CSIRO scientists are using 3D printing to build a new generation of hi-tech fish tags made of titanium. The aim is to use the tags to track big fish such as marlin, tuna, swordfish, trevally and sharks for longer periods.

CSIRO researcher John Barnes and his team have been refining the design of fish tags using 3D printing to speed up the process.

We asked John how 3D printing compared with traditional ways of making the tags.

[00:16 – 0:30] Currently, what they would do is start with a solid block of metal and machine that away until they wound up with something that looks like this. In the process of doing so, they’d probably take about 90% of that material that they’d paid for and turn it into chips which would have to be recycled.

John noted that 3D printing is faster than conventional manufacturing processes.

[00:36 – 1:05] We can print something relatively quickly; there’s some prep time to feed it into the machine. You have to take that file, feed it into the machine, there’s sometimes support structure  that may be required all of which is done automatically and we just manage it to make sure it makes sense. We push the button, typically, we’ll go home for the evening, the machine will run overnight, we’ll come in in the morning and the parts will be printed. There’s a little bit of clean-up that may be required, but the worst-case scenario is, you’re looking at maybe 2-3 days, especially for small objects like this.

3D printing also allows for a closer relationship between industrial designer and user, which helps to develop a product optimally suited for use.

[1:12 – 2:02] Well, when we actually talk to the guy who actually does the testing, you know, which is a critical part of the design process, actually getting to talk to that person, he gave us quite a bit of feedback – probably feedback that hadn’t been taken into account in the design in the first place. So we were able to get first-hand anecdotal evidence on how they use the devices at sea, what they’re used for, how they work, what they do. And so we were able to take that advice, turn it back around, and do a second iteration, in which case we can provide a very minimal design all the way to something that’s a little more complicated. But one of the ones we will come up with will have the least amount of material involved in it, and there will be other ones which have much more design features on it. It’s up to them to decide which ones will be best suited to what they are trying to do.

3D Printing Fish Tags

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CSIRO is printing the tags at its 3D printing facility, Lab 22, in Melbourne. The tags are printed overnight and then shipped to Tasmania where marine scientists are trialing them.

Tags are made of titanium for several reasons: the metal is strong, resists the salty corrosiveness of the marine environment, and is biocompatible (non-toxic to living tissues).

One of the advantages of 3D printing is that it enables rapid manufacture of multiple design variations which can then be tested simultaneously. "Using our Arcam 3D printing machine, we've been able to re-design and make a series of modified tags within a week," says John Barnes, who leads CSIRO's research in titanium technologies.

"When our marine science colleagues asked us to help build a better fish tag, we were able to send them new prototypes before their next trip to sea," he adds.

CSIRO's 3D printing facility prints metal items layer by layer out of fused metal powder.  Had the scientists been using conventional tags which are machined out of metal blocks, it would have taken a couple of months to design, manufacture and receive the new designs for testing.

"Our early trials showed that the textured surface worked well in improving retention of the tag, but we need to fine-tune the design of the tag tip to make sure that it pierces the fish skin as easily as possible," says John.

"The fast turnaround speeds up the design process – it's very easy to incorporate amendments to designs. 3D printing enables very fast testing of new product designs, which why it's so attractive to manufacturers wanting to trial new products."

Scientists from a number of agencies, including CSIRO Marine and Atmospheric Research, use fish tags to track movements of individual marine species and increase understanding of their behavior. Tracks of selected marine animals tagged by CSIRO and partner agencies can be viewed on the CSIRO Ocean Tracks website.

Medical implants such as dental implants and hip joints are made of biocompatible titanium with a surface texturing which speeds healing and tissue attachment after implantation. Scientists hope that a similar rough surface will help the tag to stay in fish longer.

"A streamlined tag that easily penetrates the fish's skin, but has improved longevity because it integrates with muscle and cartilage, would be of great interest to our colleagues conducting tagging programs across the world," said CSIRO marine researcher, Russell Bradford.

CSIRO's Lab 22 3D printing facility was established in October 2012 and has been used to manufacture a range of prototype products including biomedical implants, automotive, chemical processing and aerospace parts.

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  • A  fish tag held between two fingers

    The latest fish tag design is streamlined and looks different from earlier tag designs.

    Download image
  • A line-up of fish tags of a rock

    A line-up of fish tags, showing progression of the design from earliest (far left) to latest (far right).

    Download image
  • Diagram of the evolution of the tag design

    Evolution of the tag design can be seen in this comparison of the first tag with the latest tag.

    Download image

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