The factory of the future

Prof. Henk de Jager, vice-chancellor and principal, congratulating Prof. Deon de Beer, the newly appointed DST Chair in Innovation and Commercialisation of Addictive Manufacturing (DST ICAM) at its launch and CRPM's 21st anniversary celebration.

As the Centre for Rapid Prototyping and Manufacturing (CRPM), located at the Central University of Technology, Free State (CUT) in Bloemfontein celebrates 21 years of being at the forefront of its field in Africa, the future of this technology is one filled with vast and exciting possibilities.

Pioneers in Additive Manufacturing (AM) in South Africa, the CRPM launched the DST Chair in Innovation and Commercialisation of Additive Manufacturing, which means it is exploring how it can get 3-D printing into the market, and further explore manufacturing on a larger scale.

Letsoalo Letsoalo, project engineer at the CRPM (right), taking the some of the guests through processes of 3D printing during a tour at the CRPM facilities.

“It’s very unique in the sense that its sponsored by the DST (Department of Science and Technology, so it’s called the DST Chair and it’s also sponsored by Merseta (Manufacturing, Engineering and Related Services Sector Education and Training Authority), which shows that this has industry relevance. Then we have a third party, which is the Vaal University of Technology, because one of the requests from the DST was that the Chair be shared with another university. And with that we pledge our support to develop this eco system in the country for Additive Manufacturing,” explained Prof. Deon de Beer.

The combination of the Director of CRPM; Director: CRPM Research; NRF SARChi Research Chair in Medical Product Development through Additive Manufacturing, and the DST Chair in Innovation and Commercialisation of Additive Manufacturing makes the setup at CUT unique and very strong, adding to academic relevance, human resource relevance while it’s also research and industry focused.

“Our children are exposed to new technologies, and we want to take that one step further than just 3-D printing and designing on a computer, which some learners can do already on their computers. Our centre offers a unique capability for undergrad and postgrad students to actually study and be exposed to in this exciting field,” added director, Gerrie Booysen.

Booysen and Prof. de Beer agree that working in this field also means that one can change the lives of others through medical advances, without necessarily having to study medicine. They also have an awareness programme which stretches from schools to industry, where they make people aware of what can be done and how we can support them while creating interest among learners in school and educating them about this career.

“For us it’s important to stay ahead, so we must have the latest technologies available as well as the newest materials available. We are changing people’s lives in our region, having previously worked with Pelonomi Hospital and Universitas Hospital. But we also have other projects through which we really want to help the region with assistive devices we are developing, using sometimes conventional technology and manufacturing or alternatively 3-D printing,” concluded Booysen.

Using technology and medicine to change lives

Proud moments at the unveiling of the plaque: From the left are Heinrich van der Merwe, operations manager at the Vaal University of Technology; Sheryl Pretorius, senior manager: client services at merSETA; Sechaba Tsubella, acting director: Advanced Manufacturing Technologies from the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and Prof. Henk de Jager, vice-chancellor and principal.

The Centre for Rapid Prototyping and Manufacturing (CRPM), which is located at the Central University of Technology, Free State (CUT) in Bloemfontein, was established in 1997 as part of a research initiative.

At that time, Additive Manufacturing (AM) was in its infancy worldwide. The official definition of Additive Manufacturing is “A process of joining materials to make parts or objects from 3D model data, usually layer upon layer, as opposed to subtractive manufacturing and formative manufacturing methodologies”.

A design of a product is created, translated into data and loaded on the 3D printing machine. The product can be “grown”, using various powders, i.e. nylon, titanium, maraging steel, polystyrene, sand and many others. The powder is spread on a powder bed, a laser then sinters (melts) the first layer of powder according to the data which has been programmed onto the machine from the design. This process is repeated over and over until the design has been manufactured into an actual product.

CRPM Director, Gerrie Booysen and Prof. Deon de Beer holding some of their prototypes. PHOTO: SEITHATI SEMENOKANE

Through the foresight of the founders of the CRPM, a laser sintering machine was imported from EOS in Germany in 2000. This was the first laser sintering machine in South Africa. It was soon realised that the equipment could benefit industry by offering a service in rapid prototyping. This would fulfil one of the missions of the university which is to introduce new technology to the South African manufacturing industry.

CRPM’s involvement in the medical sector
The CRPM is considered to be one of the top centres in the world and the only one of its kind in the southern hemisphere, with 10 machines able to produce parts in a number of materials, each with its own special application. The CRPM has helped improve the lives of 30 patients, who under the present circumstances, would not have undergone any procedures to restore their dignity and quality of life.

This all began in 2007, when titanium laser sintering was introduced in South Africa and CRPM acquired the first machine. It was one of only six EOS machines in the world. By then, a strong relationship had been built with the supplier, EOS in Germany, and the research done at the CRPM was held in such high regard that they appointed the centre to benchmark their titanium machines.

Research was carried out in the mechanical properties of test samples, and the first implant produced on an EOS machine was manufactured in 2009 by CRPM in collaboration with the UK universities at the Morriston Hospital in Swansea, Wales. This was a milestone for all the collaborators and drew much interest in the process and the future possibilities and CRPM was recognised as a world-leader in this technology.

However, it was decided to focus on the medical niche and to use our pool of expertise to improve the lives of state patients, where there is such a backlog of patients waiting for operations that they could be on the list for years.

Patients with cancer or those who require radical surgery, might undergo surgery to remove the cancerous growths or repair the damage caused by traumatic incidents, leaving the patient with disfigurement, especially when parts of the face are removed. Unfortunately, there are no funds available at the public hospitals to assist these patients with prosthetics or reconstructive surgery and they are sent home to live their lives to the best of their ability, shunned by society and with a constant struggle to take in nourishment.

In 2012, the first South African 3D-printed implant was successfully implanted at Steve Biko Hospital, in Pretoria. This was a proud moment for all concerned. Since then, implants have been produced and when the first mandible was implanted in the Kimberley Hospital in 2013, it received coverage throughout South African and in the global media.
The great thing about it is that the interventions were done at no cost to the patient whatsoever, with the various role players donating their services as corporate social responsibility.

The Remarkable CRPM
The CRPM currently offers two 3D Printing materials for biomedical applications. Firstly, the centre can produce pre-operative planning models of a specific patient in a biocompatible plastic material. The same material can be utilised to produce precise surgical aids for cutting or drilling purposes which can assist surgeons in performing accurate cutting and drilling actions.

Secondly, the CRPM is one of a handful of institutions worldwide that can 3D-print titanium, a biocompatible metal material, to produce patient-specific implants.

Apart from the 3D printing capabilities, CRPM can also offer a service of converting CT/MRI patient data into 3D models by means of specialised software. Furthermore, CRPM employs special design software to design customised patient-specific implants.

The CRPM skill set includes the manufacturing of external silicone facial prosthetics as well as intra-oral obturators (discs or plates that close an opening).