Dundas company investing $11.5m in 3D printing
A newly arrived Dundas company is gearing up to become the first in Canada to print metal and plastic parts for use in everything from jet and car engines to satellites to medical devices.
Burloak Technologies has just moved from the eastern edge of Burlington to its new home in the industrial section of Dundas. There, it is in the process of assembling $2.5 million worth of additive manufacturing machines, commonly known as 3D printers.
When the five-year investment is complete, Burloak expects to have spent about $11.5 million on equipment.
There has been plenty of hype around 3D printing, especially on the vision of every home of the future equipped with a 3D printer spitting out new vacuum parts, jewellery, toys and clothes. Some say it will herald a new Industrial Revolution and disrupt entire industries.
Burloak co-founder and chief operating officer Peter Adams says much of the ballyhoo is overblown. He believes 3D printing will fundamentally change manufacturing, but it can never replace traditional techniques such as machining and casting.
“There are many parts that will be better produced without 3D technology. The relative speed of 3D printing is slow. But for intricate, complicated parts, printing takes a fraction of the time.”
He expects manufacturing at Burloak will start as soon as next week and that the operation will be fully operational by the end of October. He anticipates the payroll will grow from its current nine to about 50 within a couple of years.
The company will own the first direct metal laser system for manufacturing in Canada, says Adams. There are only a few owned by colleges and universities or producing prototypes, he says.
“Canada seems to be way behind the curve on this.”
That translates into what he sees as a big opportunity. Adams, who is a majority shareholder in the nine-year-old company, brought in CEO Jim Glover a couple of years ago to develop a strategic plan for what Adams sees as rapid growth.
The metal printers haven’t arrived yet from Germany. But a machine that uses powdered plastic to print parts is on the floor. It’s about the size of a commercial refrigerator and costs $500,000.
Within an oxygen-free chamber, a computer guided laser reading design drawings deposits hair-thin layers of powdered plastic the way a paint brush layers paint.
The plastic is heated to just below its melting point so that the newly deposited powder fuses a strong bond with the existing layers. The process is quite similar with a metal printer.
It can take several hours to print parts and the machine can print hundreds of the same part or dozens of different ones at a time.
Adams says one of the great benefits of 3D printing is that very little of the raw material is wasted compared to machining or casting. The new technology is also highly accurate and produces components as a unit that once had to be welded together from dozens of parts. That cuts down on time and labour and makes the parts lighter and more durable.
Most importantly, the process can produce parts not possible through traditional machining or casting.
“Basically, anything that can be designed can now be made,” said Adams.
For example, curved holes can’t be drilled but they can easily be printed, he said.
General Electric has invested hundreds of millions in the technology. Its LEAP jet engine now in production will include 3D-printed parts; and Airbus in Europe has set a goal to print a complete aircraft by 2030. Adams doubts that’s doable, but says the pursuit will stretch the technology as far as it can go.
“I could definitely see something like a wing being 3D printed.”
There is already a concept car entirely printed, and ongoing research into printing human tissue from cells.
Burloak was founded in 2005 as Burloak Engineered Solution, and had been focused on design and engineering services for large manufacturers. But the company was “pressured” by clients to explore producing parts directly.
Burloak rebranded as Burloak Technologies and created operating divisions called Burloak Advanced Manufacturing Inc. and Burloak Engineered Solutions Inc.
Burloak chose to relocate to Dundas to be close to Mohawk College and McMaster Innovation Park.
Mohawk’s new Additive Manufacturing Resource Centre (AMRC) uses previous versions of the same printers being installed at Burloak.
“We will need highly skilled labour with experience with these machines. It’s hard to draw on a ready pool of talent because this is so new,” said Adams.
Robert Gerritsen, a mechanical engineering professor at Mohawk and co-ordinator of AMRC, says the college is just the second post-secondary institution in Canada to own a metal 3D printer. He says demand is huge for the technology among industry.
“I could spend 100 hours a week keeping ahead of all the inquiries and interest.”
He said having Burloak in Mohawk’s back yard is a great fit for both sides.
“We hope the centre is a magnet that grows and attracts more companies to our community because they will look for talent here. We have the best-equipped lab in the country.”
Article courtesy of Meredith McLeod, The Hamilton Spectator