World's largest 3D printer in SA looking to go commercial

Dr Ntombi Mathe with the Aeroswift, the world's largest 3D printing machine station at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in Pretoria. (Alex Mitchley, News24)
Dr Ntombi Mathe with the Aeroswift, the world's largest 3D printing machine station at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in Pretoria. (Alex Mitchley, News24)

The world's largest 3D printing machine, right here in South Africa, is looking to enter the commercial market.

The towering machine, dubbed the Aeroswift, sits at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in Pretoria and was completed in 2017.

Now, the Aeroswift team is looking towards the full commercialisation of the machine.

During a briefing at the CSIR on Tuesday, the council's Dr Ntombi Mathe said that while the Aeroswift, which cost more than R100m to build, is a research and developmental tool, there has been a lot of interest in the use of the 3D printer for commercial purposes.

Mathe said they were looking to secure a few contracts with international suppliers that want large parts built. The Aeroswift currently focuses on the printing of parts for the aerospace industry.

Aeroswift, 3D printing

 A 3D printed aeroplane throttle made from titanium. (Alex Mitchley)

One such part that the Aeroswift project has already created is a throttle grip for an aeroplane. Made from titanium, it's more durable than the current plastic throttles made, but still just as light in weight.

Londiwe Motibane, a CSIR candidate researcher working with the Aeroswift programme with a focus on thermal stress management of applications created by the 3D printer, said the technology would benefit South Africa.

The Aeroswift will allow South Africa to export semi-finished and finished goods as opposed to just raw materials, making it a competitor in the 3D printing economy worldwide.

"Worldwide, there is a lot of 3D printing going on, using different materials. What we have here is the material that then is able to shift your aerospace type of manufacturing," Motibane said.

The Aeroswift programme mainly works with titanium.

Motibane said the advantage of the large Aeroswift machine was that they were able to build larger parts and build parts faster.

"There is the build size that is big, but there is also the laser power. Your commercially available machines work at the very most 800 watts, but here we are speaking about a five kilowatt laser."

"It is the speed that people are looking at, the size and the speed, and we are in the position where we can offer both."

Aeroswift, 3D printing

The tail of a missile designed for arms manufacturer Denel. (Alex Mitchley)

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