SOUTH Africa is building the world’s fastest and largest prototype threedimensional (3D) printer that will use powdered titanium to make aircraft components as part of a programme to accelerate development of efficient manufacturing of high-value components.
If engineers can commercialise the technology successfully, the machine will revolutionise manufacturing — making energy-intensive, wasteful processes such as machining obsolete.
Components manufactured by a 3D printer could save millions for original equipment manufacturers such as airlines.
In 3D printing, or additive layer manufacturing as it is known to the engineering world, parts are formed by layering material in thin wafers and — according to their precise, required shape — welding these layers using lasers.
The machine being developed is 10 times faster than any equivalent machines available, Wouter Gerber, Aerosud’s programme leader for process development at its innovation and training centre, said on Thursday.
The components produced by the printer will be as much as 46 times larger than anything other metal-based 3D printers are able to produce, said Aerosud engineer Marius Vermeulen.
The prototype being built by Aerosud in partnership with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research’s (CSIR’s) National Laser Centre, will be an extension of the existing joint venture between the two technology companies — known as Aeroswift.
"We are focused on manufacturing the system between now and March," Mr Vermeulen said.
On Thursday, Airbus said it would join the project to test the prototype’s ability to fabricate large, complex aerospace components. Airbus’s introduction as a partner is an important development for the project, as it will allow the programme to test the viability of components for inclusion in aircraft production in future.
The joint venture between Aerosud and the CSIR has benefited from the government’s investment in research. The R37m that will fund phase one had come from the state, Mr Gerber said.
Beeuwen Gerryts, a chief director in the Department of Science and Technology, said about R200m had been invested in researching titanium beneficiation.
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