Expert Interview: Conflux Technology’s Ben Batagol on Reinventing Heat Exchange Technology with 3D Printing
Many of our everyday electrical appliances function thanks to heat exchangers. From air conditioners to car engines and fridges, heat exchangers work to transfer heat between two or more fluids. Traditionally, designing these compact devices has been challenging, not least because of the sheer level of complexity involved to efficiently cool fluids in the most compact space.
Conflux Technology was founded to solve this challenge. The Australia-based company focuses specifically on thermal and fluid applications and uses additive manufacturing to design and manufacture more efficient, optimised heat exchangers for industries including automotive, motorsport and aerospace.
In this week’s Expert Interview, we speak with Conflux’s Head of Business Development, Ben Batagol, to discuss the company’s innovative approach to heat exchange technology and the specific challenges and benefits of metal 3D printing.
Could you tell me a bit about Conflux Technology?
Conflux Technology was founded by Michael Fuller, who’s had a long and distinguished career in motorsport including Formula One. He had worked with additive manufacturing during his career and had a good understanding of how to design and develop parts using the technology.
Back in 2014, he developed a novel idea of combining heat exchangers and additive manufacturing, which was a cutting-edge application of additive technology at the time.
Michael saw that the complexity and freedom of design that you can achieve with AM is really one of the key benefits for its use in thermal and fluid projects — you can achieve elaborate geometries that can’t be made traditionally that offers a distinct advantage over traditional manufacturing processes.
Michael knew that if we could harness that benefit and optimise some of the geometries, we’d be able to create highly efficient heat exchangers that also start to offer incredible performance and packaging freedom.
It took him about two years to design and test the first concepts to validate his idea, by which time he needed to expand the team. We closed the first funding round in 2017 where the AM Ventures (AMV) Group took an equity stake as lead investor.
From the outset, the company had a firm focus on the application development of thermal and fluid projects in a broad range of markets.
Rather than trying to be a service bureau or production house where many companies have already established global footprints, we saw a gap in the market, where people are looking to adopt AM for their projects but not sure how to start their journey.
For example, customers will approach us looking to optimise an existing heat exchanger using AM. They don’t want to necessarily build the same geometries and are looking for guidance on how to evolve their current thinking and designs. Conflux works with them on the evolution of the design to help harness AM and provide a solution that will offer significant advantages in a range of areas, such as packaging space or performance optimisation.
You raised an interesting point about companies wanting to adopt AM but not knowing how to do so. How does Conflux Technology help companies identify the best use cases and applications for the technology?
Well, when we start to work with a company, they’ll generally start with an outline of their current situation and the aim of the project. We will often help them select the best product to focus on initially that will offer the biggest potential from their possible applications.
We’ve got several different approaches in how we tackle customer projects, but increasingly companies are wanting to educate their engineers in design for AM to apply the same thinking in other areas of their business.
I believe this is one of the key roles of Conflux Technology – enabling the AM market and helping to drive customer knowledge transfer and understanding. The more that customers understand what’s possible with AM, the more that will drive the uptake of AM and grow the industry and opportunities for everyone.
How do you approach designing for additive manufacturing?
AM takes a very different design philosophy compared to designing for traditional manufacturing processes. We have found that it’s a process of education to take an engineer who is well versed in traditional manufacturing processes and teach them the opportunities and limitations of the AM process.
That’s part of the journey that we’ve gone through as a company with upskilling our team and it’s also the journey that we take our own customers through.
This process of questioning, testing and learning is fundamental to Conflux remaining a market leader. We have developed some internal tools to help stimulate our own process of creating new designs and geometries that test the limits on what is possible with the technology and enable creative solutions to unique customer problems. Continuous improvement is critical to our success.
What does that process of design to production look like at Conflux?
At Conflux, we take an iterative approach with our customers. We start by identifying the key fundamental inputs for the project that feed into our first concept development phase.
The goal of our concept development phase is to be able to determine whether the project goal is possible and provide a very high-level assessment of performance to the customer.
At the conclusion of this phase, we sit down with them and examine the concept in more detail and work towards a physical prototype. This involves much more rigorous engineering as well as simulation with Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) to ensure the design is printable and give us an idea of the performance we can expect prior to bench tests.
Following the build and test of the concept we go back and correlate the performance difference between the physical test data and the simulated data to ensure we have achieved consistency.
CFD is a key tool we use in the next phases of the project to help with the optimisation of the design and we must understand the correlation to real-world performance as we strive towards our performance goals.
We continue to refine and optimise the design until we have a part that is ready for serial production. For Conflux’s customers, this serial production data is bundled into a package that includes the physical part and a set of optimised parameters developed for that specific geometry.
Which industries are you targeting in particular?
