and time required for assembly are reduced. The unitisation process is similar to modular building practices, where pre-fabricated rooms complete with internal fixtures and fittings are assembled on site.

Specialisation: 3D printing has found a niche in production of customised and speciality products such as bio-medical prostheses and intricate lost-wax casting moulds for jewellery designs.

Finding A 3D Printer

Most metal 3D printers in Australia are only accessible through research institutions such as CSIRO and universities including RMIT and Monash.

CSIRO has initiated the Australian Additive Manufacturing Network to facilitate collaboration between research organisations and industry. The purpose of the network is to make effective use of 3D printers and assist Australian manufacturing companies to compete globally.

There is a growing list of service bureaus who can print sample pieces, enabling trial of the technology without the need to invest in an actual 3D printer.

3D printing is unlikely to fully replace conventional manufacturing technologies – but thanks to the savings in time, risk, and materials it offers, future factories are just as likely to include 3D printers as conventional machines.

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.

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    3D printing might help the manufacturing industry implement improvements and reduce RnD costs but it's still way off from being a high volume replacement.
    It's still far too expensive to make a functional part for a mould, or out of metal for 3D printers to be anything more than prototype machines.
    They are excellent prototype machines but you wouldn't use one to pump out millions of screws or make complex high end car parts.

    It doesn't matter what the manufacturing method is, it will still be cheaper to do it in China and similar countries. If we can reduce costs here by 3D printing, so can anyone else. The difference being that the starting cost is China is already low, so their #D printing price is lower still.

      It does matter because the reason why we build in China is the cost of labour is lower. Building in China has lots of addition costs such as shipping, increase administration, timing. If we find a manufacturing technique that requires lower labour intensity, then it may become more attractive to build locally and also we can remove some of the addition costs.

      But we are probably far from it now.

        Yes, the cost of labour in China is MUCH lower. I used to work at a place that polished parts for commodores, one day the manager told me that some of our parts had to be anodized. There was a place just down the road, but he said that it was cheaper to ship it to China, have it anodized, and ship it back than it was to have it done a couple of hundred metres away. So that's what they did.

        Companies are all about the bottom line, and they will always use the cheapest option to maximize profit.

        The manufacturing industry is dying a slow horrible death in this country. If Australians were willing to work for like $5 an hour we might be able to save it, but what are the chances of that.

        Last edited 08/10/13 9:27 am

    In short, yes. :-)
    As an example, I recently bought a reprap as a kit and can produce parts for my model and small unmanned aircraft at half of the price of a similar part produced in Hong Kong by HobbyKing. Not including shipping costs. The key here is that it costs nothing to ship a digital file (as mentioned by Mr Barnes here). Then add in the fact that my version of the part is better suited to my needs, weighs less, is recyclable, and is ready to use in a couple of hours instead of weeks waiting for delivery.
    This is not to say that improvements aren't needed for additive machines to become as ubiquitous as the desktop printer. Manufacturing time is a big one, since waiting 2.5 hrs for a 20 gram part is a bit silly. Material diversity is also lacking, even with the polymer printers - where most users have to choose between either PLA, ABS (or maybe PC if they're lucky). I am still yet to print anything using SLM or EBM so I can't comment too much on the powder-based processes, but it is my understanding that this is an issue for them as well.

    Deliveries could be better. Why does it take six weeks to deliver anything from the US?
    Orders from China take about three days.
    I reckon it takes a couple of weeks before anyone does anything. I'm talking about small parcels.

    Can you imagine a gearbox made of this stuff? There is nothing even close to forged or case hardened steel. Or work hardened aluminium. Let alone cost, the performance is out by many orders of magnitude. Additive manufacturing can be useful for metal sintered parts, but these are not common in most products today. Beyond rapid prototyping (for geometric fit) and for playing around, I just don't get the hype. And... 3D printing has been around for decades. Nothing new except the interest from academia convincing government that it could create manufacturing jobs, and getting shiny new buildings to put new additive manufacturing facilities in.

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