Aussies use 3-D printing to make hip joints

By Alex Wallace 25 October 2013
Reading Time: 2 Minutes Print this page
Australian researchers have used world-first technology to 3-D print titanium products including a hip implant.

YOU MAY NOT KNOW it yet, but a manufacturing revolution is taking place in Australia.

In a handful of labs across the country, researchers have produced a powder that allows titanium products to be manufactured using a 3-D printer, including a hip-joint implant.

“The process to produce the powder we are making is absolutely unique to Australia,” says John Barnes, leader in Titanium Technologies at the CSIRO.

Printing 3-D metal products

While plastic and polymer printing have been available for a number of years, researchers at the CSIRO recently turned their attention to titanium, a metal with widespread applications across industries from aerospace to biomedical engineering.

John says the way industry has traditionally manufactured parts from titanium is costly and wasteful.

“It’s a premium material to start with, and it’s not easy to machine so you pay about half the cost of the final part in buying the expensive material, and the other half is spent machining it away,” says John.

The aerospace industry, for example, which is among the top consumers of titanium products, must purchase 11kg of raw titanium material to produce 1kg of finished product.

John says using metal powder is more efficient and cost-effective than using solid material, because 3-D printing technology allows products to be printed as a complete shape, with minimal waste.

Looking ahead: printing jet engines

Ian Smith, pro vice-chancellor for Research and Research Infrastructure at Monash University in Melbourne, says the potential of light-metal printing is limitless.

“With [metal powder] you can just synthesise whatever you need based on a computer program,” Ian told Australian Geographic.

“We can print things like jet engines that are going to be a lot lighter and stronger because we can build in all the struts, and we don’t have nuts and bolts to join it all together.”

“We will also be able to print things like bespoke hip joints that are an exact replica of the part we’re replacing in each individual,” he adds.

Initiatives are in place to connect Australian industry with the developers of this new technology and John hopes that Australia will eventually offer premium titanium products to the rest of the world.

“We’re hoping that by having the metal and powder produced here, Australia will become a globally competitive provider of titanium products.”

Ian agrees: “We’ve got more core technology in that space than really anybody else does,” he says. “I think this will be game-changing for industry as well as for academia.”