Less than a year ago, Australian industrial 3D printing company Titomic introduced its innovative Kinetic Fusion process for the first time. Since then, the company has been busy commercializing the technology with various MOUs and other agreements, and was able to secure patents for Kinetic Fusion in both Australia and the US. All of this activity culminated in May, with news that the company had introduced a new metal 3D printer, said to be the largest and fastest in the world. Now, the world is finally getting a closer look at Titomic’s new machine…and its unique technology.
Jeffrey Lang, the Founding Director and CTO of Titomic, told Manufacturers’ Monthly, “We are challenging the traditional core of manufacturing.
“While most metal printing processes use an electron beam laser to melt the metal, there is no melting involved in our process. Therefore there are no heat-related distortions and the materials retain their properties.
“This also means that we are not limited by size. Because melting metals in the conventional 3D printing processes causes them to oxidise, the conventional metal 3D printing needs to take place inside a vacuum chamber. Lack of melting in our process means that we are not limited by size.”
Titomic’s new metal 3D printer has a build area that’s 9 m long by 3 m wide and 1.5 m high, though it’s not constrained to booth size and requires no gas shielding. The company’s Kinetic Fusion process sprays titanium powder particles at supersonic speeds of about 1 km per second, using a 6-axis robot arm, onto a scaffold. These particles move so fast that when they collide on the scaffold, they fuse together mechanically to produce huge, load-bearing 3D forms.
Kinetic Fusion is also far faster than other forms of 3D printing.
“Depending on the complexity of the metal parts, we can deposit between 20-45 kilograms of metal per hour. That’s just with one spray head. We are working on a new system where we could operate a series of robots that connect multi- head robots. That would enable us to deposit up to 200 kilograms of material per hour,” Lang said.
“To put that into perspective, the normal 3D printers can usually deposit about one kilogram in 20 hours. So we are really bringing volume into the additive manufacturing market.”
This unique technology resulted from a Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) study, at a time when the country’s government was looking to capitalize on its titanium resources.
“The Federal Government did a IndustryFOCUS including putting linings on jet study in 2007 with this idea that while Australia is not a large resource of titanium, we have a large amount of mineral sands that contain titanium,” Lang explained. “The government wanted to find ways to utilise that resource instead of just selling it off, like we always do in Australia.
“I was invited to be a part of the project and look at the ways by which we could use large volumes of titanium powder. We started thinking about how to develop titanium powder from that vast resource and build a whole industry around it.”
Lang and his colleagues were finding that current AM methods were too restrictive for industrial-scale projects…and then they found the cold spray coatings process, which was developed in Russia 30 years ago for high-level metal coatings for aerospace engines; the method was also used in Asia to fabricate high-quality frying pans with copper-coated bases and scratch-proof rice cookers.
Lang said, “What no one had realised was the potential applications of the process in additive manufacturing.
“We haven’t found any scientists who can clearly explain the theory behind the process, but the technique is currently being reviewed at the army labs in the USA. The US Army has already validated the process for doing aluminium repairs on aircraft wings, etc. There are also a couple of big global companies using the technology for defence applications.”
Together with Professor Richard Fox, Lang began working on how to build a 3D object by incorporating cold spray onto a scaffold, and the two co-inventors asked that CSIRO patent and licence the innovative technology to Force Industries, its composite sporting goods company. Thus, Titomic was founded four years ago and owns the exclusive rights to commercialize the proprietary process.
“These are exciting times. We started the whole project with the view of developing sovereign capabilities for Australia,” Lang said. “But the technology does not benefit just one country. It’s about securing a better future for all humanity and future generations on this planet.”
The technology does need to go through a validation process before being used in industries like aerospace, but the company is also working to 3D print parts for other industries, like defence, sports equipment, mining, and shipbuilding.
“The shipbuilding industry is currently using 50-year old technologies. Nothing much has changed in that area over the past years,” Lang explained. “Our machine can be installed on a gantry system to coat the whole hull of the ship. That shows the significant scale of what we can do.”
The technology is also not strictly limited to 3D printing and could be used to create advanced composite materials by fusing together dissimilar materials, or in the seamless coating of large industrial parts.
“Probably the most exciting advantage of Titomic Kinetic Fusion process is that it enables us to fuse dissimilar materials that could not be fused in any other way,” said Lang. “This puts us at the forefront of pioneering new smart materials that can be specifically designed for different components and parts.”
Lang believes that early adopters in any industry, but especially aerospace, can save on time and material waste with its Kinetic Fusion, in addition to gaining a competitive advantage. The aviation sector is one of the largest customers of titanium alloy products, and according to Lang, Airbus, one of the bigger fans of 3D printing in the industry, loses 50 tons of raw titanium each day to produce only 8 tons of traditionally manufactured parts…a materials loss of about 90%.
“If we could make those parts as near net shape components, that is to create the final shape of the part and then add just a little bit extra burden of the material on it, we could reduce that machining time in some instances by 80 per cent,” Lang said.
“We are not saying this technology can jumpstart now and replace the current aerospace process. But our process is currently one of the most significant processes that those aerospace companies are looking at. We have come up with additional solutions to remove a small amount of porosity to achieve aerospace grade.
“For one of the aerospace components, which can be up to $4 million in cost, we can reduce production time from 200 hours down to 6 hours.”
That’s why Titomic is currently working with a few Tier 1 aerospace companies that are interested in developing carbon fiber parts with a middle structure made of titanium.
However, Lang also says that, while 3D printing titanium is useful for making complex parts, the price will eventually start to go up and match conventional methods of manufacturing.
“The nitrogen and electricity costs for running the machines are not very high,” Lang said. “Our biggest cost restriction at the moment is the cost of metal powders. Titanium powder can be prohibitive for high volume, low value industries.”
But, as we continue to develop more applications for titanium and the demand increases, he believes the cost will go back down.
“When you look back at 150 years ago, the most expensive material in the world was aluminium. And that is now only $2-3 per kilogram,” said Lang. “Things change based on demand. The demand for titanium powder in Australia hasn’t been great until Titomic came along. Now we are in the position where we are securing the supply chain from larger suppliers.”
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