The steel deal: The Aussie startup with the fastest 3D metal printer in the world

The world’s fastest metal 3D printer wasn’t born in the basement of a secret US military laboratory, or a sterile Chinese factory – it was developed and built in a humble factory unit in outer suburban Perth.

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ASX-listed Aurora Labs began five years ago with the goal of disrupting the $4 trillion global metals manufacturing market.

The company was the brainchild of David Budge, who has been inventing since he was five. He said, his ‘light bulb’ moment happened when he moved into heavy engineering 15 years ago and was looking at a half-tonne pump body worth $250,000. “I remember thinking there had to be about $500 of raw materials in it, so if you could print it, there are probably some margins there,” he said.

Mr Budge eventually acted on that idea and invited some friends he was building small rocket engines with to join his 3D printing startup. Six years later, after heavy research and development, and some delays, Aurora has designed and built the world’s fastest commercially available 3D metal printer; the Rapid Manufacturing Printer 1.

The RMP-1 can print up to 350kg of material a day, a rate analysts estimate is between five and 30 times faster than the quickest printers currently on the market and a 2000 per cent jump in speed compared to Aurora's previous printer model.

Eventually, Mr Budge wants to be able to print a tonne a day – about the weight of a Toyota Corolla.

Traditional 3D printing involves lasers melting a layer of metal powder over and over until an object is formed. It means complex parts that are hard and expensive to traditionally manufacture could potentially cost less to print than a solid block of metal.

Aurora's magic comes from the RMP-1’s ability to print multiple layers at the same time, which dramatically increases printing speed without sacrificing quality.

What a steel
Mr Budge said speed and quality issues were the main roadblocks to 3D printing becoming a viable manufacturing alternative, that the automotive industry was already showing interest and industries such as oil, gas and mining were cottoning on to its potential to free up capital by replacing expensive inventories with a printer and digital library.

“As you go faster and faster with technology the cost of the parts comes down drastically, to a point where you're commercially competitive with traditional manufacturing,” he said. “Some parts could be printed for up to 90 per cent less than what they're currently manufactured for.”

3D printing, including metals and plastics, is not a passing fad. Deloitte Global predicts 3D printing and materials sales will reach US$3 billion in 2020, a $1.3 billion jump from 2014. Technology analysts CB Insights found in recent years mergers and acquisitions of 3D printing companies outnumbered big tech sector deals in materials, software and service. Much of this has been driven by large corporations such as GE keen to adopt the technology.

Aurora's doorbell has also rung. It has linked up with Worley Parsons to create joint venture Additive Now, allowing their team of 50 to tap into the engineering firm's global might. On October 1, Aurora announced it had leased its first RMP-1 to Additive Now where it will be used to service tier-one resource companies wanting 3D printed metal parts.

“Immediately following that, we've had a lot of interest being generated from other groups who have been speaking to for a while,” Mr Budge said. “I think it's very much the whole case that you know, the first machine is always the most difficult one to get out the door and after that it becomes a lot easier."

Mr Budge said Aurora is also moving into in digital certification of parts in real-time to give end users confidence in what they're printing, as well as providing powders for the machine, which is a lucrative venture given the amount the machines will use over their lives.

The Aussie problem
Mr Budge said Australians are an inventive bunch but as a tech company, it wasn’t a great place to raise capital because people were often surprised such a level of product was being developed.

“If you're in software or biotech, then you've usually got a pretty decent chance but something like this was very difficult,” he said. “There's an assumption that if this was going to happen it would happen in the US. Ironically, if I go to the US, they all understand the technology very quickly and they're all very interested. They've all seen Uber come along they’ve all seen these other companies that have gone from nothing to multibillion dollar classifications in relatively short time frames.”

Source: Hamish Hastie,