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Additive Manufacturing: Are SA Manufacturers In Danger Of Obsolescence?

By: Bradley Schmidt

Additive manufacturing (AM) — or 3D printing (3DP) — technology has been available since the mid 1980’s. Significant advances in the technology have brought the business case to the fore over the last ten years.
Image: iStock© - Hands holding a figure of a sphere inside a cube shaped by a 3D printer Image: iStock© - Hands holding a figure of a sphere inside a cube shaped by a 3D printer

Industries have been totally transformed by this technology. In South Africa, the Jewellery Manufacturing industry was the first sector to wholly adopt 3D printing into their workflow. Using this technology, South African jewellery manufacturers, have been able to remain competitive in their fight against low wage manufacturers from the east.

Other South African industries, are now starting to take their international counterparts adoption of the technology seriously. Looking at how they can implement the technology locally.

Dental labs are a great example of this; medical contributions in SA have increased, well above the inflation rate, each year over the last few years. This has placed pressure on the medical spend of families. The dental profession are feeling the results of this crunch as patients opt for longer periods between routine checkups and, reconsider orthodontic and other treatments.

South African Dental labs are being forced to look for ways to overcome these challenges. Their international counterparts are adopting 3D printing technologies to optimise and diversify their their treatment plans, reduce reliance on service providers and cut costs.

The exponential growth in eCommerce has brought international competition to the door of local manufacturers. But, at the same time, it has opened the door for these same local manufacturers to compete on the global stage.

An Ernst & Young (EY) report on 3D printing technology, shows that “Industrial companies, that is, those in manufacturing, logistics, energy and retail, see 3D printing as a decisive success factor and technology that strongly influences their business. Indeed 24% of executives surveyed said that 3DP is a strategic or highly important topic for their company.

Furthermore, 3DP is no longer a test technology reserved for research groups and a limited number of companies. It has become an everyday reality for almost one in four industrial companies“.

EY’s survey results show that “3D printing has grown into a mainstream technology: almost 24% of the companies surveyed have already gained relevant experience of 3DP and a further 12% are considering adopting it.”

According to Pauline Bullock, MD of Rapid 3D, “What this means for South African ‘industrial’ companies, is that more than a third of their international competitors are already working with Additive Manufacturing technologies. If local companies delay investigating AM and building skills capacity in 3DP, they are eventually going to be unable to compete”.

To many company executives, additive manufacturing is simply a prototyping tool. However, this is no longer true. The technology is having it’s greatest impact in direct manufacturing, that is, the production of consumer products, components and parts for industry, such as tools, machine components and other manufacturing aids.

Take for example, Markforged. A 3D Printer manufacturer that launched the world’s first and only carbon fiber composite printer. Designers and Engineers are using this capability to create same-day, strong-as-metal and reliable finished parts.

Additive manufacturing, using metal printers, is now used alongside injection molding and other traditional technologies in plastic parts production. For example, companies directly manufacture injection-molding tools with integrated conformal cooling channels as a way to reduce production time and improve efficiency.

Adoption of these technologies, is allowing designers and engineers to rethink many traditional manufacturing methods, giving local manufacturers unprecedented cost, time and efficiency savings.

One of the main advantages of additive manufacturing is on-demand production close to the customer.

According to the EY study, “almost 17% of companies see 3DP as an opportunity to return important processes to the business. This opinion is shared by 19% of organizations in the logistics and transportation sector: printing close to customers will affect long-distance transportation, so logistics companies will need to find new value-added processes, perhaps by combining their core business with 3DP services.”

The first movers in 3DP have a clear strategic advantage. Companies in South Africa, that are already using or evaluating how to incorporate 3DP into their workflows, are able to keep pace and even outpace their international competitors.

Industry 4.0, a range of disruptive technologies of which 3DP is one, are gaining momentum.

The relentless shift from simple digitization (the Third Industrial Revolution) to fast paced, multi-disciplinary innovation, based on combinations of technologies (the Fourth Industrial Revolution), is forcing companies to reexamine their business models. The bottom line: South African business leaders and senior executives need to understand their changing environment, challenge the assumptions of their operating teams, and relentlessly and continuously innovate.


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