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Engineer Michael Fuller shows off the 3D printed heat exchanger he has developed for Formula One teams. Photo: Wayne TaylorWhat Michael Fuller pulls from his briefcase looks like a small piece of plumbing – like something that catches hairballs – but it may well represent a levelling of the playing field in manufacturing.
“Because it costs the same to make here as it does in China,” he says.
Fuller’s gizmo is a heat exchanger – a device that is found in fridges, air-conditioners, power stations and, in this case, cars – and a product of 3D printing. Its internal geometry is so complex it can’t be made any other way. It’s half the weight of similar devices, significantly more efficient – and already has Silicon Valley venture capitalists keen to know more. Why?
Because the heat exchanger industry will be reportedly worth $20 billion within the next five years. So there’s that. Kerching.
For Fuller, 39, an engineer, the heat exchanger is merely “a conduit … to the bigger vision” of taking 3D printing out of the laboratory and into production. “There is this advanced manufacturing utopia we talk about, where we transition from a high labour quotient to a more productive one,” he says.
3D printing, or metal additive manufacturing, will be part of utopia, albeit as a cottage industry. “As we move to producing, say, 2000 of these a year, the price point drops to where the product is competitive.”
Fairfax Media spoke to Fuller on the eve of him leaving for Britain , to talk to former colleagues in the Formula One racing industry. His plan is to have a team bolt his heat exchanger into a high-performance car, create a bit of PR dazzle and move on from there.
The move is no less audacious than how Fuller became an engineer in the first place. He was 12 years old, racing go-karts, and telling everyone who asked that he wanted to build racing cars when he grew up. At that time the Australian Grand Prix was run in Adelaide and the family made an annual pilgrimage to see the race.
“I was a mad fan,” he says.
There were no doubt many young boys being condescended to as they voiced their racing dreams. But Fuller’s father, who was always working on car engines in the home garage – “one of my early memories is him dropping a gearbox on my hand” – took young Michael seriously. He said it was time to write letters to Formula One teams and ask their advice.
“So I write, ‘I’m 13 years old living in Australia. How can I work for you?’ Some of the teams wrote back,” he says. “One in particular laid it out: this is what you need to do.”
He needed to become a mechanic or an engineer and then volunteer to help out with race teams. Fuller found he was “too cerebral” to be a mechanic, and did a mechanical engineering degree. He then spent a year on the hyper-masculine V8 touring circuit. “It was character building,” he says. “There was an anti-engineering bias. They’d call them boffins.”
At the end of that year, 2000, literally on the day of the season’s last race, Fuller flew to Britain to break into European motorsport. At the end of his first week he was juggling three job offers. By 2008, he was working for BMW’s Formula One team in Switzerland, when word came that his father had brain cancer. Fuller returned to Melbourne, spent a terrible 14 months watching his father die, lost his brother soon after in a motorbike accident – and lost too his passion for Formula One.
He turned his focus into starting up Conflux Technology, and last year began work on his heat exchanger. Word of the project has been relatively quiet. But an interview with a technology website was spotted by Marc Andreessen, the US nerd who who coded the first web browser and co-founded Netscape.
Within 12 hours of Andreessen tweeting the link to the story, Fuller was approached by venture capital companies who have invited him to talk at a Silicon Valley conference in October.
Fuller wants to change the world. Already, the boffins – the new world’s true leaders – are wondering if maybe he’s already done it.