South Africa has the world’s biggest 3D printer – and it takes up to R7.5 million in titanium powder to fill it

Business Insider SA
The 3D printer is a collaboration between Aerosud Innovation Centre and the CSIR’s National Laser Centre. (Sarah Wild)
  • The printer, which is the largest in the world, is part of the Project Aeroswift, a collaboration between SA company Aerosud Innovation Centre and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR)
  • 3D printing, considered the future of niche manufacturing, can make complex shapes, without wasting valuable metal powder
  • SA-printed 3D parts are already flying in airplanes.

South Africa’s biggest 3D printer is also the largest in the world, and could print a full-sized adult man using titanium powder - although it would be very expensive.

The printer, designed and built as part of a collaboration between Aerosud Innovation Centre and the CSIR’s National Laser Centre in Pretoria, uses titanium powder to build its custom-made products. It was funded by the Department of Science and Technology.

The massive 3D printer is housed at the CSIR’s National Laser Centre in Pretoria.

3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, involves melting a single layer of metal or plastic together, and fusing it to a layer below. With this manufacturing technique, it is in theory possible to build very complex objects.

Demand for 3D printing is high in industries like medical prosthetics and aviation, where clients need a small number of complex parts made out of high-value materials like titanium.

The machine can print parts up to 2m x 60cm x 60cm, says Marius Vermeulen, programme manager at Aeroswift. But it is very expensive - to fill the machine with enough titanium powder would cost in the region of R7.5 million - so the engineers made sure that the machine could also make smaller parts, allowing them to focus on producing parts to customer specifications.

"One client is AHRLAC (which stands for Advanced High-performance Reconnaissance Light Aircraft), which is using Aeroswift components in its planes. We are supplying South African parts from South African machines to South African aircraft,” says CSIR National Laser Centre commercialisation manager Hardus Greyling.

Aircraft parts that were manufactured by the 3D printer.

But using the giant printer to produce parts is not the end game for the Aeroswift team: they want to build more printers. “The current machine was built with a dual goal: produce parts and do R&D,” Vermeulen says. “This machine was over designed to allow us to do everything possible. It is a beast. The next machines will be cheaper and built for industrial use.”

 So they are producing two new machines which will be dedicated to producing 3D printed titanium parts. They aim to have them complete in the next two years.

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