Robots help additive manufacturing achieve warp speed for SPEE3D
Australian metal additive manufacturing firm SPEE3D has pioneered a fast, affordable process for 3D-printing antimicrobial copper onto metal surfaces.
As the world awaits a vaccine for COVID-19, finding ways to live safely with the coronavirus is paramount, especially as more of us begin to return to workplaces and other public areas.
Australian company SPEE3D has used its innovative metal-based additive manufacturing technology to quickly and affordably coat metal parts with copper, which is proven to ‘contact kill’ 96% of the SARS-CoV-2 virus within two hours.
The development of the quick-coating technology means existing parts for high-touch surfaces – such as door plates, rails and handles – can be removed, covered in copper and reinstalled. The aim was to develop an economical option to deploy copper coating, rather than printing 3D copper parts from scratch.
The release of new CSIRO research showing that the COVID-19 virus can remain infectious on glass and steel surfaces for at least 28 days at temperatures of around 20 degrees Celsius makes SPEE3D’s easy copper-coating technology even more compelling.
SPEE3D worked with Melbourne-based and NATA-accredited 360BioLabs to test the effectiveness of the copper-coating process, which they’ve dubbed ACTIVAT3D Copper.
“The lab results show ACTIVAT3D Copper surfaces behave much better than traditional stainless, which may offer a promising solution to a global problem,” explained SPEE3D CEO Byron Kennedy. “The technology can be used globally addressing local requirements, be they in hospitals, schools, on ships or shopping centres.”
Fomite transmission – touching contaminated objects – of COVID-19 remains an ongoing concern, and even rigorous hygiene protocols have time gaps between cleaning. Copper has known antimicrobial properties and in the lab tests showed that 99.2% of live SARS-CoV-2 virus was killed in five hours, with stainless steel showing no reduction in the virus in the same timeframe.
The beauty of SPEE3D’s metal additive offering is its portability. Industrial 3D printing generally involves enormous heavy units, but the Melbourne and Darwin-based SPEE3D has developed a portable technology that sits inside a shipping container, making it viable for remote applications.
SPEE3D’s other great leap of innovation is that rather than using heat to melt metal powders it has a ‘rocket nozzle’ to blast air at up to three times the speed of sound. Metal powder injected into this airstream is deposited onto the substrate, which is being manoeuvered by a six-axis robotic arm – a patented process they call Supersonic 3D Deposition. The kinetic energy binds the powders and forms high-density metal parts, at a speed that’s between 100 and 1000 times faster than traditional metallurgical additive manufacturing. This means that SPEE3D goes way beyond prototype iteration – it’s absolutely scalable for production.
“We’ve been working with SPEE3D for four years, and they use our IRB1200 and IRB4600 robots in their LightSPEE3D and WarpSPEE3D printers,” explains Peter Katsos, head of Robotics and Discrete Automation for ABB in Australia. “The ABB robot is programmed and controlled by the SPEE3D software, so from our point of view our job is fairly simple. We provide reliable robotic equipment with an excellent support network in Australia and globally, because they are exporting around the world.”
Indeed, the ACTIVAT3D Copper project has been a global research collaboration. The process modified SPEED3D’s existing algorithms to allow for coating of existing objects rather than building an entire part, and showed that the coating of a touch plate or handle could be completed inside five minutes. Test sites in the US, Japan and Australia copper-coated parts using SPEE3D’s technology and installed them in days.
“We recognised the importance of developing simple, yet highly impactful, solutions that have been proven effective on COVID-19,” said Larry Holmes, assistant director of Digital Design and Additive Manufacturing at the University of Delaware. Noting that supply chains have been severely tested in the pandemic, he added that “it was clear to this team that fabrication speed was a priority [and] using this technology, we are able to rapidly transition safe options for high-touch surfaces.”
SPEE3D collaborated with the Advanced Manufacturing Alliance at Charles Darwin University and the testing of ACTIVAT3D copper and future studies have been funded and supported by National Energy Resources Australia [NERA]. NERA CEO Miranda Taylor commended the company’s ability to successfully adapt its technology and pivot its business model.
“NERA has supported SPEE3D to develop market-leading technologies to help our national energy sector,” said Taylor. “We’re committed to assisting them leverage their skills and expertise into this important new paradigm to help our country and many others curtail the devastating impact of this global pandemic.”
Welcome to the modern Copper Age, courtesy of Australian-developed additive manufacturing.