South Africa com­pa­nies take to 3D print­ing

Nomad Africa Magazine - - Inside - Words: SARAH WILD

Ad­di­tive man­u­fac­tur­ing, other­wise known 3D print­ing, is tak­ing off in a big way in South Africa. The tech­nol­ogy can cre­ate any phys­i­cal model from a soft­ware file sent to a printer any­where in the world.

any ob­ject, from a piece of jewellery to the fuse­lage of an air­craft, can be cus­tom made with­out wast­ing any ma­te­ri­als us­ing ad­di­tive man­u­fac­tur­ing. The tech­nol­ogy is be­ing used to man­u­fac­ture high-tech spe­cialised parts for the avi­a­tion in­dus­try and cus­tom-made bio­med­i­cal pros­the­sis such as hip joints.

“It’s the next in­dus­trial revo­lu­tion,” says Di­rec­tor of Ad­vanced Man­u­fac­tur­ing Tech­nolo­gies at the Depart­ment of Science and Tech­nol­ogy, Beeuwen Ger­ryts. “But the big dif­fer­ence be­tween this [one] and the last in­dus­trial revo­lu­tion is that it is not ge­o­graph­i­cally con­strained.”

Con­sult­ing com­pany Wohlers says the mar­ket for ad­di­tive man­u­fac­tur­ing is now worth about US$3-bil­lion, with an an­nual growth of 35%. A good rea­son to ac­cel­er­ate ef­forts to get ad­di­tive man­u­fac­tur­ing into the lo­cal man­u­fac­tur­ing in­dus­try, ac­cord­ing to Ger­ryts.

To this end, the Depart­ment of Science and Tech­nol­ogy, in con­junc­tion with the Coun­cil for Sci­en­tific and In­dus­trial Re­search (CSIR), is de­vel­op­ing an ad­di­tive man­u­fac­tur­ing tech­nol­ogy road map to

plot the course for South African com­pa­nies and man­u­fac­tur­ers. Ger­ryts says ed­u­cat­ing peo­ple about what can be done with 3D print­ing will form part of the roadmap.

The Rapid Prod­uct De­vel­op­ment As­so­ci­a­tion of South Africa, which co-or­di­nates ac­tiv­i­ties and knowl­edge shar­ing in the sec­tor, es­ti­mates that there are more than 1 400 3D prin­ters in South Africa, of which about 300 are in the high end of the mar­ket, in science coun­cils and higher ed­u­ca­tion in­sti­tu­tions.

Ger­ryts says that there are tech­nol­ogy sta­tions at the Vaal Univer­sity of Tech­nol­ogy, the Cen­tral Univer­sity of Tech­nol­ogy and the CSIR’s Na­tional Laser Cen­tre where in­ter­ested man­u­fac­tur­ers can fa­mil­iarise them­selves with 3D print­ing.

“SMEs [small and medium-sized en­ter­prises] can go there and get an item pro­to­typed and a one-off made,” says Ger­ryts. “They can have ac­cess to the tech­nol­ogy, and get the look and feel of their pro­to­typed prod­uct. It’s a low-risk en­vi­ron­ment [in which they can] make de­ci­sions.” Al­though there are ini­tia­tives to drive large-scale man­u­fac­tur­ing, the ad­di­tive man­u­fac­tur­ing road map also opens doors for en­trepreneurs and small-busi­ness own­ers who do not have the cap­i­tal for large quan­ti­ties of stock or re­tail space. Al­ready, South African com­pa­nies are util­is­ing 3D print­ing. Rapid3d, a KwaZu­luNatal-based 3D print­ing com­pany, is one such com­pany. One of the founders of the com­pany, Dave Bul­lock, says there has been an “ex­plo­sion of con­sumer-type prod­ucts ac­ces­si­ble to hob­by­ists and en­thu­si­asts”. These start at about R10 000 and are usu­ally for 3D print­ing with plas­tic.

“The ma­chines are spread over a wide range of ap­pli­ca­tions, and are di­verse in terms of cost,” he says, adding that the more com­mer­cial prin­ters, which usu­ally process met­als, can cost mil­lions, ac­cord­ing to Bul­lock.

But first, you need the know-how. Bul­lock says: “The sin­gle big­gest re­quire­ment is to have ac­cess or al­ready be us­ing 3D con­tent gen­er­a­tion … For 3D print­ing; you have to have 3D data.” How­ever, the ad­vent of smart­phones and 3D-imag­ing ap­pli­ca­tions means that al­most any­one with a cell­phone has ac­cess to 3D-vi­su­al­i­sa­tion soft­ware.

After los­ing four fin­gers in a wood­work­ing ac­ci­dent in 2001, South African Richard van As used 3D print­ing to build him­self a new hand called “Robo­hand”. The tech­nol­ogy has since been used to re­build a hand for a five-year-old boy who lost his fin­gers be­cause of am­ni­otic band syn­drome. How­ever, the ma­jor South African in­vest­ment in 3D print­ing has been in the ad­di­tive man­u­fac­tur­ing of ti­ta­nium. The Ti­ta­nium Cen­tre of Com­pe­tence, with a price tag of about R200-mil­lion, is an um­brella or­gan­i­sa­tion that co-or­di­nates the coun­try’s tech­no­log­i­cal de­vel­op­ment, with the aim of de­vel­op­ing and com­mer­cial­is­ing South Africa’s ti­ta­nium in­dus­try.

The Cen­tre’s re­search ranges from pri­mary metal pro­duc­tion to high-speed ad­di­tive man­u­fac­tur­ing, such as ti­ta­nium hip joints. The R40-mil­lion Project Aeroswift, a col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween the Na­tional Laser Cen­tre at the CSIR and the South African aero­space man­u­fac­turer, Aero­sud, aims to de­velop ad­di­tive man­u­fac­tur­ing tech­niques and the world’s largest 3D printer. The in­ter­na­tional ap­peal of 3D print­ing can be seen in Ner­vous Sys­tem, a de­sign, art and jewellery com­pany lo­cated in Somerville, Mas­sachusetts in the US. “Cus­tomers cre­ate their own de­signs with our web-based de­sign tools,” says co-founder of Ner­vous Sys­tem, Jes­sica Rosenkrantz. “Next we trans­mit the file to our 3D print­ing part­ner for fab­ri­ca­tion and after about two weeks, we will re­ceive the 3D-printed part in our stu­dio.”

Ner­vous Sys­tem con­ducts its busi­ness mainly on­line, al­though Rosenkrantz says that they do have a small gallery in their work stu­dio. “We def­i­nitely save on op­er­at­ing costs by not hav­ing a pub­lic store front. Be­cause we have low or no in­ven­tory, we are also able to ex­per­i­ment and make im­prove­ments to our prod­ucts,” she says.

Rosenkrantz says Ner­vous Sys­tem chose 3D print­ing as her tech­nol­ogy of choice be­cause the com­pany uses soft­ware as its medium. “We cre­ate de­sign sys­tems based on how pat­terns form in na­ture and use those to ‘grow’ our prod­ucts … Their forms are com­plex and would be very dif­fi­cult to make us­ing tra­di­tional man­u­fac­tur­ing meth­ods.”

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