Glen Paul: G’day, and welcome to CSIROPod. I’m Glen Paul. Titanium is often referred to as the wonder metal. It’s the ninth most abundant element in the earth’s crust; it’s as strong as steel but about half the weight; highly resistant to corrosion, fatigue, and cracking; can cope with extremes of temperature such as those experienced by space craft; and is compatible with carbon fibre composites and the human body.
The downside to titanium is that because of the multi-step energy intensive nature of traditional production methods, titanium remains exclusively the domain of high end markets such as aerospace, where its superior performance is considered worth the cost of production.
CSIRO researchers are trying to overcome this with novel low energy production methods for titanium metal and alloys, which could open up endless commercial possibilities.
Joining me on the line to discuss it is John Barnes from CSIRO’s Light Metals Flagship. John, many seem to have already fallen under the siren song of titanium, but just how much of its potential has been realised?
John Barnes: Probably very little at this point. We’re just hopefully at the front of a tipping point which will cause this new revolution in titanium to come forward.
Glen Paul: Right. And CSIRO is part of that revolution with yourself and the team working on a number of technologies such as titanium metal powder. So how is that working to bring titanium to the everyday market?
John Barnes: So the reason why powder is important, and actually just to back up, the processes that have been under research, both within CSIRO and around the world – there’s probably a dozen to two dozen different processes going on simultaneously – the one thing that they all have in common is that they’re all solid states, so that there’s no melting, which is tied up in the conventional processing methods, which is where you see a lot of the energy being put into the system.
The other thing that’s interesting about them is that they all produce a powder as an output, so the mineral or the ore goes in powder form, and in this case you’d get an alloy directly through the process, and comes out the other side as a powder.
The reason why that’s important is that if you look at how the parts are configured that people are trying to use, you can now use this powder to then make what they call a net shape. And that requires you getting close to the final shape, rather than going through a big ingot situation where then you’re rolling that down into a plate, and then you’re shipping it around, and you’d give it to a machine house and they’d turn 90 per cent of that block into chips. And all of this was consuming a lot of energy; there was a lot of waste in the process.
The powder enables you to kind of skip several of those steps, and so rather than having a 26 or 52 week lead time, you’re probably also looking at something that takes a lot less time to come to the final part. So it’s really important that you’d look at the entire value chain in the context of the titanium story.
Glen Paul: Right. So once you’ve got the powder, what sort of production methods can it be used for?
John Barnes: Well there’s a number of things that can be done. I mean the simplest thing – you could go melt it. The next thing is that there’s a number of technologies that other people have been using over the decades. You know, powder metallurgy is an industry that’s been around for a long time.
It just hasn’t ever taken off with titanium because the powder that is produced today comes at the end of a very long value chain, so it’s very expensive. But the powder that people are developing currently is probably in an order of magnitude less expensive. So the powder metallurgy that’s used in other markets – you know ways to make parts, metal injection moulding, these types of things – roll compaction is another technology which has been used in nickel technology for a long time.
And then there’s other more advanced techniques which are coming online now, which are what we call additive manufacture, and direct manufacturing. And those seem to capture everybody’s imagination more than the other methods because it appears more like a Star Trek technology than anything else.
Glen Paul: OK. Well, this just got more interesting. So tell me then, what is this additive technology?
John Barnes: So additive technology, or direct manufacturing, allows you to go directly from your computer file, your solid model that you’ve designed the part with, it then gets fed into a machine which slices it up into a finite number of layers, and you essentially print out the metal following that computer file.
And so you can imagine that you’ve now reduced a lot of the waste in the system to produce something that looks close to your final part. You know depending upon the technology you’re talking about, you may still have to go machine it, but you’re machining much less than you would have traditionally. And in other cases it’s probably good enough – you know, it just depends on what the end use is.
You know in the context where if you’re looking at a final part that’s maybe made for an airplane, about 40 per cent of the cost is tied up in the machining nature of it. So if you reduce the machining by half, you’ve effectively just reduced the cost of your part by 20 per cent. Now if you take away the fact that you’re going directly to a net shape, automatically you’ve saved yourself the machining because the material’s not there to need to be removed. So now you’re talking big chunks of cost are starting to disappear, like 50 per cent and more.
Glen Paul: So these machines are already in existence that can create these items from titanium?
John Barnes: That’s right. It’s a very crowded space at the moment. There’s a bunch of relatively small innovative companies that are producing these machines, and they’re produced in the United States, in Sweden, in Europe – all over the place. And they vary from the size of a room, to a desktop.
Glen Paul: So effectively you could more or less print off an item – instead of using ink, you’re using titanium to create an item more or less?
John Barnes: That’s right.
Glen Paul: A 3D build of something?
John Barnes: That’s correct. And so there’s two elements of that. There’s one which you can make very large items much more economically than you could have previously, and the other part is that you can make things that you just could not have made previously.
