New Zealand is on the brink of becoming a global competitor in hi-tech metal manufacturing, according to the Tauranga-based organisation set to make it happen.
A new $200,000 furnace that has arrived from China, coupled with about $7 million in research funding, is a major milestone for the Titanium Industry Development Association (TiDA), which was established three years ago to lead the national development of cutting edge metal manufacturing.
The association is based at the Bay of Plenty Polytechnic that now runs the only Diploma in Metallurgy degree in New Zealand and expects titanium alloy powder applications to become a billion-dollar export industry for New Zealand.
According to TiDA chief executive Warwick Downing, the new furnace and research funding mean the organisation can now start making things happen, working alongside individual companies and the wider manufacturing sector.
The furnace is a sizeable piece of equipment that will enable Kiwi companies to enter the metal injection moulding industry. It represents a major step towards the country becoming a global competitor in the field, Mr Downing says.
Metal injection moulding is a "highly efficient manufacturing method" similar to that which shapes plastic and ceramics, but for metals. The furnace, which is needed for the metal injection moulding process, is the first commercially sized machine of its type in New Zealand, possibly Australasia, says Mr Downing.
"Powder metallurgy - the use of powder to manufacture solid parts - is the fastest growing part of the metal industry and within that metal injection moulding, is growing at great rates.
"We are trying to create high-efficiency, high-tech manufacturing technology, to allow New Zealand to compete globally, using smart materials, clever design and technology to create an advantage," he says. "We can compete globally if we're smart about how we do it. We've always considered ourselves to be innovative with that No8 wire mentality and I do think we have that. But what lets us down is our ability to turn that into competitive products and to take those to market.
"We're already clever and innovative in some areas, but we need to do more with it and when we manufacture, be clever about how we do it."
Traditional methods are less efficient and less cost-effective, but New Zealand can have "a real future" in high-tech manufacturing and is already considered a leader in the process of titanium powder metallurgy, Mr Downing says.
The research, for which TiDA will receive about $7 million over two years, will focus on developing and adapting powder metallurgy processes to ensure New Zealand is at the forefront of manufacturing technology.
"It is through technology, materials like titanium and design that New Zealand can have a strong manufacturing future," says Mr Downing. "We have coupled this with a strong industry advisory board for the research programme to create a link from technology through industry and into the market and with links to investment for scale-up along the way."
The research partners are Wellington-based crown research institute Industrial Research Ltd, GNS Science, the University of Waikato and the University of Auckland and the research advisory group is chaired by Tauranga-based Jon Mayson, former Port of Tauranga chief executive and former New Zealand Trade and Enterprise chairman.
Mr Downing says the partnership TiDA has with the Bay of Plenty Polytechnic and the University of Waikato is very important as the technology is bringing with it a global change in skills.
"While machining etc will be with us for a long time yet, the new technology is making strong headway into the traditional metal forming methods due to its high efficiency and ability to deliver complex shapes with limited or no additional cost.
"In order to be a globally competitive manufacturer, we need to ensure we have the skills required for the technology advancements and the metallurgy course the polytechnic launched last year is the start of this," Mr Downing says. "This metallurgy technology we now have is new in New Zealand so we need to build up a workforce. We are playing catch-up in this respect and globally there is high demand for people skilled in metallurgy."
Mr Downing says for most of the past three years TiDA has been "getting set up" and the new furnace and research funding meant it could now "hit the ground running".
"The prospects in this field are very exciting. We've been itching to get started and have been waiting on the furnace."
The benefits of powder metallurgy
Precise shapes and sizes can be formed so increased complexity is possible
Low carbon footprint and zero waste of materials
Superior material properties (including greater than 98 per cent density)
High production capacity and consistent, high quality surface finishes
Suitable for complex geometry and miniaturised parts
Computer aided design leads to quicker development times, cheaper development costs and more efficient and lightweight products.
What is TiDA?
TiDA (Titanium Industry Development Association) was formed to help New Zealand companies develop ground-breaking titanium powder metallurgy products for the international marketplace.
The organisation is based at Bay of Plenty Polytechnic in Tauranga and has been set up with support from New Zealand Trade and Enterprise, Foundation for Research Science and Technology, Tertiary Education Commission and private sector companies to help co-ordinate industry activities now and in the future.
New Zealand's titanium alloy powder applications industry is in its infancy but TiDA expects it to rapidly grow into a billion-dollar export market.
For more information see www.tida.co.nz