A Melbourne manufacturer just fired up the world's largest 3D metal printer

Titomic CEO Jeff Lang and chairman, Philip Vafiadis. Picture: Supplied

Melbourne manufacturer Titomic now has the world’s largest 3D metal printer.

Its first job was this sign:

Picture: Supplied

Granted, it’s not exactly a submarine, which, by the way, Titomic’s CEO Jeff Lang says is definitely within the realms of possibility. And sooner than you might think.

The most impressive fact about the new printer at Titomic’s factory in Waverley on the outskirts of Melbourne is it’s nine metres long, three metres wide and 1.5 metres tall. That’s nearly five times larger than the world’s next biggest, at GE.

Where GE’s machine can print metal objects up to a cubic metre, Titomic’s new bed can output parts up to 40 cubic metres.

The reason it can print big parts is due to a collaboration with the CSIRO in the past few years which has seen it develop and patent a way to utilise Australia’s abundant titanium sands.

And fast. That sign above was pumped out in just over four minutes. Here’s a timelapse:

Titomic was born in 2009 when the CSIRO invited Lang to get involved in a project with them and he “jumped on that opportunity to look at the potential for what digital manufacturing of metal really could be.”

Titomic paid CSIRO for research. It had developed a patent but also passed that patent over to the CSIRO to “give us that one more level of protection”, Lang says. The CSIRO had just won its landmark wifi case against global phone manufacturers, and Lang had some unfortunate experience with patents and global manufacturers in the past.

The most important aspect of the patent revolves around building load-bearing structures.

“When we look at carbon fibre parts they generally make a hollow part called a monocoque construction,” Lang says.

“We’re sort of at the stage now where we can achieve that with metal, large scale metal parts. Preferably out of titanium but we think that we can use any metal.”

The idea is Titomic can make parts lighter and stronger, basically by making parts out of less parts. Whereas traditional manufacturing relies on a lot of cutting, joining and welding, Titomic’s process is all about making metal monocoques.

This full bicycle frame was printed in 25 minutes:

Picture: Titomic

Titomic has also just announced a 12-month collaboration with Callaway, the world’s largest golf club manufacturer.

Investors are also on board with the new technology. The biggest jump in Titomic’s share price came less than a week ago, when news broke of an MOU with Fincantieri, a leading Italian shipbuilding company, sending stocks up from $1.52 to $2.83 on Monday.

Aeroplane wings and submarines aren’t outside the realms of possibility, Lang says. So how deep would he dive in a 3D-printed submarine right now?

“That’s interesting because one of our BDMs is a chap called Trent Mackenzie and he actually… specced up James Cameron’s submarine that went down to one of the deepest trenches in the world,” Lang says.

“He also specced up the submarine that currently has the record and it’s made out of titanium.”

Granted, neither of those submarines were 3D printed. But Lang says Titomic has approached the point where its product, made out of powdered titanium, is “very close” in strength to titanium produced by traditional methods.

Director James Cameron with his DeepSea Challenger. Picture: Getty Images

“Some areas we can be exactly the same; in some areas, within 1 or 2 per cent,” he says.

“We don’t shy away from the fact we have more work to be done in that area, but the reality is we’re pioneering how metal can be made.”

Lang says the aerospace industry is the most difficult in terms of verifying the products are up to spec.

“There are no shortcuts. Generally, for a process like ours, we’re talking at least five years.

But the biggest attraction for global airliner manufacturers is not so much the properties of the metal as it is the way it’s produced.

Normally, Airbus and Boeing would machine parts out of a large solid block of titanium. That “subtractive manufacturing” can result in up to 90% waste.

Airbus can use 50 tonnes of titanium to produce 8 tonnes of parts – per day. Lang says Titomic can print a “near net shape” part with 10-20 per cent material deliberately added on to be trimmed off later.

Humans and parts – overrated. Picture: Getty Images

And with both Boeing and Airbus facing 8-10 year backlogs on commercial airliner builds, just having to trim parts can give them a time saving of up to 70-80 per cent.

Lang can’t confirm any details, but says Titomic is working with “several major players” in that space.

The company was launched on a pre-capital raise of $2.5 million and a subsequent raise of $6.5 million. The company is now valued at $150 million.

A fortnight ago, it completed another $12 million raise a fortnight ago, which helped fund new machines, but equally importantly, acquisitions that helped secure Titomic’s supply of powdered titanium.

A single machine can burn through 45kg per hour.

Australia has the largest reserves of mineral sands in the world that contain titanium powder, and it’s one of Titomic’s “long term goals” to find a way to refine that powder locally.

Lang says the 3D process gets “cost effective when we can get cheaper grade powder”.

Whereas most 3D printers can only use a refined form of “ball” titanium which costs $200-800 per kg, Titomic is developing ways to use rougher “nugget” forms which can come it at as little as $60 kg.

“As a reference point, we only have to look back 150 years, when the most expensive form of metal was aluminium,” Lang says.

“Now aluminium sells for $2-3 per kilogram.”

“If we can metal powder down to sub-$25 per kg all of a sudden titanium becomes a viable metal material, say, for the automotive industry.

“Markets will open up.”

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