Last month the Victorian government announced the Bendigo-based company – which manufactures products including ground-engaging tools for mining and agriculture, and rolling stock for rail – had been awarded a $141,700 Investing In Manufacturing Technology grant.
“We have some room to make some final decisions over the next few weeks,” Keech’s CEO Herbert Hermens told Manufacturers’ Monthly, shortly after the announcement.
“And we want to make sure that we choose the best technology available and as a consequence we’ll be going over to Europe to make some final decisions, to visit some factories and have a look at some different technologies.”
Keech is already using additive manufacturing, though plans to invest in additional machines with greater capabilities, for prototyping, patternmaking and end use parts. It will spend around half a million dollars in addition to the grant.
“Firstly it will allow us to make prototype models, full-size, quickly,” explained Hermens of the ways the investment would change the way the company innovates.
“We can really create things and see them properly and understand the interaction of the various parts.
“Another good part of it is it allows us to make patterns a lot more efficiently and quickly and as a result get the product to market more quickly.”
In terms of materials, the company does not want to lock itself out of any options.
Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM) is being strongly considered and has been suitable for many of the applications Keech has put it to so far. It plans to continue exploring its options with a trip to Europe to meet with additive manufacturing firms.
“And right now we haven’t made final decisions because we want the most flexible possibility we can get,” said Hermens.
“There are some machines out there that can print in about eight or nine materials and we’re looking at those, to ensure we get as much flexibility.”
As with its main business, creating ground engaging tools for the mining industry, the company sees the materials science and ability to perform a certain job better than another solution as what’s important.
“The key, the IP will sit in the materials, the final types of materials that you use and manipulate to get right... And again, we think this opportunity exists also in this printing technology, where we can bring to bear our understanding of material properties and make sure we then get a very flexible development.
“Because, let’s face it, in time, whether it’s one year from now or ten years from now, the printing technology, the quality - you can buy a little 3D printer for $1,000 now, you know that - but the quality printers which cost tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars will soon come down to the market price where lots of people can afford them. So where’s the IP going to sit? The IP’s going to sit in the materials.”
As a 3D printing service, this will be offered through patternmaking subsidiary BPM 3D (Keech's other units include Keech Castings and Keech Mining Supplies).
Hermens believes that Keech’s location in central Victoria will mean its sophisticated additive manufacturing technology would be attractive to neighbouring businesses in the region, and be made available to them, though the Keech has no plans to start competing with rapid prototyping bureaus.
“Certainly we’ll be focussed on regional Victoria to ensure that we support the development of manufacturing and keeping manufacturing here in regional Australia,” he said.
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