Over 300 additive manufacturing (3D printing) technology systems have been established locally as a result of programmes put in place by the government, academic institutions and industry role players.

 

This collaborative approach has made it possible to establish and develop an infrastructure base that allows for meaningful research, and has allowed manufacturing designers and engineers to produce complex designs and creations without the need for individual tooling components.

 

Additive manufacturing (AM) technology has matured from prototyping technology into fully fledged manufacturing technology, widely used in the medical, automotive, jewellery and aerospace sectors, among others.

 

Significant investment in the sector has seen South Africa demonstrating world-class capabilities in additive manufacturing.  This has positioned the country to participate in sub-sectors with high growth potential in AM, such as aerospace applications and medical and dental devices.

 

Recognised as one of the technology pillars that will enable the smart factory of the future (alongside autonomous robots, the industrial Internet of Things and big data, among others), AM technology allows for the production of customised parts and components to support the shift towards mass customisation and digital manufacturing.

 

Last week role players in the AM sector met at the annual 20th Annual International Conference of the Rapid Product Development Association of South Africa (RAPDASA). The event was held in Bloemfontein from 5 to 8 November under the theme "Creating the future of manufacturing – layer by layer", with "Establishing the 3D printing process chain" as the sub-theme.

 

RAPDASA is a non-profit organisation established to create a network for innovators, entrepreneurs, industry partners and academics in the South African AM sector.

 

The Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) partnered with the Central University of Technology (CUT) to host the event. The DSI also hosted a pre-conference seminar on titanium additive manufacturing.  

 

Addressing the pre-conference event, the Acting Director: Advanced Manufacturing Technologies at the DSI, Sechaba Tsubella, said that AM in South Africa had matured quickly because of high participation by industry and universities.

 

"About two-thirds of South African universities currently have AM facilities, 25% of which are used for research purposes," said Tsubella.

 

"South Africa is well positioned to accelerate the development of AM technology, with several initiatives in the local manufacturing sector.  Titanium AM, in particular, has gained prominence through the activities of the Titanium Centre of Competence at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), as well as interest from other industry players.  This has sparked many developments and applications for metal AM."

 

The Centre for Rapid Prototyping and Manufacturing (CRPM) at CUT has had huge success in using titanium AM to customise medical implants.  The CRPM, established in 1997, does commercial work and research using rapid prototyping, manufacturing and tooling, and medical product development technologies.

 

Prof. Maina Maringa, from CUT's Department of Mechanical and Mechatronic Engineering, said that the CRPM had come a long way in advancing AM in South Africa.

 

"The application of AM is universal; the centre's focus has been on manufacturing health devices, but will be moving to the aerospace and automotive sectors.  AM can be used by many sectors to produce high-quality manufactured components," Maringa said.

 

Another major AM centre in South Africa is the Aeroswift platform hosted at the DSI entity the CSIR, and supported industry partner Aerosud.  With one of the biggest AM machines in the world – a first-generation functional, high-speed, large-area lasermatic melting system – the platform allows for the manufacture of large titanium components (up to 2 000 mm x 600 mm x 600 mm) for the aerospace industry.

 

Attending the Bloemfontein pre-event seminar was Aeroswift candidate researcher, Londiwe Motibane, who is doing an MSc in Materials Engineering at the University of Cape Town and is currently based at the CSIR platform.  Her research focuses on the thermal stress management of applications created by the 3D printer.

 

Motibane's research looks at addressing residual stresses in selective laser melting.  These stresses can cause the cracking and distortion of parts, negatively affecting the mechanical properties of the parts produced.  An inferior mechanical process means premature failure in service, which could result in the loss of revenue or even lives.

 

"AM provides a platform for the adoption of new concepts in a traditional industry such as manufacturing.  It enhances the existing technologies and takes them right to Industry 4.0.  The widespread introduction of AM at undergraduate level could help open up this technology," Motibane said.

 

Speaking passionately about science and engineering, the young candidate researcher said she has always had a love for the sciences and would like to make a contribution to society.

 

"South African learners need to know that there are endless opportunities in maths and science-related fields, and that these subjects have the potential to change and improve people's quality of life," Motibane said.

 

An equally enthusiastic young scientist attending the RAPDASA conference, Nkele Baloyi, is working on a DTech in metallurgy, which is the scientific study of metals, their properties and their uses in the extraction and processing of minerals.

 

With a bachelor's degree in metallurgical engineering and a master's degree in materials science from the Tshwane University of Technology, Baloyi is currently focused on microstructural investigation.

 

The RAPDASA platform allows young researchers like Motibane and Baloyi to share ideas and engage with senior researchers and industry.

 

The DSI has played an active role in supporting RAPDASA through the funding of workshops and conferences to develop a new generation of knowledge that can support the burgeoning AM industry.