A revolution in digital design technology that enables three dimensional objects to be ‘printed’ from layers of fused powders or resins is being used to create plastic and metal components for cars, planes, appliances, electronics and the human body.

Large-scale printers have been developed that can construct a house in a day, while at the microscopic end, veins and arteries can be built … and soon entire cellular structures and DNA strands.

Ahuriri-based Axia Design, a design and engineering company specialising in ‘printed’ prototypes for product developers, has gained an important edge with precision-made animal and human bone replacements.

The game changer was its investment in European software that converts human CT scans into engineering files that can be accessed by its in-house 3D CAD (computer-aided design) modelling, scanning, prototyping and printing technology.

Andrew Kersley with 3D ‘printed’ products

Previously it was impossible to get bone data accurate enough to use with CAD equipment. As early as 2008, Axia designed a complex eye socket, cheekbone and upper mandible which was printed offshore using fused titanium powder and implanted into a New Zealand patient.

After working collaboratively with Massey University’s Institute of Veterinary, Animal and Biomedical Sciences, Axia was asked to form an IP-based (intellectual property) partnership to create animal implants for veterinarians around the world.

In August last year there was a challenge to print a jawbone to help save the life of a Boxer dog with an aggressive form of mouth cancer. Axia contracted the Titanium industry Development Association (TiDA), which had imported one of the first commercial titanium ‘selective melting’ 3D printers, to urgently ‘print’ a titanium jawbone.

Printing on-demand

Rather than having to wait weeks for output from the US, it was delivered within days. Axia converted a CT scan of the dog’s jawbone to a 3D scan which was printed by TiDA, fitted the next day and just 12 hours later the dog was eating.

Since then Axia has created forearm implants and cranial skull plates for animals. In mid-February it completed another dog jawbone for an Australian vet to replace one that had been damaged by a tumour.

It was able to mirror the good side of the jaw and design an implant with fixing plates, screw holes and an internal porous lattice structure so the bone could grow through it.

Axia Design director Andrew Kersley, says one of the weak points of metal plates is that they are solid and the screws that go into the bones loosen due to shock and vibration.

Previously machining a jawbone would have cost thousands of dollars, whereas printing them in titanium using the latest TiDa machine costs hundreds.

All implants are retrieved and examined on the death of the animal so Massey University can determine how successfully the printed implants have integrated with the bone. This research data, proven methodologies and practical examples will help establish that Axia’s 3D designs are appropriate for widespread use in animals and humans.

The company has already produced human check bones, jawbones and cranial plates. “Previously a surgeon might screw a plate over a piece of bone to repair a broken arm, now we can manufacture a replacement piece of arm bone in time for surgery,” says Kersley.

Hope for hips and hearts

Once the process gains more exposure and acceptance, it’s expected a range of possibilities will open up in human medicine including customised hip joints that stimulate bone growth and “work involving valves for the human heart … It could be a global breakthrough if that went ahead.”

However, winning over medical science is a complex challenge. It’s an area that’s fiercely protected by specialists and experts who are reluctant to allow a design engineer access to their hallowed craft, particularly one with no medical background.

Kersley says there’s still some education to be done, but it’s a goal worth persisting with through synergies with partners who recognise the potential in this hotly contested and potentially lucrative market.

Achievements in the veterinary sector are expected to help ease the way. Massey University and Axia began sharing their joint venture capabilities at an international conference of veterinary surgeons in Colorado at the end of February.

Ideally says Kersley, “Vets from all round the world could be uploading their data to us and then sending the result on to their closest 3D printing facility.”

Meanwhile Axia is currently keeping a close eye on developments with hydrogen carbon-based materials that can be absorbed into the body. “Instead of creating a metal jaw, for example, we could use a natural biomaterial and in two years it would have been replaced by bone.”

New spin on rotor blades

Outside the medical field there’s plenty of scope for Axia’s design and engineering skills, including the creation of helicopter rotor tail blades, which are typically made of carbon fibre and only available in bulk at great expense.

Axia has created its own more affordable tail blade designs and begun producing them in titanium, alongside other innovations with sports, engineering and big brand equipment.

Although many design houses outsource 3D facilities, few have that capability in-house. When Axia first acquired its fused definition modelling (FDM) printer there were only around five in the country.

The machine, which produces ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) engineering-quality thermoplastic, cost around $50,000 new, but equivalent models are available today for $500- $2500.

The 3D printer enables Axia to test design principles and build prototypes for clients before they engage traditional injection moulding, metal extrusion and fabrication processes.

The first printed item was a belt buckle; since then it’s ranged from water pumps to brackets, bottles, medical equipment. “Any plastic thing you see on a shelf … we’ve probably done a version of it.”

A recent example was designing hand-held equipment for a sports company. “We tested a lot of handles to see how they worked for different people before deciding on a final design.”

In expansion mode

Having proved itself locally and found its services in demand nationally, Axia Design moved from shared backstreet premises in Ahuriri to a more prominent position in Bridge Street in December where it can enter a phase of planned expansion.

Concurrently it formalised its Auckland presence with partner Nick Gledhill buying out a former director and establishing an office in Freemans Bay to avoid the constant travel. Both Hawke’s Bay ‘born and bred’ owners are determined to keep the headquarters in Napier and expect to expand from four to seven staff this year.

Hawke’s Bay clients include Equiptech which creates adjustable ladders and work platforms for the mining industry in Australia. “They had great ideas and product but didn’t produce their own production drawings.”

Another project was creating a range of “beautiful” high-end outdoor fitness equipment with internal resistance for Hotshot Sports. Axia designers worked with the company on prototypes and then commercial production of an exercycle, leg press, overhead press and a walker.

Fast broadband is imperative for collaboration between the company’s designers and clients locally and around the country, as they’re often working on gigabit sized files. “The infrastructure here is mostly fine, although it can be a bit slow depending on the time of day.”

Kersley and his team are big fans of Napier’s bid to become a Gigatown, known for the breadth of its resilient and high-performing broadband infrastructure. “Any improvement would help.”

Kersley says there’s now an expectation in the engineering world that additive manufacturing provides strong advantages and consequently several local firms have invested in cheaper 3D printers.

“It’s going to be the way forward. Most Hawke’s Bay engineering companies are progressive and open to doing things in new ways and are respected for that around the country.”

An inventor’s dream

While 3D printing is likely to find a prime place in mainstream and on-demand manufacturing, it’s also a hobbyist and inventor’s dream, sparking a revival in do-it-yourself groups on the internet and in real world communities including the ‘maker’ and ‘fixer’ movements.

Paul ‘Dutch’ Sandkuijl, one of Axia’s design engineers with a degree in aerospace engineering, is looking to launch a shared urban workshop in Ahuriri where people can learn, collaborate or create their own projects with access to standard tools, plus high-end computers, CAD software, laser cutters, 3D scanners and printers (www.makeplace.co.nz).

Dutch believes encouraging people to experiment with electronics, arts and crafts, computer programming, engineering, model making and new business ideas can help inspire young people in particular to stay in the Bay. He sees it as a ‘seed of change’ to increase opportunities.

He’s run well-attended 3D printer workshops and is currently in negotiation with Napier City Council and the HB Chamber of Commerce to support the ‘Make Space’ concept and is in the process of securing premises in Ahuriri.

Dutch reckons Hawke’s Bay is the ideal environment to become a hub of innovation and research and development like Silicon Valley, which he says is uncannily similar in its location, and its early days was also fully dependent on orchards and vineyards.

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