Working from a factory in Melbourne’s south-east suburbs, SPEE3D is in many ways a classic traditional manufacturing business. Its product, however, could have a revolutionary impact in the world of additive manufacturing. By William Poole.
Signing in at SPEE3D’s premises in Dandenong, it’s hard not to notice the mini golf green. A strip of astro-turf with a hole at one end, and a putter and ball laid out for anyone to chance their arm. It might seem a little frivolous – the sort of thing you’d expect to see at some inner-city “creative industries” outfit, rather than in the serious, pragmatic world of manufacturing – but it actually does a very neat job of demonstrating what SPEE3D is about. That’s because the head of the putter was manufactured by SPEE3D using its own innovative 3D-printing technology.
“The issue today with 3D printing is that it’s too expensive and too slow,” says Byron Kennedy, SPEE3D’s CEO. “When we started this company, it was ‘How do we fix this issue, of both cost and speed, to produce parts?’ So the technology we developed is a very high-speed process and very low-cost.”
SPEE3D’s technology can produce 3D-printed metal components, but using an unusual approach. Most metal additive manufacturing processes employ a heat source such as a laser to melt powders so that the particles bond together, cooling to form solid components. SPEE3D, on the other hand, uses a technique called supersonic deposition or ‘cold spray’, which fires metal particles at supersonic speeds so when they hit a surface they stick, creating a full-density metallurgic bond. The US military has been using it for about 10 years, and the CSIRO has been doing some work with the technology, but in both cases it has been limited to basic surface cladding processes for repairs.
SPEE3D’s innovation has been to mount the deposition surface on a six-axis robot, which can then manipulate its position around the spray nozzle to create complex, three-dimensional parts. Because the system doesn’t rely on materials being heated and then cooled, it is significantly faster. Moreover, it does so at a greatly reduced cost.
“The cost drivers in 3D printing are primarily the gases – nitrogen or argon” says Kennedy. “We just use air. So that reduces the cost significantly. Second is the powders: they use very specialised powders, and we’re targeting very generic metal powders.”
A manufacturing mindset
Kennedy and co-founder Steve Camilleri (now the company’s Chief Technology Officer) set up SPEE3D just a year and a half ago, with start-up funding from angel investors as well as grants from the Federal Government’s Accelerating Commercialisation program, and from the Victorian and Northern Territory Governments. The company has an experienced board with lengthy academic backgrounds, and has extensive links with universities such as RMIT, Swinburne and the University of Technology Sydney. However, Kennedy and Camilleri come firmly from the world of manufacturing, having previously run a company producing high-efficiency electric motors, which was eventually sold to a large US manufacturing company.
“There were two things we learnt from that,” says Kennedy. “One: we know how to take an idea all the way through from lab prototype through to mass production. And the second thing is that we learnt a lot about manufacturing.”
Kennedy believes that grounding in manufacturing, and indeed their relative lack of a background in additive manufacturing, both work to their advantage.
“Additive manufacturing companies are made out of additive manufacturing people, and for us it’s all about manufacturing and production. For us it’s about building parts people want, not what people can use in 10 years’ time.
“We saw 3D printing was coming, but we knew the technology, all the laser-based systems, was never going to get there. It’s just too slow and too expensive. It’s fine for medical and some aerospace applications. It makes beautiful parts, stunning latticework and that sort of stuff, but what do you do with them, other than as trophies? Our background is manufacturing and manufacturing is not interested in trophies. Manufacturers are interested in real products, cost, speed, delivery, quality. So that’s what we set out to achieve and solve with this technology.”
Today SPEE3D has six staff on the payroll, with plans to expand to 15 or 20 by the end of 2017. Plans are in place to raise further funds later in the year, probably through corporate investors or venture capital. Meanwhile testing is underway with universities to validate the material properties of components printed on SPEE3D’s machines, though according to Kennedy, US military data suggest the performance is as good as cast parts.
Kennedy is bullish about where SPEE3D’s product sits in the market. Most of the key players in additive manufacturing are still primarily focusing on very low-volume, high-value components, as well as prototyping, with only a few players venturing into the production area. SPEE3D, meanwhile, is pushing straight through to target full-volume production, and take on more traditional manufacturing processes.
