Markforged are supporting Australian defence business, XTEK, with product development through additive manufacturing.
XTEK is a fast-growing Australian defence business, established in 1978, with a history in importing and reselling equipment. The ASX-listed company has been developing a novel curing technique for composites since 2007, which has great potential producing high-performance parts for adoption in defence, space and other industries.
George Miris, project engineer at XTEK, began working with composites at his previous job engineering rolling stock, and became fascinated by their ability to deliver stronger, stiffer, and lighter products.
“Obviously steel and aluminium will never die,” says Miris. “But there’s a new breed of materials that really have potential, are on the bleeding edge, and are coming in.”
He joined XTEK in March 2019, helping commercialise its XTclave curing and consolidating method, which had been under development since 2007 at the company’s Adelaide R&D site. It uses ultra-high pressures (up to 300 bar) and temperatures of up to 180 degrees Celsius.
The engineering challenges along the way were vast, and the company launched its Adelaide factory in February 2020. It has mainly produced ultra-light small arms protective inserts (SAPI) plates and combat helmets, which can stop multiple strikes of an AK-47 bullet at point blank range.
XTclave “lends itself very, very well to really complicated geometries and consolidates them evenly, making them lighter and stronger because of the high pressures we can get to,” adds Miris.
Those same high pressures squeeze out pockets of air (voids) in the laminate, producing a high-quality product.
The company runs the one production machine at Adelaide, with a much smaller unit also used to test out new concepts for prototype parts. Besides composite products, Xtek imports and develops various products, ranging from drones to map-building software to bomb disposal robots. The business is divided into tactical and composites manufacturing units.
The Adelaide facility hosts the company’s R&D, machine shop, and manufacturing operations. Project management is at the Canberra headquarters, a 12-hour drive east. The geographic spread presents communication issues and other engineering challenges, admits Miris.
Additive manufacturing is an important part of product development and other functions at the company. It has four printers in total. A Mark Two has been the “crown jewel” of the collection since arriving in late-2019 and carries out about 80 per cent of all print jobs.
If something breaks on the production line, the team can easily replace it. “We can create a functional working component that actually does the job,” says Miris. While a replacement part is sourced from the machine shop or a supplier, the line can keep running.
Markforged parts, made at the Canberra office, are supporting “internal structures” in the hydroclave. “We’ve got parts that actually survive that environment: 300 bars of pressure, 130 degrees Celsius,” says Miris with pride.
But a further important role is in “bridging the gap” between the two cities.
“It gives us that ability to prototype in Canberra, get hands on, understand, do a proof of concept, and then we can actually send a design to the machine shop and our research facility to do full scale work and a functional prototype once we’re happy with what we’re producing here,” he adds.
After many years of quietly importing and reselling other people’s products, XTEK has developed its own, and the exports are starting to build, including to the US (for sale through subsidiary HighCom) and to European markets.
Headcount is also building up as the company continues to increase manufacturing volumes and exports.
XTEK operates in the defence industry, acknowledged as one of six Manufacturing Priorities — sectors of “comparative advantage and strategic importance” — by the Australian government as it attempts to rebuild the economy post-COVID 19.
The country’s manufacturing sector has seen renewed focus, following years of highly publicised factory closures and the national sovereignty conversation that came out of the 2020 pandemic.
Perhaps the most emblematic loss was that of the passenger car industry. Miris lived through it, with his first job out of university at GM Holden’s Adelaide factory, which shut down in 2017.
Nowadays, the discussion is around competing on value and smarts, and on growing the big six industries in Australia. Among these is space, another area XTEK sees broad-ranging applicability for its curing innovation versus traditional methods like hot pressing and vacuum bagging. It can achieve high fibre-to-resin ratios, which boosts strength, and is excellent at removing voids during consolidation.
“Because it’s a fluid pressure, it doesn’t matter how complicated the geometry is, the pressure is uniform everywhere,” Miris explains.
“When aerospace and particularly space structures become very complicated, as they have to be optimised down to the very minute detail, this process is not something that’s not scared of these complicated structures.”