Tauranga's high-tech manufacturing capabilities have taken a huge leap forward with the purchase of a state-of-the-art 3D metals printer and the establishment of a commercially orientated company to operate it.

Rapid Advanced Manufacturing (RAM) took possession of a selective laser melting 3D printer less than two months ago and has already produced a handful of cutting-edge titanium products.

The printer, which cost about $1.2 million to import and install, is the largest commercially available machine of its kind and is a step up on the only other such printer in New Zealand, which is owned by Katikati dental company Triodent and TiDA (Titanium industry Development Association).

The association is a shareholder of RAM, as are its chief executive Warwick Downing and Page Macrae Engineering managing director Ian Macrae, and the two organisations share the same premises at the Bay of Plenty Polytechnic's Windermere campus.


But whereas the association is a research and development organisation, RAM has been set up to be a commercial manufacturer.

RAM has already taken on a number of exciting projects, including designing and manufacturing light-weight yet tough titanium safety knives for America's Cup sailors Team NZ.

When Mr Downing first heard about the project, Page Macrae Engineering coatings manager Bruce McLean (Page Macrae is also a RAM shareholder) told him they had three months to design, manufacture and ship the knives to Team NZ in San Francisco.

When Downing got a call from Victory Knives managing director John Bamford (a key partner in the project) a couple of days later, the deadline had been reduced to six weeks.

"Every time I got a phone call the timeframe seemed to get shorter and shorter," Mr Downing said.

With all hands to the tiller, a trial knife was designed and printed within a week.

A sheath that could be sewn on to the sailors' wetsuits followed soon after.

After only one trial and a few changes, 55 knives were manufactured, boxed and sent to Team NZ three days early.

Mr Downing explains how the sailors tested the knives' strength: "They threw it off a building on to asphalt from approximately 14m and they did that about 20 times, and then they threw it against a brick wall about 10 times and then they ran it over with a forklift 10 times. That was their acceptance testing and it survived, it didn't get broken."

The knives weigh half as much as the ones previously used by Team NZ and cut through ropes much easier, Mr Downing said.

Team NZ sailor Rob Waddell said the titanium knife was used to cut down the boat's sail during a race with Luna Rossa.

RAM has also taken on projects printing titanium heart valves for a Christchurch medical company and titanium gun silencers for a Tauranga firm.