Factory of the future

Formero recently put on an event titled “Factory of the Future” which travelled around Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Adelaide. Intrigued by the title I curiously went along to the Melbourne event hoping I’d walk into a room with shiny white walls, magical sliding doors, flouro illuminated  control panels and sexy female assistants in lyca body suits straight out of Star Trek! Well… the sexy assistants we’re no where to be seen, and the closest thing to a illuminated control panel was a large projector screen however what was discussed and presented was right up there with Captain Kirks bag of tricks.

First up was Terry Wohlers who gave a great presentation on additive manufacturing. Terry is known as the industry guru of 3D printing and what is now know as Additive Manufacturing. He heads up Wohlers Associates, a rapid prototyping and additive manufacturing consulting company. Additive Manufacturing, or AM for short, is the term now associated for any process where you make a real production part (not a prototype) by adding material layer by layer, as opposed to removing material in such process as machining or injecting it into a mould cavity. I knew several companies were using SLS parts in low volume products such as BMW but was surprised to see it being used by Boeing and also in Military applications! Pretty cool to see that printed parts, ahem, AM parts are replacing tooled and machined parts in production applications. In most case they are replacing a complex assembly of many pieces with a single AM part as with out the constraints of tooling or machining, the geometry is unlimited!

The unfortunate fellow who had to follow Terry’s well rehearsed presentation was Stephen Ritt from MTT technologies in Germany. MTT manufacture Selective Laser Melting machines which can print parts in metal… yes REAL metal. He had some example parts printed in titanium which we were told are 99.97% solid. Pretty darn good in my books. The technology is amazing but its just a shame he was just pushing for some machine sales. Formero are looking at purchasing one of their machines in the not to distant future so I’ll be keen to send them some parts to print to see how they perform. The machine was priced around the 1 million mark so hopefully parts aren’t as expensive as the machine!

Following on from Stephen was Dr Mahnaz Jahedi from CSIRO talking about their new technology called Cold Spray. Cold Spray works by spraying fine powdered metal at very high speed (super sonic in fact) onto the part or substrate. Because the metal is kept at room temperature you can use the process to coat materials that previously required various treatments for the metal to bond to such as plastic. This is some serious cool stuff and has huge potential in many different applications. Hopefully we manage to commercialise it in Australia before we sell it off internationally.

These technologies will have a huge impact on how parts are not only manufactured but how they are designed. No longer do parts need to be designed to suit a particular manufacturing technique, they can be shaped and engineered to be given maximum strength while minimising weight to produce the optimal design. This gives the designer/engineer huge amounts of freedom and opens up new design theory’s such as the tube and pole method that Stephen showed us on a flap support part.

Makes you wonder if we should still be teaching kids how to correctly design parts for tooling??

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