SA women solve challenges using world’s largest 3D printer

Londiwe Motibane, materials engineering masters candidate at the CSIR.

As part of Women’s Month activities, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) celebrated the significant role played by female researchers in the field of science and technology.

This week, in Pretoria, female researchers from the CSIR showcased some of their breakthroughs made using the world’s largest 3D printer, which is housed at the CSIR.

One such woman is Londiwe Motibane, materials engineering masters candidate at the CSIR.

She is involved in the development team of the Aeroswift Project, a collaborative effort between the CSIR, aeronautical engineering and manufacturing company Aerosud, and the Department of Higher Education Science and Technology.

The aim of the project is to produce aerospace-grade structural components by using 3D printing or additive manufacturing.

The Aeroswift technology was developed in 2017, in response to a number of limitations identified in available metal 3D printers. It is the world’s largest 3D printing machine and consists of a metal-additive manufacturing system which uses a laser to melt titanium powder to produce metal parts for the commercial aerospace manufacturing sector.

In addition, the 3D printing machine allows for the printing of components up to 2m long, 600mm wide and 600mm high.

Motibane points out that while the printing machine has produced components for various applications in different industries, the Aeroswift Project’s main focus is to produce structural components for various organisations in the aerospace industry.

“The Aeroswift 3D printing technology uses the Powder Bed Fusion process to manufacture parts directly from metal powder. Thin layers of metal powder are sequentially deposited and based on computer-aided design data, melted using a high-power laser,” explains Motibane.

“Once the build is finished, the component is removed from the powder. The use of a very high-power laser and large bed volume unique to the Aeroswift allows for the production of large parts and at much higher production rates compared to other 3D printers.”

The Aeroswift team is looking towards the full commercialisation of the machine, which is funded by the Department of Higher Education Science and Technology.

Since inception, the Aeroswift has produced three titanium parts; namely, a pilot’s throttle lever and a condition lever grip for the South African advanced, high-performance, reconnaissance light aircraft, and a fuel tank pylon bracket for a commercial aircraft.

According to the CSIR, during proof-of-concept trials, the machine achieved production speeds of up to 10 times faster than currently available commercial laser melting machines. Furthermore, its production chamber’s volume measures about four times that of the biggest commercial machines currently available.

The Aeroswift 3D printing technology has the ability to produce geometrically complex parts according to a customer’s specification, minimising material wastage while processing complex machine materials, notes Motibane.

Aerospace-grade structural components produced by using 3D printing or additive manufacturing.

The system can also be used to produce parts for the power-generation, automotive tooling, defence and manufacturing sectors.

“The fourth industrial revolution is upon us and 3D printing has been identified as a technology that will revolutionise the future of manufacturing,” she continues.

“With that in mind, we are able to produce complex parts that are not possible to make with current conventional methods, thus opening up the possibilities of making any components required in any field. The Aeroswift 3D printing technology has a large reach, with applications varying from medical to automotive as well as construction industries, to mention a few.”

Pioneering female researchers

The event also showcased the work of other South African women who are pioneering research and breaking barriers in the field of science and technology.

Dr Ntombi Mathe, a CSIR senior researcher, also showcased some of the research breakthroughs made using 3D printing technology. Some of these include parts printed using the 3D printer, such as a drone frame, throttle grip, missile trail boat, and trophies developed using titanium.

Dimakatso Gumede, who is among the few people in SA who have mastered stem cell reprogramming, also gave a presentation on her research. She studied the role of a gene mutation that causes skin and lung fibrosis, using a scientific method called induced pluripotent stem cells.

Gumede said her research seeks to address adverse drug reactions observed in the African population due to genetic diversity.

“Through using pluripotent stem cells, we are able to make liver cells and screen the prescribed drugs for liver toxicity to make dose recommendation or alternative medication for African individuals who develop adverse drug reaction to commonly prescribed drugs.”

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