University of Waikato's Ben Jackson has become the first mechanical engineering doctoral student to study in the Bay of Plenty.

He is researching titanium ceramics at the Titanium Industry Development Association in Tauranga.

His research aims to create a new titanium composite material for use in selective laser melting, commonly known as 3D printing or additive manufacturing. The composite will be stronger, lighter and more resistant to high temperatures than titanium alone.

Association chief executive Warwick Downing said having a PhD student like Mr Jackson in-house would help improve the skills base in the region.


"It gives us the ability to train him with the right kind of skills, a mixture of materials science, engineering, and understanding the processes that we use in terms of additive manufacturing, and to combine those three together," he said.

The association's work in titanium powdered metals technology has included producing products including medical devices, sports equipment, aircraft and marine components.

The only two 3D metals printers in New Zealand are based at its Windermere Bay of Plenty Polytechnic campus.

Mr Jackson said he hoped to take New Zealand's titanium research a step further by exploring whether titanium ceramics could be manufactured using the selective laser melting process.

"I'll work with different combinations of elements to try and cause a reaction between the titanium and the other components of the powder during the selective laser melting process," he said. "If it works, the resulting material should be lightweight, very hard and highly heat-resistant."

Many titanium ceramics are already used in surface treatments on machined parts. However, creating them through the manufacturing process is a new concept and could allow more complex parts to be designed, opening up a wider range of potential markets, including aerospace, energy and motorsports.

"I'm really interested in the applications of the final product, so if it works, the sky's the limit on its potential use," Mr Jackson said. "If I got to say that there was a spaceship up there because of a part or material that I made, that would be great."

The former Tauranga Boys' College student did a work placement at Titanium Industry Development Association in 2012 and, after completing his bachelor degree, was offered the chance to undertake his PhD through the association.


"I think the outlook's quite positive for people like Ben," said Mr Downing.

"There's very few of these skills around now, given the technology's so new.

"But it's growing quite rapidly, so there is already a demand for these sort of skills starting to exist and that will only continue to grow."