WHILE there is considerable and increasing demand for the services of the National Laser Centre, the unit is "barely scratching the surface of what potential demand there is", says research group leader Herman Burger.

Housed in the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and with an annual income of R55m, the centre undertakes research, but also offers services to private businesses in a bid to improve SA's global competitiveness in manufacturing.

Manufacturing is SA's second- biggest sector, accounting for 14% of gross domestic product, and is key to the state' s jobs drive.

"The mandate of the CSIR is to improve the South Africans' quality of life through research and development," Mr Burger says. The centre strives to further this mandate through activities aimed at improving the global competitiveness of the manufacturing industry .

"Laser technology is widely regarded as a key technology for global competitiveness and is extensively implemented in the world's industrialised nations.

"The same, however, cannot be said for SA," Mr Burger says. He cites entrance barriers such as high equipment costs, a lack of local expertise and low levels of technology awareness.

The centre offers a variety of services for businesses through the manufacturing value chain, evaluating potential laser-based solutions to manufacturing problems.

The centre's facilities "are well equipped to conduct feasibility studies in laser cutting, laser welding, laser transformation hardening and laser cladding applications," Mr Burger says.

It lists among its clients Volkswagen, Ford, Nissan, Siyanda Engineering, ArcellorMittal , Denel Land Systems, iThembaLABS and Tupperware Southern African.

If feasibility studies prove successful, the centre will perform process development and optimisation, which is followed by industrialisation and implementation.

"At the implementation phase, the (centre) has the ability to manufacture the laser-based production equipment that is not commercially available," he says. It can also advise companies on laser acquisition. If purchasing the laser does not make financial sense, the centre will make capacity available on its own instruments, Mr Burger says.

Lasers can also be used to refurbish worn components.

This involves laser welding using a high-quality, defect-free coating to the component, metallurgically bonding the new layer to the surface.

"Laser metal deposition could play an important role in improving the operational efficient in the manufacturing industry through the refurbishment of components that would otherwise have to be replaced."

One of its high-profile projects is the R28m Project Aeroswift, a partnership with Aerosud, SA's aerospace manufacturer.

The two are developing a cost- effective way to "additive manufacture" titanium. Additive manufacturing involves using laser technology to join multiple layered cross- sections of a material to make complex three-dimension parts, such as those used in aircraft.

However, the centre usually does the work on behalf of a company - especially if the volumes are low - although customers' trained personnel can also book time on the equipment.

"With respect to our cost structures, this depends largely on the type of resource used," says Hardus Greyling, operations manager.

"Professional engineers - we have two registered internationally welding engineers - are charged out in line with fees prescribed by the Engineering Council of SA. Technicians and laser operators obviously come at a lower rate," Mr Greyling says.

The Department of Science and Technology is the core funder of the centre, accounting for 31% of its turnover. Currently, only 7,7% of its income is generated through the private sector.

"Our internal target for private sector income is 15%," says Mr Greyling. "But we definitely want to do a lot more."