Accessible additive manufacturing

Professor Deon de Beer found a suitable research project — additive manufacturing — to change his life

Professor Deon de Beer found a suitable research project — additive manufacturing — to change his life

Additive manufacturing (AM), described as “industrial 3D printing” by those in the know, is a powerful technology that has remarkable potential in the development of new solutions, materials and economy. Professor Deon de Beer, chief director: technology transfer and innovation at North West University, is currently focused on making AM as accessible as possible to as wide an end-user community as possible. 

His focus is on the democratisation of AM, identifying new opportunities, getting new programmes going and generating support funding to broaden participation in this specialised subject. “We look at the design for AM to produce complex final parts that cannot be produced through conventional manufacturing techniques and we focus on new material development, both for improved end-part characteristics and to enable local material development, which will broaden the localisation aspect, but also impact on the economical aspect,” says de Beer. “I also focus on AM for the foundry and casting industry and medical industry, and I am looking to open up occupational health and safety research.”

De Beer was the head of department for mechanical engineering at the Central University of Technology when he started to look for a suitable research project that would really change his life. His colleagues, Professor CAJ van Rensburg and Dr Neville Comins, opened the door to a subject that would change his life forever — rapid prototyping.

“Of course, now it is called ‘additive manufacturing’, but at the time ‘rapid prototyping’ were the words used to describe the new technology being acquired by the CSIR,” says De Beer.  “Dr Comins invited me to do a sabbatical at the CSIR and start my DTech under his supervision, but while he could accommodate me, funding was needed to make the sabbatical into a reality.”

As AM was too new a field, De Beer was unable to obtain research funding and had to pay for his sabbatical with a second mortgage bond on his home. It was a bold move, but one that paid off. “While doing my research I then realised that the road I had embarked on would not be fulfilled with the technology available in the country at the time — 1995 — and I had to develop a comprehensive laboratory to achieve this,” says De Beer. “A comprehensive research and development project followed and through extensive international exposure made possible by support from the National Research Foundation and the Technikon Free State (TFS), now the Central University of Technology, I identified the strategic equipment and processes required.”

By the time De Beer had completed his DTech in 2001 a significant research team and research programme had evolved from the project. 

He was then seconded from the faculty of engineering to director of TFS Science Park and then he became chief director: technology management in 2001. Today, he is chief director: technology transfer and innovation at North West University and has started yet another AM initiative.

“My full-time role is the management of technology transfer and innovation support services which includes the commercialisation of the university’s intellectual property portfolio,” says De Beer. “For the last 10 years or more, my research was no longer my primary appointment, but in all three cases I have been graciously allowed to continue with my research focus.”

This focus is to make AM as accessible as possible, supporting the democratisation of additive manufacturing and boosting the economic value that it can bring by empowering others. 

For De Beer, supporting communities and forging partnerships that play a role in local economies and development is fundamental to his choice of career and research.

“I am inspired by the idea that I can make a difference,” he says. “I have come to understand that universities have a significant role to play in local economic development and the acceleration of development in South Africa.  Success in these should break down perceptions that universities are white elephants and help in understanding why government funding is needed for universities for all walks of life.” 

De Beer’s career is peppered with academic highlights and achievements, but he is quick to recognise those he worked with along the way. “Success not only implies that you develop a team around you to help position yourself as the best, but it really means that you support those individuals who were there for you when it was necessary, to grow beyond what you were able to achieve so you can all reach greater heights together,” he concludes.