The Centre for Rapid Prototyping and Manufacturing (CRPM) at Central University of Technology (CUT) in the Free State will host the 14th annual Rapdasa conference this year.
The centre specialises in additive manufacturing, commonly known as 3D printing, and was established in 1997 as a centre for commercial work as well as research.
This conference is an important part of what the CRPM stands for and the inroads it has made into AM as a whole, and in South Africa.
“The CRPM uses rapid protyping, rapid manufacturing, rapid tooling and medical product development technologies to further education, understanding and development.
“This conference is a huge opportunity for us,” says Gerrie Booysen, director at the CRPM. “Hosting this conference places our work in front of the leading minds in this field and it’s an honour to be selected. This is a very exciting time for us to be a part of the AM field of study and to host this conference.”
3D printing is set to play a fundamental role in the new industrial revolution and the CRPM is making sure that they are as close to the front lines as possible.
The centre has an impressive array of state-of-the-art machinery and equipment, including the Objet Connex 350 3D printing machine that allows users to print with more than one material at the same time.
Thanks to heavy investment and support from the National Research Foundation (NRF), the centre is able to provide both staff and students with exceptional tools with which they can maintain their lead at the forefront of research into 3D printing technology.
Certainly, the CRPM is not a place to rest on its laurels because it continues to forge new and exciting relationships with relevant partners in the field. One such partnership is with the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA) that was established in terms of the TIA Act 2008.
The goal of this agency is to stimulate and intensify technological innovation to improve economic growth and the quality of life for all South Africans. The core business objective is to support the development and commercialisation of competitive technology-based services and products.
“Our relationship with TIA helps to finance our Product Development Technology Station (PDTS) with a grant of about R4.5-million annually,” says Booysen.
“It is used to drive product and process development for small to medium enterprises. The department of science and technology has an internship programme managed by TIA to assist our undergraduate students with integrated learning.”
In addition to the development and training opportunities afforded by CUT’s product development technology station, and its relationship with TIA, the CRPM receives funding from the NRF.
This funding is specifically for the integrated product development research niche area (IPDRNA) that is divided into three separate research arenas.
These include medical product development, rapid tooling and rapid manufacturing and are further supported through various additive manufacturing technologies available within the centre.
Established by Professor Deon de Beer in the 1990s, the CRPM is growing from strength to strength and has an impressive line-up of achievements, including one where the research results from the IPDRNA opened the door for a successful application to the South African Research Chairs Initiative (SARchI) in 2012.
This funding will allow for R2.5-million annual investment into the field of medical product development through additive manufacturing. The National Research Foundation received an impressive total of 406 applications from 22 universities for the 2011/2012 SARChI Call, and CUT was the only one from three Universities of Technology to achieve this research chair.
In addition to that, CUT’s Integrated Product Development Team (IPD) is part of the Titanium Centre of Competence (TiCoC), a vehicle to integrate and co-ordinate the development of the technology building blocks of this industry, and is one of a handful of institutions worldwide that can directly laser sinter Ti (titanium), or any other bio-compatible material, to effect medical product development.
The IPD plays a key role in complex product development initiatives as well as models and implants for surgeries for both local and international patients — many of these would have been almost impossible without the CRPM’s intervention.
Medical practitioners have shown a lot of interest in CUT’s capabilities in the design and manufacture of patient-specific implants.
There is the hope that the certification and commercialisation of the custom-designed titanium implant manufacturing could form the basis of further collaboration between CUT and DST.
“Progress relies heavily on the ISO accreditation of the DMLS Ti process to ensure delivery of qualified parts,” says Booysen.
“We are also hoping to establish a unit for medical innovations and commercialisation so we can help medical professionals really develop their ideas.”
Developing successful centres
There are a number of product development centres, such as CRPM at CUT, in South Africa at this time, but there is a lack of communication between these and the doctors themselves.
This is due to a number of factors, including access. Many centres struggle to start a dialogue with medical professionals, who in some cases are not even aware that these centres exist.
Another issue is time — many doctors do not have the time resources needed to get involved in the consultations and developments for a successful product implementation.
The CRPM’s goal is to create safe environments for medical practitioners to share their ideas and to form a consortium between doctors and CUT’s product development centres to drive development.
This could have enormous potential benefits for both the medical profession and the AM environment.
The CRPM or PDTS can take the information provided by the core of experts within the consortium, doctors from a variety of specialisation fields, and use this to focus on the technical development of the products.
“The CRPM provides a one-stop solution for product and industrial designers to manufacture prototypes for form and function tests as well as final prototypes prior to tooling,” says Booysen.
“The additive manufacturing technologies open up a realm of possibilities that allow users to proceed directly from Computer Aided Design (CAD) to a physical model.”
The CRPM’s research team was also accepted as a full member of the Medical Research Council Medical Device Innovation Platform in 2011 and the university is the only university of technology to be formally represented alongside the other five traditional universities.
It is another definitive achievement that shows why the CRPM has grown from strength to strength since its inception nearly 20 years ago.
Creating new solutions
The CRPM facilities offer the industry limited-run productions for testing and marketing purposes while the final manufacturing processes are being developed.
These prototypes can be created in a variety of materials including plastic, metal and sand and are manufactured directly into titanium, alongside prostheses, using EOS DMLS technology.
“This translates into a robust, exciting and incredibly versatile department that can offer students and experts a superb facility for generating ideas and prototypes, among other things,” says Booysen.
“There are ten AM machines currently available at the CRPM, which makes this one of the best equipped AM centres of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere.”
Recently the CRPM acquired a new laser metal sintering machine that allows for the manufacture of rapid tooling moulds in tool steel material for injection moulding and high-pressure die-casting.
This technology has the ability to assist the tool-making industry in creating highly complex moulds, including conformal cooling channels that cannot be manufactured using conventional methods.
It opens up the possibility of higher productivity due to shorter cycle times and, internationally, many projects have been successfully completed using this new approach.
The benefits are still to be proven to the South African tool-making industry, but the CRPM is dedicated to bringing about this change and introducing powerful new solutions to the market.
The CRPM also boasts a manufacturing system that supports the casting industries and involves the direct laser sintering of complex sand moulds and cores from three-dimensional designs.
This technology has been successfully used in developing the first South African aircraft engine for Adept Airmotive and looks set to make a substantial difference in the competitiveness of these casting industries.
Today the CRPM plays a pivotal role in additive manufacturing in South Africa and continues to work towards bringing innovation and development to the country.
The 14th Annual Rapdasa conference is just one more achievement to add to their well-notched belts.
This article forms part of a supplement paid for by Central University of Technology. Contents and photographs were supplied and signed off by the institution