3D printing technology has been on the rise in South Africa recently, and while the country isn’t one of the most commonly talked about in the industry, South Africa has been working on some advanced 3D printing applications for years. In 2011, a government-backed project called Aeroswift was launched in collaboration between aviation manufacturing solutions provider Aerosud and the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). Funded by the Department of Science and Technology, the project’s goal is to build the world’s largest and fastest additive manufacturing system that can 3D print titanium aircraft parts from powder.
Right now, the largest metal additive manufacturing system on the market is the Xline 2000R from Concept Laser, a massive machine of which there are only five models in the world. With a build volume of 800 x 400 x 500mm, the Xline 2000R dwarfs all other metal printers, but waiting quietly in the wings is the Aeroswift printer, with a build volume of 2000 x 600 x 600mm.
Last year, the Aeroswift team showed off three titanium parts printed by the machine: a throttle lever, a condition lever grip, and a fuel tank pylon bracket. According to Hardus Greyling of CSIR, who is working as Aeroswift’s contract coordinator, the printer has shown itself in proof of concept trials to print up to 10 times faster than other commercially available laser melting machines.
Now Aerosud and CSIR are gearing up for commercial production and are in talks with Boeing and Airbus about using 3D printed titanium parts in their aircraft, significantly reducing weight and lowering costs. Airbus already sources parts for their A400M military transport aircraft from South Africa, and is currently offering consulting and advice to Aeroswift in the interest of ensuring commercial success and creating jobs in South Africa, where the unemployment rate is currently at 25 per cent.
South Africa is in a good place, literally, to succeed in such an endeavor as the country ranks fourth in world titanium reserves, after China, Australia and India, according to the US Geological Survey. The Aeroswift team is planning to commence test flights with the first parts produced by the machine this year, with the goal of commercial application by 2019.
3D printing industry expert Terry Wohlers of Wohlers and Associates said he initially had his doubts about such an ambitious project, but after seeing the stage Aeroswift is at right now, he’s impressed.
The Aeroswift project is poised to become a huge 3D printing news story as the team gets closer to marketing the technology, so we’ll be keeping a close eye on it as it develops further.