And so that is what captures most people’s imagination. I think that’s what we’re currently very interested in, and asking people what they would make if they had a new technique available to them. So you can make these very interesting three dimensional structures, which you probably couldn’t machine out of a piece of plate.
Glen Paul: Right. So that means you could just get a design and upload it into the machine? Like, someone could give you a design for something on a USB stick and you just put it in like you would with a computer?
John Barnes: Yeah, that’s right. And you know I would throw it back and say that there’s still a very human element to it. You have to have a human who knows his manufacturing process to come up with a clever design. If you just keep trying to shove your existing design into a new process you kind of get the mediocre results that you’d expect.
But certainly that can be done. But fundamentally what you say is correct, so you know everybody today, most of the manufacturers use a 3D Cad package to design their parts, and essentially that file just gets fed into the machine, and the machine does its own processing, similar to how you would do and see numerical controlled programming for a machining operation.
Glen Paul: And how big is the investment in this technology?
John Barnes: Well it varies all over the place. You know the small machines go from anywhere from $500,000, all the way up to the very large machines which you could probably pay as much as you wanted to, depending upon whether you’re talking something the size of a small office, which is probably a couple of million dollars, to if you wanted something the size of a railcar, it could be upwards of $10 million.
Glen Paul: OK. So you can use other agents in these machines aside from titanium, other metals and things?
John Barnes: Yes. And there’s different types of machines for different materials, so... and they broadly get broken down into metals and polymers. And certainly people are most interested in titanium because of the cost situation, but really any metal that’s weldable is a candidate for direct manufacturing.
And so once you have a design that can’t be made any other way, you’re not limited to titanium – you’d be limited to steels, Nickel. A lot of the modern engineered materials would be still usable in a direct manufacturing context.
On the polymer side it’s the same kind of situation going on. It’s a little bit different economically because they’re really just the cheap plastic parts, but you can generally only get the cheap plastic parts because you’ve invested a bunch of money in a very expensive tool. And that’s great when you want to make a million of something, but not so great when you want to make a thousand of something, or a hundred of something.
So these machines are coming in where you may just need to make a hundred, or ten of any given thing and the polymer is really the best decision from an engineering context but not the best decision from an economic context. And so you’re seeing direct manufacturing come in and perturb that equation quite a bit.
Glen Paul: Hmm. And how involved is CSIRO in the development of this technology?
John Barnes: Well, we’re kind of at the nascent development stages, and it’s a relatively new area to CSIRO. You could say that we’ve been on the periphery of it for a long time. We’ve certainly been, at least in the titanium context we’ve been in that game for several years, and what we’re doing very much contributes to those direct manufacturing technologies – we’re not building equipment, but we are doing things that help the feedstock for that equipment, and helping the way that that equipment operates.
So we will become more and more involved over the years because it makes a lot of sense for Australia for one, and makes a lot of sense just period.
Glen Paul: Hmm. Look, it’s an exciting future, and I can see why you’ve used the Star Trek analogy. So what happens in the future hypothetically say... say that a bad guy wants to knock himself up a new 9mm, how do you get around that kind of problem?
John Barnes: Well, I mean I think if you... you kind of have to accept where there’s a will, there’s a way. Certainly he’d have to source a couple of hundred thousand dollar piece of equipment, and then pay for the design, and pay for the fabrication. It’s probably much easier for that person just to go source one through less legal channels.
But I would also point out that the flipside; you know you’re probably now empowering a kid, a younger person, or any number of people, the ability to go design something that they otherwise would have never had the capacity to do it.
And then in another context, you could take the flipside of that, which is one area where this is taking off is in the biomedical area, and this is very much a situation where one size doesn’t fit all. And so my hip may not be the same as your hip, but the Doctors can now model my hip specifically, design a fitting for that, and it can be created just for me, and with some modifications, you know just for you.
So there’s always a pro and a con to every technology, but my first sense is that the guy has much easier, faster, cheaper ways of doing something nefarious like you’re suggesting, than using the latest advanced technology.
Glen Paul: Absolutely. Look, it’s really an exciting science. I’m enthralled. Where can people find out more about it?
John Barnes: Well, of course everybody can Google, and there’s any number of videos on YouTube. There’s, as I said, a dozen to two dozen companies out there working on the different titanium technologies. There’s other companies that make the direct manufacturing equipment. You could certainly go on the CSIRO website to see what we’re up to. There’s no shortage of information on Wikipedia, Google, and YouTube.
Glen Paul: OK. And what should people Google? What’s the terminology?
John Barnes: Direct manufacturing, or additive manufacturing, and then in the area of titanium fabrication, TiRO is the CSIRO technology for making metals directly from ore. And there’s other processes like Armstrong that are out there.
Glen Paul: Yeah, well look, as I say, it’s an exciting science, and I can’t wait to put in my order for one of the direct manufacturing machines. [Laughter]. Thank you very much for talking to me about it today, John.
John Barnes: Thank you.
Glen Paul: John Barnes from CSIRO’s Light Metals Flagship. For more information go to www.csiro.au.