South African companies take to 3D printing

 Nervous System, a design company based in the US, makes delicate filigree lights using a 3D printer. (Image: Nervous System )


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Science and technology

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 prostheses 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.

 Rapid3D specialises in a wide range of 3D print and prototyping services. (Image: Rapid3d )

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 KwaZulu-Natal-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.

 Richard van As created a new hand using 3D. (Image: Robohand)

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.”