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Hamilton Economic Development

‘We print imagination’ at Mohawk’s 3D lab

Photo of Ross Mogridge, chief student technologist in the engineering technology department at Mohawk CollegeRob Gerritson is fond of saying you can’t drill a curved hole but you can easily print one.

That’s how he tries to simply explain why additive manufacturing, often called 3D printing, is so important.

Gerritson is the director of Mohawk College’s new Additive Manufacturing Resource Centre, which houses about $2 million worth of sophisticated printers that create metal and plastic objects.

Where traditional manufacturing techniques, such as machining, casting and milling remove material to form a desired part, additive manufacturing builds an object up in microscopic layers of powdered plastic or metal.

“We will see all new parts and new designs for existing parts,” said Gerritson. “This will be a driver of innovation … There are many opportunities that have yet to be explored.”

The technology is revolutionizing everything from aerospace components to toys and medical implants, to bicycle parts.

Now, the only limit on what can be produced is human imagination, says first-year student Ross Mogridge, who is chief student technician at the lab.

“We print imagination. I can physically make anything that I can imagine.”

Within an oxygen-free chamber roughly the size of an oven, a laser reading a digital image deposits hair-thin layers of powdered metal or plastic the way a paintbrush layers paint. Heat fuses the newly deposited powder with the existing layers.

This offers two advantages: there is little waste and components can be built as whole units rather than individual parts needing assembly. This saves labour but also eliminates failure points where screws, bolts or welds hold parts together.

The biggest benefit is that the additive allows shapes to be formed, like curved holes, which could never be formed any other way.

The machine can print hundreds of the same part or dozens of different ones at the same time.

The drawbacks are that current 3D printers are still relatively slow compared to other methods, a limited number of materials are available and the technique isn’t suitable for producing parts in large volumes.

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The lab has plenty of prototypes that show what their machines can do: a metal chess piece with a tiny, curved staircase inside; models of turbine blades that have a curved channel etched out; a bike sprocket printed as one unit; even a plastic ukulele.

Most impressive of all is a rounded hip implant with porous metal that allows a bone to grow and fuse into it.

“That kind of porosity in the metal would be impossible to make any other way,” said engineering dean Tony Thoma.

Visibly proud of this lab, he says many colleges and universities have 3D printing labs that aren’t as advanced as this one. There are no labs in Ontario with metal printers and only three across the country.

“We’re here to expose this technology to industry,” said Thoma.

Companies can work with the lab to test new products or to produce manufactured-quality products.

The Mohawk lab, operational for a few months now, has 43 core clients. These include aviation giants and startups.

The lab is a great complement to materials research at McMaster University and the federal CANMET lab, says Thoma. That makes Hamilton poised to be a centre of excellence.

Burloak Technologies, which moved to Dundas last year from Burlington, cited Mohawk’s lab among the primary reasons for its relocation. The company made a multimillion-dollar investment in metal printers.

The lab, opened officially in January, received a total of $720,000 in funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation and the Ontario Research Fund, along with industry partners.

For Mogridge, 28, his biggest challenge will be deciding which job offer to accept when he graduates. He says companies are struggling to find the skilled technicians who can run the machines because they are so new.

“It’s my passion. I love the industry. I see the future there. What we do in the lab is what most people would call sci-fi.”

Mohawk’s lab is already being credited with keeping one new medical business from moving out of Ontario.

Stemmed Implant Technology has developed a less invasive but stronger way to affix dental implants to bones. The technology is the invention of a Niagara Falls dentist. It’s screwless and more intricate than existing implants, says Chris Ostrovski, the company’s CEO.

Traditional machining can’t reproduce the design. Additive manufacturing is the only answer.

The implants will reduce a patient’s time in the dentist’s chair and cut the number of necessary visits, says Ostrovski.

But the company’s founders felt they would have to head down to Kentucky to get help with research and developing prototypes. That was before they heard about Mohawk’s new lab.

“The machines that Mohawk has are probably the most advanced that are available.”

It’s there that they produced their first lot of dental implants, which can now be used in clinical studies at McMaster.

“We just about fell over when we saw the first prototypes,” said Ostrovski.

“The first sample came out exactly as we designed and envisioned. Mohawk has the expertise, the machinery and the students that we can help to train and then eventually employ them … This is a dream for a little company like ours.”

Article courtesy of Meredith MacLeod, The Hamilton Spectator

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