Factories of the future

Future Factories

Words: Brad Collis

The next industrial revolution is well underway at a new research precinct that draws together advanced manufacturing technologies with the potential to change our world.

A three-dimensional rampart of titanium sand rises, mesmerisingly, like a grey beach sculpture on a rotating plinth. The fine grains of alloy are being placed and fused by a laser beam flashing from a dancing robotic arm.

The structure steadily forms inside an enclosed cubicle. It is an engine, destined to power a jet aircraft. But unlike all preceding technology, this is a single piece of metal, its structure built up by successive layers of alloy granules being fused into position by the robotic arm as it responds to its digital instructions.

This is 3-D printing, or ‘additive manufacturing’, and this laboratory-like workspace is a prime example of a factory of the future – a factory in which the machine and the operator, not to mention the initial designers and engineers, could be on opposite sides of the planet, linked by the increasingly ubiquitous ‘cloud’.

For Professor Ian Smith, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Research and Research Infrastructure) at Monash University, this is a demonstration of the third industrial revolution that is heralding new manufacturing economies for countries with the research capacity to conceive and create new technologies, and the means to bring them to reality.

For countries such as Australia, which have lost their traditional manufacturing industries to low-labour-cost economies, this revolution is about jumping ahead, exploiting the most advanced science to redefine what manufacturing means and what it can deliver.

Additive manufacturing, Professor Smith notes, provides an ability not only to make this jet engine more efficiently, but also to totally redesign it, because current designs are dictated by current manufacturing techniques and capabilities. “Additive manufacturing opens the door to new designs – so many traditional design constraints will disappear.”

Facilitating this revolution in Australia is an alliance that brings together some of the country’s most advanced science bodies to create a globally competitive research capability with a stated objective of pushing out the frontiers of manufacturing technology.

The Australian Manufacturing and Materials Precinct, located in the Melbourne suburb of Clayton, was formalised in late 2012 and brings a single global “shopfront” to an extraordinary suite of high-performing neighbours – a top-100 university, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), the Australian Synchrotron, the Monash Biomedical Imaging research centre, the Monash Medical Centre and the Melbourne Centre for Nanofabrication (a cooperative formed by CSIRO, Monash and five other Victorian universities).

Professor Smith manages Monash University’s relationship with the other precinct partners. He says the unfolding research collaboration is a pragmatic response to the intensely competitive pursuit, internationally, of new technologies and new industries.

“The technologies needed to drive tomorrow’s economies are not going to come from any one organisation … so basically it was time to become more strategic in the way we offer our research capabilities to both Australian and international industries,” Professor Smith says.

This is echoed by the director of the Australian Synchrotron, Professor Andrew Peele, who sees the precinct as formalising relationships that had already started to form naturally, particularly between CSIRO, Monash and the synchrotron.

He sees the synchrotron, because of its application across just about every field of science, as the hub of the collaboration embodied by the precinct. “It’s the synchrotron that gives researchers and manufacturers the means to undertake the science that makes manufacturing cutting edge.”

Dr Calum Drummond, CSIRO group executive for manufacturing, materials and minerals, says the precinct pulls together not only specialist technical services, such as the synchrotron, but also complementary approaches to research.

“CSIRO’s strength, for example, is its fundamental and applied research that has a translational and commercialisation focus. The precinct allows this to be married to Monash University’s fundamental research that also encompasses education and training. So the research and innovation becomes imbued with both industry and education and training components.”

Another impetus was the rejuvenation of Australia’s Science and Industry Endowment Fund by a large injection of funds from CSIRO, based on income from the global licensing of its wireless local area network (LAN) technology – one of Australia’s most prominent global inventions. Here, the collaborative nature of the precinct was crucial: the endowment fund grants are primarily for supporting multidisciplinary and multi-institutional approaches to creating modern technologies.

Factories of the future

“CSIRO and Monash both saw that an initiative built around advanced manufacturing – ‘factories of the future’ – was where we could play to the two organisations’ strengths,” Professor Smith says.

“We looked at our relative capabilities in manufacturing technologies, and one area where there are clear synergies is in additive manufacturing [3-D printing] and skills in materials science and polymer chemistry.” (CSIRO developed the plastic banknotes in use in almost 30 countries.)

“Gone are the days when a country such as Australia could make its fortune selling toasters. We need now to be working with advanced materials and components for the next generation of technologies in the aerospace, defence, marine and health industries.”

Achieving this, however, needs a research capability that extends into the absolute frontiers of science, particularly in nanotechnology and materials imaging – something the precinct provides. Its occupants also already have significant international reach, working with companies such as Boeing, Airbus, Bombardier, Microturbo, Siemens and Leica.

But that is only part of the story that Professor Smith intends to see unfold: “The challenge also is to look at some of the manufacturing processes among our smaller and mid-size industries in Australia.”

New industries

Professor Smith asks: “Are there new ways in which we can increase efficiencies, are there ways we can make the final product superior, can we reduce energy costs, can we replace conventional smelting and casting with 3-D printing … and beyond this, can we actually create new industries using some of these technologies?”

He says an initial challenge for the precinct will be to develop an interface that allows industry to engage with it as a one-stop shop for all the research capabilities that are either within the precinct or accessible via communication portals to other CSIRO research sites or even other universities.

“How can we make it easier for a designer or engineer in, say, Darwin, to be able to work with researchers in Melbourne? Can they transmit large data sets, such as a CAD [computer-aided design] program that will allow something conceptualised in Darwin to be built here? Can we build virtual prototypes … see how, or if, something works in a virtual environment before committing to manufacture?”

These questions are already partly answered by a new A$8 million graphics processing unit supercomputer shared between Monash and the Australian Synchrotron.

The supercomputer is the nucleus of a network that allows the imaging community across the country to be ‘plugged in’ via a cloud computing interface that provides access to the synchrotron.

“It is brilliant computing, but only because of the brilliant people who are constantly being challenged to work with larger and more complex data sets,” Professor Smith says.

The goal now is to encourage industry to work with these skills and technical resources. “If we can deliver superior products from our technologies, then industry will be more willing to partner us on bigger and bigger projects.

“This has a flow-on effect in attracting the best and brightest researchers, academics and students – people seeking an environment in which they can do really good and relevant science.”

Access article: Factories of the Future

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