Thermal and fluid problems are not unique to any particular industry; however, we are targeting those markets that could benefit from the advantages we can provide and who are ready to explore this new technology.
Some of the Conflux team come from the motorsport industry, giving us excellent knowledge of the market and what the specific needs are. The combination of AM and cutting-edge heat exchange technology Conflux provides, gives the motorsport industry the competitive advantage these customers demand.
Aerospace and defence markets have also been early adopters of the AM technology and understand the competitive advantages the technology can give them. Conflux is able to design products for these markets that offer significant weight savings, packaging freedoms and performance advantages.
Finally, both the resource sector and the industrial sectors have very interesting problems that can be solved by AM. Conflux is able to help these markets understand and adapt the technology to their unique requirements such as heat exchange technologies in the oil and gas market where shortened lead times and uptime are key requirements.
Could you share a success story or two that you’ve worked on?
Conflux takes great care to protect the confidentiality of our clients and will be limited on what we can share.
We continue to work on our own R&D program with heat exchangers that we are able to share and have run some benchmarks against traditionally made heat exchangers.
Our internal development provides our customers with evidence on the sorts of performance we could achieve with our designs and how they compare to solutions clients may already be using.
The performance we are able to achieve is incredible and has helped to convince many customers that AM offers a step change in performance and flexibility that was worth pursuing.
What are some of the challenges involved in working with metal 3D printing technology?
Pushing the limits of the technology is vital to Conflux’s success. Thin walls, feature distances, build angles and material selection are all important factors for us to consider and we are constantly discovering how designs can be optimized.
We have found that when building very thin walls in material like aluminium it is difficult to achieve a defect-free design that maintains pressure without leaking. When you combine this with the complex geometries and small packing envelopes we are designing, it’s a very challenging, but exciting design challenge.
One of the other challenges we face is the question of material selection. There are new materials being released onto the market regularly and we apply our knowledge to help the customer choose the right material for their application.
This can be challenging especially when they have been using a particular material for a large number of years and need to understand the effect this material change will have on a system.
There’s a lot of activity in metal 3D printing. How do you see the technology evolving in the months and years ahead?
I think the technology is at an exciting point right now.
For many people, metal 3D printing has only just come onto their radar in the last couple of years. They are amazed by what it can achieve and seem to believe that it’s already a mature and robust technology the same as traditional manufacturing methods.
The reality is, AM has evolved significantly over the past decades, but it still has further to go to really start to unlock some of its potential. If we consider the metal manufacturing space, powder bed machines are comparatively slow.
Whilst many companies are looking at how they can speed up the process by adding additional laser technology, there is currently a limit to what can be done with the current technology.
Many of the customers we’re working with aren’t necessarily looking for mass production yet. They are talking about production runs of perhaps hundreds or at the top end maybe thousands. However, even this number is significant for a powder bed process, depending on the part size.
As customers look towards that mass production goal of hundreds of thousands of parts per year, this will take the next generation of the technology.
I believe over the next few years we shall see the next generation of technology that will help to open up these types of production volumes, whilst still enabling Conflux to do the same complex geometries, product development support and engineering guidance we are doing now.
Which technologies do you currently use, and how do you identify the next technology to invest in?
At the moment, we’re using the powder bed process and EOS machines specifically.
Around three years ago, we benchmarked the various processes and brands available in the market and quickly found the powder bed machines offered us the design freedom we required.
During this process, we had complex parts made by each OEM and compared them to see which offered us the best result.
What we found was that the EOS machines were able to give us the most reliable and consistent results and were probably the most mature in terms of being able to be run with minimal downtime.
How would you describe the current status of the AM market in Australia?
I’d say that Australia is still early in its AM market demand compared with other regions in the world.
That said, there are a lot of people in Australia that have invested in AM and are working on educating the market on what is possible and the competitive advantage the technology can provide.
The Australian market is in real need of more people to help train and educate on AM and show companies what’s actually possible.
There are obviously many successful case studies coming out of Asia, EU and the US, where people have adopted this technology and finding it’s providing a competitive advantage for them.
AM companies in Australia need to be able to give help create Australian examples of this as well.
Finally, what does the future hold for Conflux?
If the previous 12 months are anything to go by, we’re looking towards massive growth in the year ahead across a diverse range of markets.
We’ve reached a really interesting point now in the business. Customers have really understood that there’s a lot of value to be had in combining AM with heat exchangers; the two are complementary and clients are embracing it with gusto.
Companies are very keen to learn more, and so they’re reaching out to Conflux to not only help them with their product design challenges, but also to understand how they can continue to find further opportunities for AM applications in other areas of their business.
To learn more about Conflux Technology, visit: https://www.confluxtechnology.com/