Advanced manufacturing precinct opened at Vaal University of Technology

The Vaal University of Technology (VUT) has unveiled its new advanced manufacturing precinct (AMP) to promote additive manufacturing development and develop scarce skills, research, innovation and technology transfer in South Africa.

More than R60 million worth of infrastructure had been commissioned as part of a sectoral industrial support strategy driven by the VUT’s Technology Transfer and Innovation (TTI) Directorate, TTI executive director Professor Deon de Beer said in a statement.

The AMP is as a result of outcomes of a Rapid Appraisal of Local Innovation Systems (RALIS). The VUT then embarked on a strategic advanced manufacturing drive concentrating on identified industry needs, which could be mapped to internal expertise, capacity and/or infrastructure. Using existing design and additive manufacturing expertise as a foundation, various local and national industry cluster support initiatives have been started, which also supported the meaningful development of the Southern Gauteng Regional Innovation Forum (SGRIF) and VUT Southern Gauteng Science and Technology Park (VUT SG STP).

It was decided that within this initiative that the AMP, which includes an additive manufacturing (AM) centre, be established at VUT. The AM capability is supported by a range of complementary functions including a design centre, an innovation centre, technology station and a project implementation and management unit (funded by the IDC and VUT) to identify and develop regional innovation projects in the Vaal region with a strong focus on front-end engineering in the foundry industry. It simultaneously supports basic and applied research to solve existing industry needs through innovative solutions based on material, product and process development, supplemented by human capital development.

“Many of the technology platforms commissioned are the only ones on the African continent, and international original-equipment manufacturers (OEMs), which have now become industrial partners in this venture, are seeing the VUT’s Technology Demonstration Centre as a gateway to the rest of South Africa and Africa,” said de Beer.

This followed a significant grant in 2013 from the National Research Foundation’s Research Infrastructure Support Grants to co-fund, along with VUT, the Voxeljet technology platforms to support the foundry industry.

Funding to the value of R 8,4 million for the Voxeljet 1000 was awarded in March 2013. The Voxeljet system creates parts by jetting a liquid binder on a bed of finely ground powder. Customised inkjet printing technology is used to print a binder on a powder material such as foundry sand, resulting in fine resolution patterns, moulds and investment casting patterns to directly print complex 3D structures that are ready for casting.

As part of an international research agreement, Voxeljet has indicated that any sand development that takes place in South Africa would be licensed back to their international market. South Africa has a wide range of high quality fine grain sands, which has the potential for important additive manufacturing research development and export opportunities targeting the global market. The pressure on product development, prototyping, and more accurate and cost-effective manufacturing processes are increasing very fast, especially in the transport and power utility sectors where more precise castings at lower scrap rates are needed.

The use of this technology will make the front-end process to casting, design and prototyping functions in the more traditional manufacturing sector more knowledge-intensive, and hence in a better position to compete. The equipment will establish a unique technological platform in South Africa that will immediately be relevant for industry in the short term and offering promising applied research opportunities in the medium to long term by developing applicable advanced manufacturing expertise, supporting front-end engineering using CAD, CAM, Reverse Engineering and AM technologies in parallel with appropriate casting, mould and flow simulation software and supporting accelerated product development, new innovative and integrated product development case studies, for, among others, the foundry industry.

The university said it was already assisting some of its equipment suppliers and OEMs to bridge into the rest of the continent, while engaging in innovative and cost-effective product development.

“The initiative also enabled the university’s TTI and Technology Demonstration Centre, in collaboration with the Metallurgical Engineering Department, to support the foundry industry,” de Beer concluded.