3D printing company strikes gold with idea that copper can stop the spread of COVID-19

SPEE3D-3D-metal-printer.

A SPEE3D 3D metal printer.

When COVID-19 hit, SPEE3D founders Byron Kennedy and Steve Camilleri tried to work out how they could prevent the spread of the virus, and decided to investigate if antimicrobial copper could be the key.

According to Kennedy, copper has been known to kill viruses and bacteria for centuries, so they decided to research if it would kill this specific coronavirus.

They went to 360Biolabs, a clinical trial speciality laboratory accredited by the Australian National Association of Testing Authorities, and tested its effect on the virus. It showed that the antimicrobial copper killed 96% of the virus within 2 hours, and 99.2% of the virus within five hours.

As a result, the Melbourne and Darwin-based metal 3D printing manufacturer developed ACTIVAT3D copper, which uses SPEE3D printers to coat metal parts – including door handles and railings – with copper.

Using digital print files, copper fixtures have since been installed in Charles Darwin University in Darwin, Swinburne University in Melbourne and at the University of Delaware.

Kennedy says they have received interest in ACTIVAT3D copper from German, Australian and US markets, and inquires from countries including Chile and Belarus.

“There’s been tremendous interest from sectors [including the] commercial sector who are looking at ways to protect workers, all the way through to cruise liners, aerospace industries and household appliances as well,” Mr Kennedy tells SmartCompany.

In addition to killing COVID-19, Kennedy says the science is fairly clear that antimicrobial copper kills other viruses and bacteria, including influenza A.

“That’s really where the long-term opportunity is — the prevention of not only the coronavirus but other bacteria and viruses that can be transmitted through touch,” he says.

SPEE3D has plans to coat surfaces with antimicrobial copper in environments including hospitals, aged care facilities, airports, prisons and other essential workplaces.

According to Kennedy, SPEE3D has mixed levels of support from these organisations.

“Some of these sectors are moving quickly and others are moving slowly and we can’t predict that, but there’s enough interest from certain sectors,” he says.

“We’re the only ones printing parts using this process”

Kennedy and Camilleri developed another company, In Motion Technologies, in 2002, which commercialised electric motors.

After selling the business for “sub-$10 million” to Regal Beloit, the co-founders continued to work for the company and, during that time, saw the emergence of new technology in 3D printing.

Kennedy says the technology was expensive and slow, particularly for commodity products, so they formed SPEE3D in 2014 to address the cost and speed issues in metal 3D printing.

The company, which uses cold spray technology — as well as “software, smarts and a unique algorithm” — to build real parts, exports their metal 3D printers internationally, and to a broad range of sectors including contract manufacturers, defence, universities “and other[s] in between.”

SPEE3D, which has a team of 20 “that is growing,”  has raised funds from government grants, external investors and sales transactions, and recently bagged a $1.5 million investment into a 12-month pilot of SPEE3D technology for the Australian Army.

Kennedy says the metal 3D printers sell for between $500,000 to $1 million, and they target “double digits in terms of the number of printers sold each year”.

While there is strong competition in the metal 3D printing industry, he says they stand out by targeting standard products.

“The beauty for us is that we’re the only ones printing parts using this process. We have a unique offering in the 3D metal printing space,” Kennedy says

“From day one we knew this would be a global product. We now have offices in the US and Germany, and resellers in various countries across Asia and Europe.”

Still in its infancy

According to Kennedy, the 3D printing industry is still finding its feet. He says different styles of 3D printing have their advantages and, as a business, it’s all about identifying a niche.

“If someone wanted us to print a dental crown for your tooth, that’s not [our style] but if someone wanted a freshwater hose fitting for a naval vessel, that’s us. The heavy industrial market is the one we’re most interested in,” he says.

“Defence, mining, oil, gas and rail: those are the applications that our technology is well suited for.”

He adds that market interest in 3D printing is increasing, which is partly due to the push to bring manufacturing back to Australia.

“People are looking for opportunities on how they can shorten their supply chains, and 3D printing can do that in certain instances,” he says.

“It’s not a magic solution — but the technology is all about where it fits, and how it offers value to the end customer.”

While SPEE3D intends to release new products in April 2021, Kennedy says future goals include growth and expansion across different regions.

“This is the start of our export journey,” he says.

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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.

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