By Andrew Massyn, via Wikimedia Commons
Cape TownCape Town is home to some of South Africa's busiest 3D printing businesses.
South Africa is sometimes included as the final country in the group of emerging markets known as the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India and China), but when it comes to the emergence of 3D printing, it is hard to overlook.
The country has been actively involved in additive manufacturing and rapid prototyping for more than two decades, adopting the technology shortly after its birth in the late '80s.
According to the Rapid Product Development Association of South Africa (RAPDASA), the 3D printing market in South Africa is growing from strength to strength, expanding from a single 3D Systems SLA 250 in 1991 to approximately 268 machines in 2011.
And the country is now in an excellent position for getting returns on its early investment in the technology, as sales have benefitted from considerable growth in the last three years.
But since its relatively early establishment, how has 3D printing in South Africa developed and does it see itself as a world leader?
Some 94 per cent of all the machines sold in the country fall under the 3D printer category while a study utilising 2010 data found that industry ownership of such hardware now overtakes science sector and university ownership. Furthermore, around two-thirds of higher education institutions in South Africa have additive manufacturing equipment in-house, while around one-quarter of these pursue additive manufacturing as a research field.
But even though the South African industry was born when the country welcomed its first 3D Systems printer, it is actually Stratasys' models that have the majority of systems in the country, with almost half of all machines coming from this company. 3D Systems is in second place, mainly due to the high number of RAPMAN and BFB 3000 sales, but as rival companies emerge and prices continue to slide, this is no time for the two 3D print giants to rest on their laurels.
An updated report entitled Additive Manufacturing in South Africa: Building on the Foundations by Eujin Pei, RI Campbell and Deon de Beer or De Montfort University in the UK has followed the additive manufacturing industry in South Africa for a period of more than a decade.
It sets out a so-called road map for the industry in South Africa and recent revisions have indicated that the trajectory the sector is on in the country looks positive, with the only changes necessary being a greater role for 3D printing to play in education.
The paper reveals an overview of important developments in the additive manufacturing and rapid prototyping sectors in South Africa and sets out a model that other countries could follow if they are looking to invest seriously in 3D printing like South Africa has, indicating the nation's position as something of a global leader.
South Africa's government has taken ownership of 3D printing as an emerging industry. It has been steadily pumping funding into the sector for many years, facilitating research and development, the acquisition of machines and the establishment of start-ups.
Indeed, government funding has helped companies such as AeroSud launch ground-breaking machines. The firm's Project Aeroswift has the end goal of creating an additive manufacturing machine with the capability of printing large-scale items, Rapid Ready Tech reports, but it was central finances that made it possible.
The South African National Laser Center pitched its aid to the project by creating a special diode laser to use in the laser sintering machine. By using additive manufacturing to create aerospace components, AeroSud can use variable-density printing to reduce the overall weight of parts, which in turn reduces the amount of fuel consumed and according to EADS, reducing the bulk of an aircraft by only a couple of pounds can save more than $3,000 (£1,990, €2,345) a year.
Competency Area Manager with the National Laser Centre Federico Sciammarella stated: "This system will be the first of its kind in the world as it will be able to build (larger) parts; this is critical when making components for the aerospace industry that require precision and high quality."
But it is not just the South African government that is facilitating the 3D printing industry, as venture capitalist (VC) firms are doing their bit by pumping much-needed funding into start-ups.
Ventures Africa reports that one VC programme entitled 88mp will be helping a group of Cape Town-based tech start-ups. The early-stage initiative comes with a financial injection combined with a three-month accelerator program that gives businesses capital in the form of an investment. The scheme complement's the pan-Africa strategy for funding strong teams with future-proof ideas that can scale across the English-speaking portion of the continent.
Founder Ken Buch stated: "The risk is very high, but the return on early-stage start-ups can also be very high. We are tech entrepreneurs, so we feel it is the early-stage game where we can make the biggest different and create the biggest value."
It seems South Africa is certainly holding its own in the burgeoning 3D printing marketplace, with both the government and investors taking an interest in developments, while organisations such as RAPDASA are providing the expert support for companies of all sizes.
"As South Africa's rapid prototyping awareness grew through the RAPDASA and independent activities, so did the availability of RP platforms in South Africa," RAPDASA stated.
The organisation added that South Africa has become "a benchmark for other countries and late adopters to follow" as the county establishes itself as a leader of the technology "through innovative applications".