Australia’s SPEE3D: The Most American 3D Printing Company

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In the additive manufacturing (AM) industry, arguably the most important original equipment manufacturer (OEM) to the US Department of Defense (DoD) right now is SPEE3D, the maker of cold spray AM (CSAM) systems, headquartered in Melbourne, Australia. At least in this sense, SPEE3D has emerged to become synonymous with AM in the U.S., an idea the company recently reinforced by opening its first US-based facility, at the University of New Hampshire (UNH), Durham.

Byron Kennedy, the CEO and co-founder of SPEE3D, sat down with me at RAPID + TCT 2024 to explain the rationale behind that decision, as well as where the company is at more generally these days, and where they see themselves heading in the near future.

Unsurprisingly, given the intro I just gave the company, Kennedy kicked things off by talking about defense:

“We’ve gone from zero defense in 2019 to about 90 percent defense now,” Kennedy said. “Maybe we swung a bit too far towards one sector, but the defense sector came along and wanted to take pretty much every piece of equipment we had, so we weren’t going to say no.

“At this point, though, we want to swing back a bit, and I think 50/50 — half defense, half the rest of heavy industry — would be our ideal mix. I believe that, in general, heavy industry is underserved at the moment. And there, it’s really about controlling your own destiny as a manufacturing enterprise.”

Along those lines, the lessons learned from deploying AM in the defense sector directly apply to formulating strategy for 3D printing’s role in all other areas of heavy industry:

“Heavy industry is at the end of very long supply chains in terms of trying to get parts,” Kennedy explained. “I think the opportunities in areas like the machine tools sector, automotive, farming equipment, etc., lay in developing applications surrounding specific materials. In turn, this should help clarify the division of labor between different AM processes: when manufacturing enterprises require complexity in parts, PBF can address that. When they need complexity in materials, that’s where DED and CSAM shine.

“So, we’ve focused on maximizing complexity of our underlying materials, which appeals to heavy industry right now. They don’t need the parts to look pretty, they don’t care about weight reduction, or latticework. It’s all about simply getting the supply chain back up as quickly as possible.”

In fact, precisely these issues related to difficulties in supply chain management in heavy industry, in particular, largely explain SPEE3D’s decision to start manufacturing printers in the US at its new UNH facility.

The choice of that specific location within the US was driven by its proximity to the New England defense manufacturing ecosystem. But the decision to manufacture printers in the US, at all, is due mainly to the difficulties in shipping big heavy pieces of expensive equipment from Australia to the US, with Kennedy referencing the Red Sea supply chain disruptions as the most recent headache in this context:

“We build our own machines, so we deal with this all the time,” Kennedy told me. “For specialized parts, we probably need to hold five times the stock of what we require at any given moment, because the lead times for most of those components are like 40 to 50 weeks. You can’t run a business like that because you’re trying to predict 12 months out what your sales will be, and that’s some tough guesswork, especially in a relatively new industry.

Normally, from Australia, we’d ship things through the Red Sea, but that’s not really happening at the moment. The Red Sea might not be very close to Australia, but that nonetheless makes it a very localized, geopolitical challenge for us at the moment. Instead of being 12 weeks to get to Europe, it’ll be 16-20, and then when you get there, you’re stuck on a dock, so we end up airfreighting them in at tremendous expense, and they still get stuck in customs no matter where you are.”

Thus, SPEE3D will be manufacturing its newly announced, largest-format machine, the TitanSPEE3D, at UNH, where the company has also established an applications center. This makes perfect sense for a company whose mantra is manufacturing as close to the point-of-need as possible:

“Our big push for heavy industry, which in addition to defense, includes above all mining, oil & gas, and maritime, is all about putting the supply chain as far forward in their operations as any given enterprise is willing to go,” said Kennedy. “Because then, at least regarding whatever parts they’re deploying our systems for, they don’t have to rely on anyone other than themselves. As long as that technology is robust enough to stand up to the challenge, those operations control their own destinies.

”Now, for those companies, the challenge isn’t about how to get their parts where they need to be: instead, it becomes, how do you protect your intellectual property, how do you certify your parts? And it’s also about not doing that in a lab. These are the challenges that defense and heavy industry at-large are now starting to get their heads around.”

With that in mind, if SPEE3D’s job isn’t “easier” than it used to be, they’re at least able to get to the point faster when working with customers:

“What we used to see, let’s say five years ago,” began Kennedy, “is that when we came to these shows, we’d spend a lot of time explaining what the machine does, or how it works. I don’t have to do that anymore, which is nice — I reckon that yesterday, I only had to explain the machine once.

“What people are doing now is coming right out and saying, ‘Here’s our problem. Can you help us?’ The message is out there that cold spray is a real technology that’s developing real parts. That’s been the biggest change throughout the last five years, and even the last three years, is that the awareness has really ramped up around us and especially around the technology. The industry’s also certainly gotten more realistic about what it can do. The powder bed guys aren’t going to do what we do, and we’re not going to do what they do. I think, then, the idea for us OEMs is to find our niche and live in that niche, and maybe customers are starting to understand that, as well.”

As the unwanted spawn of Mother England, it’s entirely logical that Australia and the US would find much opportunity for synergy. Reverence for self-reliance, innovation out of sheer necessity, and an unusual combination of strengths in both high technology and material extraction are all hallmarks of both nations.

The trilateral partnership between the US, UK, and Australia (AUKUS) will only bring the manufacturing sectors of both countries closer and closer together as the 21st century continues to heat up. SPEE3D, with a foot in both camps, is uniquely suited to capitalize on that momentum.

Images courtesy of SPEE3D via LinkedIn

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