3D printing is truly becoming a disruptive phenomenon whose market, technologies, knowledge and field of application have witnessed serious exponential growth over the last 10 years. In fact, it’s made such a huge impact in how businesses operate that’s it’s included among one of the main technologies leading the fourth industrial revolution.
At a commercial level, 3D printing (also referred to as additive manufacturing) is transforming the industrial production sector through the redesign of the entire production line rather than just in terms of replacing current machinery. From prosthetics, bone structures, skin grafts and dentistry, to interior set modelling, architectural design, jewellery and rapid product prototyping like that used in the making of drones. The possibilities to improve the way we do business are seemingly endless with the adoption of 3D Printing.
“The ability 3D printing has to rapidly iterate designs is an incredibly useful tool.” – SovTech Lead Developer, Jonathan Irwin.
What is 3D printing?
Believe it or not, 3D printing is nothing new and claims to have been around since the 1980’s. It is however only until very recent years that the process has become extremely popular in many industries and companies, and this is due to the rapid improvements seen in the development and capabilities of this technology.
As the name suggests, it is the process of making three dimensional solid objects from a digital file on a computer. An object is created by the 3D printer laying down successive layers of material until the object is formed. The printers themselves can vary in size dependant on the specs set out by the design, and there really are no limits to this, with existing printers found to be as small as the palm of your hand and larger ones reaching an astounding 12 meters in height.
There are numerous types of material that these printers can use, plastic being by far the most dominant form of material, both ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene) and PLA (Polylactic Acid), which are cheaper and easier to use for people printing at home or for smaller businesses. The use of metals in printing is also rising very quickly due to the fact that larger businesses involved in the production of manufacturing parts, such as automobile or aircraft manufacturers, are investing more heavily in this technology. Other materials 3D printing can produce with include resin, stainless steel, gold, silver, titanium, ceramic and gypsum.
How business can benefit from the power of 3D printing
With 3D printing organisations can rapidly accelerate the design, prototyping and development of products at much lower costs, without sacrificing precision and quality. As each material offers a unique combination of practical and aesthetic properties, which suits a variety of products, almost every industry can benefit from productivity and efficiency this technology offers.
Prototypes can be made within a couple of hours, if not minutes, depending on its size and complexity. For the likes of aircraft makers for example, not only does the company save on time but it also decreases wastage. For instance, when manufacturing metal parts, up to 85% of the material is cut away, whereas 3D printing metal parts use a lot less energy and is able to print more precisely. It’ also been proven that 3D printed products are up to 60% lighter than their machined counterparts, resulting in huge benefits in sectors such as the automotive industry.
If the above mentioned advantages aren’t eye-opening enough, another major advantage of this machine is its ease of use. 3D printers are easily portable and user-friendly and as a result items can be printed anywhere, meaning small to medium companies no longer need to have a separate facility just for manufacturing.
What does this mean for business in Africa?
Put simply, 3D printing will allow for less imports and more local production, encouraging further growth in the economy. Businesses, as well as entrepreneurs, can benefit from building innovative products in-house, with a process that’s faster, more efficient and cheaper than the traditional manufacturing process, and in doing so improve our global competitive edge.
How far is South Africa in this technology?
Currently, the country hosts over 49 business operators that provide services in this field, including consulting and design service providers, material suppliers, technology suppliers and 3D printers.
At SovTech, our Research and Technological Development division are busy at work laying down the blueprints for a 3D printer we’ll be building of our own. In fact, our Lead Developer, Jonathan Irwin, has already dabbled in this field in his own capacity, and has successfully built a 3D printer that prints more 3D printer parts. Regarding the effects 3D printing could have on increasing efficiency, Jonathan says; “The ability 3D printing has to rapidly iterate designs is an incredibly useful tool. Instead of waiting weeks for parts to come back only to find out they are slightly wrong, businesses can now produce an exact part in a matter of hours.”