Next-generation maker’s nano approach to big picture R&D


Nicole Bittar
Contributor

The team at the Australian National Fabrication Facility (better known as ANFF) consider themselves a next-generation maker space. Simply put, “we provide a service,” says ANFF chief executive officer Dr Jane Fitzpatrick.

“That service happens to be incredibly high-end expertise and tooling, but you can literally walk in the door and say, ‘I need to do this’,” she said. “We’re doing that at completely different scales with tools that are incredibly precise, down to the single nanometre level.

“We figure out how to do that for you. We’ll work with you, either to get you on the tools or to provide you with the outcome you’re looking for. After the training, you just pay on an hourly basis for access to the tools,” Dr Fitzpatrick said.

Where and how did it all begin?

The Australian National Fabrication Facility (ANFF) was established in 2007 through an Australian Government investment under the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS).

The Australian National Fabrication Facility

Its purpose was equally succinct – to meet and exceed the challenges of research, development and commercialisation by providing open access to micro and nanofabrication equipment.

ANFF has grown to represent an investment of $500 million in research infrastructure made by Commonwealth and state governments, as well as partner organisations.

The network provides access to more than 500 individual pieces of equipment across 20 sites and is home to more than 130 experts employed under the ANFF banner that assist 3,000 individual users each year conduct nano-oriented research and development, and commercialisation.

Another impressive figure is that ANFF has recorded 185,000 hours of usage this year.

“So, that’s an awful lot of people coming through our doors, and our team is only about 130 people,” Dr Fitzpatrick said. “When you consider the number of staff and the facilitation of those hours, I think that’s crucial (to success).”

Fabrication is key to commercial success

“Nanotechnology, micro technology and the ability to make things is so critically important in a vast number of application areas,” Dr Fitzpatrick said. “If you want to make something, you have to fabricate it — and we’ve got the tools to do that.”

If you need to create a device, sensor or nano-structured material, you’re in capable hands at ANFF. Dr Fitzpatrick said that when you start making things, you must be explicit.

“You need the kind of tools we have, and those tools don’t come cheap,” Dr Fitzpatrick said, adding that “$200,000 is a cheap tool for us – and they climb to $2.5 million and upwards.”

The benefit? “All of your IP stays with you. You get to do the iterations as you want to do them — quickly and efficiently, without having to spend millions on equipment, storage and ancillary metrology.”

Clients are assured of a one-stop process; from initial design to packaging.

This ease, simplicity and flexibility recalls ANFF’s main objective — the overarching ability to provide infrastructure for people who wanted to make things, and an open access facility that can help create the products, services and jobs of the future.

“We’ve done that in a very strategic way; to make sure we’re providing access to tools that are not necessarily available, quickly and easily, in other formats, but are also very flexible and customisable,” Dr Fitzpatrick said.

Making quantum leaps

An example is the quantum ecosystem in NSW. ANFF provides the tools to create whatever quantum device is required within that ecosystem.

Computer numerical control (CNC) fabrication, which creates surfaces with micrometre precision that cannot be made in other ways, and (nano-level) 3D printing are other unique specialties.

“We can also print in ceramics with very smooth finishes, multi-coloured polymers and metals,” Dr Fitzpatrick said.

These capabilities are available to researchers and industry to accelerate their research and development and commercialisation (R&D&C) plans.

“I think one of the key points that has made NCRIS and ANFF successful is the continued support and coordinated strategic investment,” Dr Fitzpatrick said. “That stability has allowed us to plan ahead and not to be fighting for capital and flowing with the winds of change as to what’s important,” Dr Fitzpatrick said.

In short, that stability has allowed ANFF to be strategic about where they invest and build the expertise.

Combined, this provides better ways of working and the ability to form long-term and productive partnerships with the greater innovative ecosystem, Dr Fitzpatrick said (thereby not needing to “reinvent the wheel every five years”, because that consistency, stability and coordinated approach is accessible).

In terms of R&D&C, the National Infrastructure Roadmap, which is conducted by the Commonwealth every five years, is a key review tool.

The 2021 Roadmap highlighted the need for continued funding for the NCRIS program and ANFF.

“We all support the fact that needs change, so what we needed five years ago might not be needed today,” Dr Fitzpatrick said.

“Are we doing the right things and have we been successful? But also looking to the future and how we fill the capability gaps to support Australian research to become world class or is world class and needs more.”

The Roadmap Challenge Framework uncovered the research questions being asked and what kind of infrastructure needs to be implemented so that the right people can answer those questions.

Divided into eight identifiable areas, including space defence, communications and frontier technologies, the roadmap outlined areas where supporting infrastructure was required.

“It’s about balancing the challenges we can see within that roadmap with where we can see the infrastructure making a difference,” Dr Fitzpatrick said.

She said Australia sits highly on the IP R&D sphere. Research infrastructure supports that and furthers not only the development, but also the commercialisation, of world-class science across the country.

Another challenge is keeping operations local and thereby enhancing economic growth.

“Making sure that we know who can fabricate things in Australia and we can show that proof-of-scale work can be done here is critical. And if we can, then it’s a lot easier to keep it here.”

As proof of organisational excellence, two of the projects ANFF supports received Australia Museum Eureka Prize nominations this year alone.

With many previous nominees and recipients on that list – and a case study history that reads like a who’s who of IP innovation’s leadings lights – the future looks bright for ANFF.

This article was produced by InnovationAus.com in partnership with Australian National Fabrication Facility (ANFF).

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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