For a further look behind the curtain, I sat down with David Budge, Co-Founder and CEO of the Australian company at formnext for a chat about the speedy metal tech.
“It’s multi-level printing, in parallel, at the same time. The critical thing is that it’s essentially printing up to 100 layers in a single pass. The one we’re bringing to market initially can do 30-60 layers in a pass, and advances are coming together nicely,” Budge told me.
“We only switched on the first machine a month ago; it will be a matter of weeks for the next. Scaling up the process is pretty straightforward. Think of computer servers: plug one in or multiple together, and it still acts as a single server.”
This unique take on metal additive manufacturing differentiates the Aurora Labs process from traditional technologies, Budge continued. Speed and quality are of paramount concern for metal 3D printing as the technology continues to make its way into broader use, including for manufacturing. Speeding up laser operations generally leads to lower quality results with more porosity, he observed, but the process is “counterintuitively faster and slower at the same time” with Aurora Labs’ system.
“The print head with its mini powder hoppers moves at a slow enough rate to get good quality — but by doing multiple layers in a single pass, that process is speeded. If you do 100 layers in a pass, a 10-meter build could potentially take 100 passes,” he explained.
Revealing the process at formnext was a calculated move for the company, as unveiling in the company of potential customers and partners drew many well-informed eyes to the booth.
“We’ve had a lot of very technical questions here, with a lot of interest from big companies. We want the system in the hands of a tech partner by the end of the year,” Budge noted.
While 3D printing 1000kg of metal in a day is quite a statement, the company is also already looking well beyond that number. The ultimate goal, Budge said, is to print one tonne per day. But then he took that back; “It’s not the ultimate goal, because we have no plan to stop there.”
The one-tonne-capable machine is looking at a release just half a year after the first releases of this system, which Budge acknowledges as a “very aggressive timeline,” adding with a smile that, “my engineers don’t like me for it.”
That aggressive ambition is paying off, though, as the reception at formnext was indeed strong. We spoke the day after Wednesday’s after-hours reveal, which Budge recalled as being “absolutely spectacular” as the event “exceeded our expectations.” Key to the strategic approach of revealing its technology at one of (if not the) busiest events in additive manufacturing was the prospect of looking for connections — and that was working.
“We’re starting in Australia and in the process of setting up operations within the next three months in Europe and the US. We’ve been working on those a while now,” Budge said.
With operations in Denmark and the US, and distributors “all over the place,” this technology won’t be staying Down Under, even as its Aussie roots contributed substantially to its market positioning.
“The real focus is on replaceable parts, which is largely because we’re based in Perth. It’s a large mining area, where companies have millions of parts on the shelf, which can lead to holding a lot of inventory or waiting 18 months for the right part to come in. But you can print that part in a day,” he explained.
“The potential cost savings are drawing attention. It’s very competitive to traditional manufacturing, and the goal is to beat that. We’re already seeing significant applications where this will be more competitive with traditional processes — and the speed is why. Amortization is increasing exponentially, whereas if you have a slow, expensive machine it means anything produced will be expensive.”
Aurora Labs’ materials portfolio for its speedy system will include materials such as aluminum, titanium, Inconel, stainless steel, low alloy steels, and more as the company understands that “people want to print things with the same material properties as what they make now” as 3D printing comes into play in more applications.
“We’re nothing if not ambitious,” Budge said mildly.
The company currently employs 36 and is seeing an upward curve there, with employment expected to tick up over the next 12 months.
I asked about the ambitious timelines in introducing scaled up systems capable of working with more metals, as well as where Aurora Labs fits into the growing additive manufacturing industry.
“It’s not particularly unusual to have aggressive timelines; engineers do understand that’s the nature of the business we’re in, and I do push our team to work quickly. That’s part of being an entrepreneur, to do as much as you can in the time you have available,” he said.
Regarding the industry, Budge takes an admirable stance toward the competition: why see one another as competitors?
“A number of our competitors will be concerned about us bringing this technology to the market; I’d invite them to call us and consider working as partners. I think instead of thinking as competitors, it’s better to think of potential partners. It will be good to talk with more companies before we leave Frankfurt,” he said.
“We’re not really competitors. We’re not trying to compete with traditional 3D printing — we’re going after the global metal manufacturing market, which is massive, around $3 trillion, and there’s room for many there. We’re happy to have conversations around that, to join that marketplace. Traditional thinking is of a zero sum game of a pie with only so many slices. I think of it as limitless pie, with enough for everyone.”
Pricing has not been fixed yet, but will range around the US$1-2 million mark, depending on the functionalities. Aurora Labs is also still looking at the potential of a leasing model, rather than a sales model (“almost exactly like Xerox”).
“This has been a very productive trip, and very successful from our point of view,” Budge said in summarizing the team’s formnext experience. “We’ve seen relationships built here that will have a lasting impact on the company.”