Rapid RP Growth in South Africa

Recent international conference and exhibition underscores the country’s strong interest in the technology and its application.

By Terry Wohlers

"Viewpoint" is a monthly column authored by Terry Wohlers for Time-Compression Technologies
This column was published in the January/February 2005 issue.

In early November 2004, South Africa served as host to an international conference on rapid product development, with an emphasis on rapid prototyping and related applications. More than 100 guests from 13 countries attended the three-day RAPDASA 2004 Conference & Exhibition. RAPDASA is the Rapid Product Development Association of South Africa, a non-profit group that was launched more than four years ago at the first conference. Central University of Technology, Free State (CUT) in Bloemfontein, South Africa was the organizer and host of the fifth annual event.

Never before have the South Africans staged such a large and impressive event on the subject of rapid product development and RP. Several equipment and material manufacturers from around the world supported the event. Among the 16 exhibitors were

Beijing Yinhua (China), EOS GmbH (Germany), Extrude Hone ProMetal (USA), GOM (Germany), Huntsman (USA), Solidscape (USA), Stratasys (USA), and Z Corp. (USA).

Senior managers and executives from many of the exhibiting companies participated in South Africa’s first-ever international equipment manufacturer panel session at the conference. The two-hour session addressed questions such as “In five and 10 years, what percentage of the machines that are sold will be used for the direct manufacture of series production parts?” and “How can we overcome the problem of moving color CAD data to RP systems without the overhead that users now encounter?”

Dr. Hans Langer, founder and CEO of EOS, answered the first question. He believes that in five years, 50 percent of his company’s customers will be using laser sintering for the direct manufacture of parts without the aid of molds or dies. And in 10 years, 80 percent will be using the machines to manufacture parts, he estimates. These estimates are much higher than most would have expected.

Mr. Graham Lindsay, Z Corp.’s European sales manager, said he believes that in the future, we will move toward industry standard color formats such as VRML. Also, he expects that CAD software developers and 3D printer manufacturers will create direct interfaces that permit a user to print jobs, similar to the way jobs are sent to today’s document printers.

RAPDASA 2004 ran in parallel with Innovation Summit 2004, a program designed to develop a deep understanding of innovation and entrepreneurship, as well as cooperation between higher education, business and industry, and government. Also, Summit 2004 was aimed at establishing the Free State as an innovation hub. The Free State is a province located in the heart of South Africa and it is where Bloemfontein is situated.

Afrikaans is the first language for about 15 percent of the population in South Africa. During my first visit to South Africa in 2000, I was surprised to find that nearly all whites that I met spoke it as their first language. In other parts of South Africa, English is more popular among whites. Nationwide, English is the number two language, spoken by about 9 percent of the population, but it is the preferred language for business and government.

All five RAPDASA conferences were conducted entirely in English. Nine other languages are spoken in the country, with Zulu being the most popular due to the large Zulu population. All 11 are considered official languages of South Africa.

Product development and manufacturing in South Africa are on the rise, with the automotive industry leading the way. RP system sales in South Africa nearly doubled in the past 12 months, from 15 to 29 systems. The exhibition did not draw thousands of people, as is the case at large events such as EuroMold, but to the exhibitors, that was okay. The appetite for new systems was strong among those who attended and the attendees were like sponges, wanting to soak up as much information as possible. Most of the exhibitors who I spoke with were certain that the investment they made in coming to the event would translate into new business.

The Global Alliance of Rapid Prototyping Associations (GARPA), now consisting of 18 member nations, held its annual business meeting during the week of the conference. GARPA was formed in 1998 to encourage the exchange of information across international borders. As a part of this sharing, GARPA member associations participate in activities that include technical presentations at industry conferences, the publication of case studies, social events, and the sharing of information. The meeting in Bloemfontein could not have gone better, with representatives from China, Finland, South Africa, the UK, and the USA in attendance. Also, for the first time, representatives from many of the system manufacturers that were present for the week’s events provided helpful input during a special part of the meeting.

It is good to see the RP industry develop in South Africa. Sales are on the rise, especially for companies selling 3D printers. I look forward to the next conference in South Africa in November 2005.

Industry consultant, analyst and speaker Terry Wohlers is principal consultant and president of Wohlers Associates, Inc. (Fort Collins, CO). For more information visit http://wohlersassociates.com.