“Lab22 was set up to help develop the additive manufacturing industry in Australia,” says Stefan Gulizia, Research Group Leader with CSIRO, where he’s also the Research Group Leader overseeing additive manufacturing, powder technologies, solid-state forming, surfaces, alloys, metal composites within Lab22.
The clue to how closely Lab22 works with critical minerals is right there in its moniker, bestowed when it was set up back in 2015.
“It takes its name from titanium’s atomic number, and our focus on titanium and many other critical minerals,” says Mr Gulizia, who has more than 30 years’ experience in materials science and process engineering across roles at CSIRO.
“We have about 30 scientists working at Lab22, and another 30 affiliates, including distinguished scientists, Post Docs, PhD and Masters students from all around Australia and the world, and we are a trailblazer in additive manufacturing,” says Mr Gulizia, who was a pioneer of cold spray technology in 2002, which revolutionised additive’s place in solid-state part manufacture.
How Lab22 turned Australia on to additive manufacturing
When additive manufacturing (AM) at Lab22 was set up, car manufacturers were exiting Australia in droves and CSIRO tasked Lab22 to help develop and transition manufacturing to develop new industries based around AM.
Lab22 brought together a diverse range of AM equipment from around the world to help introduce the technology to the Australian industry. “Lab22 was leading the way with advanced AM equipment not available elsewhere in Australia,” says Mr Gulizia.
“Now in 2022, all of the various AM technologies that we introduced with Lab22 are out there, and we have a vibrant AM industry in Australia. There are lots of companies producing parts made of critical minerals and many have links back to Lab22, so we’re proud of our achievements in Australia.”
Calling atomic number 22 to the stage
As well as seeding a brand-new manufacturing industry, Lab22 has produced a lot of world-leading research and development for AM, with critical minerals playing a big part, beginning with titanium.
“Australia contains some of the largest and purest known deposits in the world of rutile and ilmenite, the base minerals used to make titanium so it’s not surprising Australia has emerged as one of a hand full of countries with a strong titanium industry,” says Mr Gulizia.
Before Lab22, CSIRO had been working for many decades on material science for critical minerals, including with titanium, which is an important material in aerospace and defence.
Their work led to breakthrough technologies that turn titanium into forms that can be used to make parts for aerospace, defence and medical applications using AM.
“That’s been a very important contribution. We’ve helped grow a new supply chain around titanium, and developed and established technologies using AM to manufacture mill products such as wire, pipe, sheet and complex parts,” he says.
Experimenting with mixing critical minerals for AM applications
With Australia’s AM industry off and running, Lab22 is now turning its energies to developing more materials to support it.
“We’re moving into critical mineral and hybrid manufacturing,” explains Mr Gulizia.
“The future is about multi-materials, and we’re also working towards using additive technology to manufacture much larger components.”
“We have extensive research activities with aluminium for the automotive industry, graphite for the battery technology, magnesium for medical applications,” says Mr Gulizia.
He says the design freedom that AM offers for part making – where a conventional part can be scanned and reproduced from a digital file using AM – is moving to the next generation of materials science, which is where Lab22 is making some exciting breakthroughs.
“We can already change the materials from the original design, and consolidate parts with fewer pieces to make one part, now we are moving into experimenting with materials that have better properties for a particular purpose,” he explains.
“We get a real kick out of using hybrid materials in the AM process. We might have an aluminium body for light weighting, and over the top we deposit a critical mineral that has better properties for an extreme environment, such as high temperature, or for exceptionally high strength, such as titanium. This is second-generation AM.”
Scientists don’t play favourites, of course, but Mr Gulizia has a particular fondness for tantalum.
“This is another critical mineral where Australia has one of the largest tantalum ore deposits in the world,” he says.
“It’s more than $1000 a kilo in powder form for additive manufacturing and it has about four times the density of titanium – it really is a super material.”
It has extremely high melting temperatures (around 3000 degrees C), high resistance to chemical attack and antibacterial properties that make it ideal for medical applications.
Mr Gulizia says Lab22 is doing world-leading research in materials science developing hybrid critical minerals for AM applications.
“It’s going to play an important role in helping Australia develop sovereign capability in this space,” he says. “We are creating new materials and process technologies and it’s very exciting.”
Lab22 is in Melbourne’s Clayton, which has become Australia’s AM hub.
“Our colleagues at Monash University also have an AM centre, and quite a few of the companies that have taken on Lab22’s technologies have established themselves in the area,” Mr Gulizia says.
Lab22 itself has a steady stream of visitors touring the facilities.
Challenges and opportunities ahead
As passionate as he is about AM’s future to create high-skilled jobs and a sustainable manufacturing industry in Australia, Mr Gulizia says there are still several issues to solve.
One is around the AM process itself: because it’s so new and using new material processes, the path to qualification or certification of parts is in development; particularly the qualification and certification of AM parts.
Our understanding of the mechanical properties of these parts, such as fatigue, is still being developed, by Australian and international researchers,” says Mr Gulizia.
Nevertheless, companies from startups to multinationals are investing in AM, such is the enormous potential of AM. The ability to personalise and “print” parts in remote locations on a just-in-time basis makes AM appealing to industry.
The other issue from a business model perspective is who owns the design when AM parts have their origins in a conventional part, but the materials have since been modified, and very likely consist of fewer components.
While Lab22 is driving world-leading AM innovation for Australia, Mr Gulizia flags a gap in our sovereign capability.
“The majority of powders used in AM today – including critical minerals – are imported,” he says.
“We have the technologies to extract metal, and to make products using AM, but you can’t print anything without metallic powders. That’s the weak link – we need a commercial AM powder processing plant in Australia.”
He also says there’s a skills shortage to fill the growing number of jobs in AM and that at the moment it’s falling mostly to companies to train up technicians.
“A lot of AM facilities are run by post-grads, but in my opinion, it should be taught at TAFE level,” says Mr Gulizia.
“The technicians can then run the machines and scientists can work on developing the materials that go into them.”
In the meantime, the Lab22 team will continue to build sovereign capabilities and instead of sending processed ores overseas and importing them back as powders, we will forge on finding new ways to turn Australia’s critical minerals into the additive manufacturing innovations of tomorrow.