“We haven’t seen anyone else doing this,” says Kennedy. “Today, 3D printing is about on-demand products, one-offs or low-volume; it’s high-value, high-expense components. It has a niche. Meanwhile, with traditional manufacturing, you have long lead times, high quantities. We fit interestingly in between. We’re economical up until about 10,000 units, and beyond that you’d go to traditional casting. But there are plenty of opportunities in products produced at 10,000 pieces a year.”
Pragmatism over precision
That manufacturers’ practical-mindedness is evident across SPEE3D’s strategy. For example, while many of the leading manufacturers of additive systems put great emphasis on the precision their machines achieve, SPEE3D downplays that aspect. The components made on its machines are rough, inexact… unfinished.
“The thing about 3D printing today – and casting for that matter – is you can’t print a bearing bore, you can’t print a mating surface, you can’t print a thread,” says Kennedy. “You always have to post-machine printed metal parts. Our philosophy was different: we don’t put as much effort into getting the ultimate surface finish, because you have to post-machine it anyway. It doesn’t matter if you’re taking off ten micron or 100; you still have to put it on the mill and machine it. Our philosophy was: print it fast. You have to post-machine anyway. So that’s our approach.”
A similar approach is taken with regard to materials. Much of the coverage of additive manufacturing focuses on expensive, niche metals, particularly titanium. While SPEE3D’s technology can be applied for most metals, the company is initially targeting the other end of the market.
“For us there are two markets: steel and aluminium, because that’s where the volume is,” Kennedy adds. “Aluminium is an $80bn market. Steel is $100bn. Compared to that, titanium is loose change. It’s less than $5bn. It’s interesting, but there’s no real market for it. The drive in the auto and aerospace worlds is into aluminium anyway. So people ask us ‘Can you do titanium?’ and the answer is ‘Yes but we’re not interested in it’. Maybe in the future, but we’re still a small company. You’ve got to focus somewhere and we’re focusing on aluminium.”
As with most additive techniques, SPEE3D’s technology can deliver unique products; Kennedy cites one particular electronics component, details of which are confidential but which couldn’t be produced by any other method. There are also promising niche applications, such as in defence or mining, where the ability to deploy the machines in remote locations offers considerable supply chain advantages. However, the company’s sights are firmly set on those big, high-volume manufacturing segments.
“We are working in the aviation field, but the lead times are longer, so our focus is actually automotive,” says Kennedy. “Where is this technology going to end up? It’s going to end up in Germany, Japan and the US – the big auto sectors. We’re working with all the big auto guys in Germany. We’ve also visited probably a dozen companies in Japan and we’re working with those guys at the moment as well. We haven’t even ventured into the US, so that will be next on the hit list.”
There’s one further element that sets SPEE3D apart. Australian companies that are actually making manufacturing technology are few and far between. Australian companies doing so in the additive space are vanishingly rare. And yet SPEE3D’s machines are almost entirely Australian-made – the exception being the robot, which is from ABB.
SPEE3D designed and manufactures the spray nozzle, which is actually a rocket nozzle (“So it is actually rocket science,” Kennedy quips). The proprietary software was also developed in-house. The rest of the machine is either manufactured in-house or sourced from Australian suppliers, with the final assembly undertaken at the factory in Dandenong.
On top of this, SPEE3D’s technology and its strategy create interesting supply chain opportunities beyond the production of the actual machine, with potential multiplier effects of wider benefit to Australia.
“We’re targeting aluminium, and the supply chain for aluminium for 3D printing is Australian,” Kennedy explains. “We dig up the bauxite in Queensland, they send it to Tasmania to be processed into the aluminium ingot, and then send it across the road – we have one of the world’s largest powder producers in Tasmania. They produce the aluminium powder, we put it in this machine, and make the parts. That whole supply chain is in Australia.
“We talk about advanced manufacturing in Australia, and not just selling dirt to China. This is it. The thing about this machine is, because we use no gases, we know the process is the lowest cost. The only costs are power and the powder to put into it, and we can source the lowest-cost powder because it’s essentially straight from the mines. You use that powder, you make parts, you sell parts. We’re not selling dirt anymore. We’re selling value-added parts.”