Did you know that South Africa is not only experiencing, but actively participating in the global phenomenon that is 3D printing?
Thanks to the arrival of 3D printers in the country back in 2012 and the momentum it’s gained courtesy of the enthusiastic “maker” community, South Africa has been propelled onto the world 3D printing stage.
Over the past seven years, we’ve seen several local initiatives and companies that have harnessed the power of “additive manufacturing” to open up new business avenues for enterprising entrepreneurs. It’s also augmented existing industries, and sped up the creation process for many projects.
Additive manufacturing is the technically-correct (but far less fun) way of describing the process of building 3D objects, layer by layer, by “printing” those layers on top of one another to form a three-dimensional object.
In the early days plastic was the go-to material to do this, but in the years since 3D printing first emerged the technology has been adapted to use all kinds of materials, including metals and ceramics.
3D printers have also been a popular addition to the various tech hubs that have sprung up around the country, giving their surrounding communities the ability to experiment with 3D object creation using CAD programs and the like.
It’s a force to be reckoned with, in other words.
One of the biggest 3D printers in the world is located right here in Pretoria, built through a partnership between our own Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and a Centurion-based aviation manufacturing solutions company called Aerusud.
The project, dubbed “Aeroswift”, resulted in a massive 3D printer that uses titanium powder to build custom objects for the aerospace industry; it has already built parts for companies like Advanced High-performance Reconnaissance Light Aircraft (AHRLAC).
The beauty of such a machine is its ability to build custom parts for customers. These range from teeny tiny pieces to items as tall as 2m. In so doing, it has applications for a wide variety of customers from a range of industries. Thus allowing its creators to use it make money. It was also specifically built to make efficient use of the expensive titanium powder that it uses in the printing process.
But that’s not all: Aeroswift’s programme manager, Marius Vermeulen, told Business Insider that the Aeroswift project was about more than just building a 3D printer.
3D printing is a valuable ability in more than just the aviation industry. It enables rapid prototyping for companies keen to iterate on their product designs quickly. It builds cheap but strong prosthetics and personalised medical implants, not to mention and fast and cheap part replacements. This could help local companies get around the fact that South Africa is very far from European distribution hubs.
These examples are just a few of the ways the technology has already proved its usefulness. There are plenty of others, with even more innovations to be discovered as 3D printing spreads and matures.
“The possibilities with 3D are truly becoming endless. We can print parts that in the past we could not have created. And there’s Just In Time (JIT) production whilst on demand. The impact we will see in the manufacturing space, from supply chain through to cash flow, is going to be truly exciting. We may actually see the re-invention of the wheel,” says Tarsus Distribution’s Robin Lloyd, General Manager – HP Printing & Personal.
One of the more popular desktop-sized 3D printers, the Robobeast, was invented in South Africa.
The official website says, “Being South African is like boldly swimming against the shoal; the small guy who doesn’t always have the clout but sure has the courage. We are a bit rugged but mighty tough. We are the ones who adapt quickly and never give up, the ones who try the hardest, surprises, but never compromises, because in order to succeed in the global market we have to be better than the rest and sharper than the best.”
South Africa is home to a thriving community of 3D-printing enthusiasts. These smart people are constantly pushing the boundaries of what can be created.
Local tech site Hypertext features an entire section devoted to the art of “making”, and has run many stories on local creators who’ve 3D-printed all kinds of objects from video games and movies with a variety of 3D printers.
The community itself is made up of smart, enthusiastic people committed to designing and manufacturing cool objects. This, in turn, inspires others to follow in their footsteps.
It’s the combination of the country’s passion for 3D design and the ability to 3D-print almost anything inside our borders that hold the seeds of a very bright future for the 3D printing landscape in South Africa.
This is helped along by the fact that big companies are also getting involved in this burgeoning technology. They are acquiring companies that specialise in 3D printing and using that expertise to build their own solutions.
These professional 3D printing machines can create objects from a wide range of materials. They are being used by smart entrepreneurs overseas to get in on the ground floor of the 3D printing revolution.
South Africa already has such an ability thanks to the Aeroswift project. The arrival of professionally-grade 3D printers from the big players in the IT industry could accelerate the technology’s widespread adoption. Local entrepreneurs could be enabled to follow in the footsteps of their overseas counterparts.
“With Global Manufacturing partnerships, and technologies that are starting to produce lowest cost per part in full colour at a fraction of the time, I believe the adoption rate will increase and be quicker then we first imagined,” adds Lloyd.
Any way you slice it, the future looks incredibly bright for the local 3D printing scene. Enthusiasts are already doing great work by making the pastime accessible and fun. We designed, built, own and operate the biggest 3D printer in the world.
And because of this, we are passionate and enthusiastic about its potential.
Roll on, the future!