August 18, 2020

3D Printing – It’s Not a Future Technology

3D Metal Printing

3D Printing has grown up. And not before time. If you still think 3D metal printing is for the future of manufacturing, you should probably keep reading, open your mind, and prepare to adopt a manufacturing method that began in the eighties.

The eighties? Really?

Yep! The world’s first 3D printer was made in 1983. Chuck Hull (obviously American with that first name) invented what’s known as SLA (stereolithography). It printed plastic stuff. Carl Deckard (another American) patented a process called Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) in 1997 and the metal 3D printer was born.

3D Printing

Fast forward 21 years to 2018 and Markforged began retail production of their Metal-X printer, and plenty of companies are now taking advantage of 3D printing as a more economical method of producing complex metal parts than the old fashioned method of CNC.

You can ever buy a metal 3D printer for around $10K ( You can’t buy a CNC machine for that!

3D Metal Printing

What's the Difference Between CNC & 3D Printing?

CNC is computer numerical control. A block of steel is inserted into a machine that mills, drills, cuts and shapes the block into its final shape. It’s how tools and tool-making tools have been made for ages. It’s the opposite of 3D printing – which is more formally known as Additive Manufacturing. 

Where a CNC machine leaves most of the original metal on the floor (subtractive), the AM machine – 3D printer – uses just the right amount of material to build up the item. Because of this, the parts require less metal, and intricate things can be made that could never have been made with conventional techniques.

Isn't It Just for Aerospace and Formula 1?

Nope. With machines in the smallish and hence affordable category, many companies and even individuals can access metal printers. The main use has been prototyping – playing around with different designs of tooling and jigs before manufacturing the final version using CNC – but now, in the latest “The State of 3D Printing 2020“. Sculpteo reveal that 50% of the survey participants now use 3D printing for the production of end-use parts, a trend already confirmed by their previous report (2019). Additive manufacturing for rapid prototyping purposes is, for the first year, down compared to the past 5 years, proof that it has a card to play in mass production.

What About the Mining Industry?

3D metal printing has already been adopted by the big miners. Downtime costs an enormous amount in lost production, and so nobody got time to wait for complex machine parts to come from overseas. The reality is now you just need a printer (and the computer model and software of course) and your part can be ready tomorrow. Perhaps even warehouses full of spares will become a thing of the past, as could standardising on parts?

What About the Construction Industry?

So since 3D printing is only 37 years old, it will probably be quite some time still until our construction industry is ready to adopt this “new ” technology! After all, we can hardly remain near the bottom of innovation if we begin to innovate!

I’m certainly cynical, but the evidence is there. According to research by McKinsey Global Institute, global productivity growth was 3.6% over the last ten years (to 2018) whilst construction has averaged only 1% per year in that period. This actually means the construction industry is pulling down productivity growth. Clearly, something needs to happen.

So What's My Big Idea?

We went to the media in 2018 with our invention – patent pending – to join steel beams and columns without bolts and welds.

Using friction alone, we proved in the laboratory that the altCONNECT® connection safely resisted tension when the connection contained some bending moment.

We’ve spent a lot of time and money and recently proved in a Curtin Uni laboratory that a complete structure performed exactly as a conventional structure would when connected using altCONNECT at the beam-column joints. And the best part – estimating studies suggest a 50% saving in erection costs.

Testing an altCONNECT Connections Structure

COVID-19 has taught us to live in “unprecedented times” and “pivot” to remain profitable or at the very least remain in business. Change used to be that thing that we put away until it was absolutely necessary. COVID-19 made us solve a million challenges in hours, days or weeks. Even politicians made decisions that would normally be bounced around at the taxpayer’s expense for years!

What's This Got to Do with 3D Printing?

Our connection requires a close fitting spigot and socket. Existing fabrication tolerances won’t work – tubes are more oval than round, and not the diameter the catalogue suggests.


Existing fabrication methods meant altCONNECT sat dormant for years because it couldn’t avoid a fitter being at the connection to make it tight. CNC is a solution, but not an economical one for connections the size we need for mining structures. We need additive manufacturing. We need 3D printed steel. And now, we have a connection that doesn’t require access to fit-up.

Could this be the end of scaffolding and temporary support?

How Big Can a 3D Printer Print?

In 2018, my research suggested that 3D steel printers would one day be big enough, coz’ at that time, they weren’t. Fast forward two years, and there’s not only bigger printers, there’s even machines that print AND machine. Additive and subtractive! And there are 5-axis machines too – they can build metal in the X, Y and Z axes and additionally two rotational axes RX & RY. This is pretty cool – it reduces or even eliminates support structures usually required during printing.

Titomic (Notting Hill, VIC) make a 3D printer of titanium items up to 9000 mm x 3000 x 1500 mm. I think that’s still the biggest.

Aurora Labs (Canningvale, WA) have the RMP-1: an industrial metal 3D printer that uses powder 3D printing technology and offers a build volume of 450 x 450 x 400 mm.

The issue now is not if the printer is big enough, but that the cost of production is viable. This will obviously come down as the 3D printer market matures and more players enter the field.

Want to Learn More About altCONNECT?

If you want to know more about altCONNECT and how you might be able to use it in a project, hit me up.

We’re currently preparing a paper for the next Australasian Structural Engineering Conference with our findings from the recent structure tests at Curtin University, and I’d be happy to tell you more about it.

Like this article?

Subscribe to our newsletter to receive a weekly email from Yenem’s director, Dave Meney.