Laser Additive Manufacturing – applications in medical technologies and beyond

The Advanced Manufacturing Cooperative Research Centre (AMCRC) organised a workshop last week on additive manufacturing and its impact on medical technologies. Organised in conjunction with RMIT and Bio21 Cluster, the aim was to promote the new technologies and also educate the attendees on the network and resources available to help businesses adopt them.

The latest in laser additive technology includes Selective Laser Melting (SLM), Electron Beam Melting, Laser Metal Deposition, and Laser Sintering.  Their main advantage is the ability to build complex shaped objects using biocompatible metals such as Cobalt-Chrome, Titanium, and 17-4 PH Steel. This then simplifies and quickens the process of customising orthopaedic and dental implants; and using additive manufacturing basically means less wastage of materials compared to traditional subtractive methods.

Anatomics, who had a rep presenting at the workshop, is one of the companies applying this technology in the medical field. They are a Melbourne based company, specialising in cranial and maxillofacial custom implants. They also produce BioModels based on CT scans or MRI, which allows surgeons to have a better visual and feel while diagnosing and subsequently help improve surgery planning.

The potential for laser additive manufacturing is huge, but currently most of the ‘action’ are still in the universities, research institutions, and hospitals. That is where government funding programs and organisations like the AMCRC come in to help bring additive technology into the industry or even to form startups. The challenge is that the size of the local market (Australia) is too small for this technology, so it must definitely go regional or even global for a commercial entity to be viable. Then even before that, to build up an environment that embraces entrepreneurship, innovation and collaborative efforts.

Looking at Kickstarter – the latest trend in global crowd-source funding, if you search “3D printer”, there are at least 10 projects trying to come up with their own machine for 3D printing (which is the more common name for additive manufacturing). They are typically motivated by three reasons:

  1. Existing 3D printers in the market are too bloody expensive
  2. They would like certain features or capabilities missing in existing printers
  3. Read point 1 again.

Although currently these Kickstarter projects are only suitable for printing polymers and objects smaller in dimensions (around 100x100x150mm), but their low cost of entry (between USD$700 – 2500) is rapidly promoting the use of additive technology and they just might be the tipping point for design and additive manufacturing. Just check out this project that is already getting close to 20 times its original funding goal!

Finally I found this Ted talk that gave a very good overview of additive manufacturing from a designer’s point of view:


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