I spent last week in Vanderbijlpark, South Africa, at RAPDASA 2016. It was the 17th annual conference and exhibition of the Rapid Product Development Association of South Africa. I’ve been lucky enough to attend all 17 of them. Like fine wine, the event continues to improve with age, and this one was the best, thanks to organizer and host Vaal University of Technology. VUT’s Science and Technology Park, the venue for the event, completes more than 1,000 industrial projects annually with machines and facilities that rival the very best in the world.
On Monday, a few of us visited a company that VUT is working with it. The company produces cast impellers for large industrial compressors. VUT is using Voxeljet additive manufacturing technology to produce sand molds and cores for the impellers. It is not yet into production with the process, but it is expected to cut the cost in half, saving R2 million ($147,000) per casting. What’s more, the delivery will improve dramatically from an excruciating 9-12 months to just one month. The impellers spin at 3,000 rpm and operate in a harsh environment. Company management is ecstatic about what the technology will do for it.
Much of South Africa’s work began many years ago at the Centre for Rapid Prototyping and Manufacturing (CRPM) at Central University of Technology. Today, CRPM is extremely active, with more than 600 commercial projects annually. The group is running a wide range of industrial machines, including several metal AM systems that are at work building high-end parts used in an array of industries. One area of focus is around medical devices and implants. Earlier this year, CRPM received ISO certification, which shows that the people, processes, and work at CUT are among the best you’ll find anywhere.
A platinum project was launched recently with Lonmin, one of the world’s largest producers of the precious metal. I had the privilege of meeting and having dinner with several managers from the company. The effort is serious, although early in its development. The largest market for platinum, by far, is catalytic converters, followed by jewelry as a distant second. Time will tell whether the company can use AM to create entirely new markets for this special material, but it looks like the people are going into it with a lot of enthusiasm and determination.
What do these and other developments in South Africa have in common? Professor Deon de Beer. He began his work in AM at CUT where he helped launch the CRPM. He then went to VUT to establish the Science and Technology Park, which is mostly focused on AM. He’s now at North-West University, but has continued strong ties with CUT and VUT. His humble and somewhat quiet demeanor will fool you because he’s like a spark plug. He ignites an avalanche of activity wherever he goes and brings out the very best of people that surrounds him. Without Deon and his inspiration, AM progress would be VERY different in the country.
South Africa is home to many Idea 2 Product (I2P) labs, with more than 25 operating worldwide. They consist of facilities full of equipment for hands-on learning of CAD, 3D printing, and other design and manufacturing technology. The I2P labs were also a brainchild of Deon de Beer. With him and a growing number of colleagues and others, South Africa has grown to become a leader in additive manufacturing. The adoption of the technology is not as deep and widespread as it is in the U.S. and parts of Europe, but the work is just as advanced and impressive. I credit de Beer and the formation of RAPDASA (both the association and annual event) for the on-going ideas, programs, strategy, and education that are provided country-wide.