Why 3D printing may be the answer for small companies with big ideas

A collaboration with Swinburne University has brought light to a local company.

After watching 3D printers pump out a custom-made part for a Formula 1 car on a university campus, Paul Hearne’s mind was racing. “I couldn’t sleep for two weeks,” says the Limelite CEO. “It blew my mind.”

While Formula 1 has nothing to do with Hearne’s small lighting company, in 3D printing he could foresee a fast, agile and cheaper method for testing new designs and multiplying his range. Crucially it would avoid massive investment in retooling, and zero risk of an expensive, unpopular design languishing on the shelf. With 3D printing you print to order.

Limelite's new 3D-printed downlights were developed with Swinburne University. Limelite’s new 3D-printed downlights were developed with Swinburne University. 

All good in theory. But only big companies have R&D departments. What does a small company with a big idea do? 

Last week Hearne launched five dynamic designs inspired by aeronautics, nature and mirror balls, for a new downlight range that will be commercially available next month. It’s the culmination of a collaboration with Swinburne University that suggests a mutually beneficial lifeboat in a perfect storm of dwindling manufacturing, a declining car industry and universities pressured to generate more income. Swinburne demonstrates to manufacturing what design can do for business.

“Universities cannot rely on government handouts,” says Professor Blair Kuys, chair, interior architecture and industrial design at Swinburne University. “The only way for a university to grow is to connect closely with industry and get more money from industry.”

Meanwhile businesses also need to be agile and responsive. For Hearne it was recognising the potential of a new technology. The lights are made from ABS, a plastic common for 3D printing. But it’s the complex geometry that makes them unique. 

“No other manufacturing process is able to create that outcome, except for 3D printing,” says Kuys. 

Hearne now employs a 3D printing expert and looks forward to the continuing improvements in technology as costs come down, while speeds increase.

“We’ve got 20-odd machines now, but we’ll go up to at least 100, I would think, when we really get going,” says Hearne. He expects the number of lights being printed to “build up to a couple of thousand a month at least”.

The collaboration arose through the federal government’s Innovations Connection program, launched in 2016 to help businesses harness the expertise and expensive high-tech infrastructure of 56 Australian public universities and research organisations such as CSIRO. Aimed at small to medium business (turning over between $1.5 million and $100 million), the program matches business contributions dollar for dollar, up to $50,000. It’s also a response to Australia having the lowest rate of collaboration between industry and researchers in the OECD.

Finding the right institution to collaborate with is free. “We are marriage brokers,” says Jim Grigoriou, one of 21 national facilitators who forge relationships between business and public institutions. “We talk to two or three institutions [on each project] to find the right fit of research capabilities.” 

For public institutions, the program pushes its research while providing practical experience for students in areas from advanced manufacturing to food, medical technologies and primary industries.

“We develop products with companies that might never engage with designers, because they don’t know how to do it, or don’t have the money to do it,” says Kuys.

But the program isn’t well known enough, Hearne believes. “It should have been talked about more often. I’m trying to introduce it to a lot of other people because they don’t understand what everyone can do for them with all this [technology and expertise].”

While the government says $20 million in grant funding has been spent through the program, collaborations with Swinburne’s design department only boomed in the past year, as word of mouth has spread, says Kuys. Swinburne is currently developing products as diverse as high-tech toys that combine physical objects with online apps, a skylight able to withstand extreme conditions and a cloud tool for farmers that detects parasites in livestock. The latter automates a traditionally manual lab process and provides immediate results in the field, says Kuys: “It uses machine learning whereby the more data you give [the computer] the smarter it gets.”

That learning could be a metaphor for the collaborative design process. “It’s about ‘pushing’ the outcome into areas that the client and or the design team at the university may not have thought of,” says Kuys. “The more minds on the project the better. Co-designing with the client always works better.” 

business.gov.au/assistance/innovation-connections

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