Q&A: Engineering and manufacturing driving 3D printing demand

Togolese inventor Kodjo Afate Gnikou creating a 3D printer from recycled material for less than US$100 in 2013.

Togolese inventor Kodjo Afate Gnikou created a 3D printer from recycled material for less than US$100 in 2013.

3D printing has the potential to be as disruptive as the internet. From 3D-printed figurines for those who want to one-up the photograph to the ability to print prosthetic limbs and machinery parts, various uses of the technology are quickly being adopted.

In Africa 3D printing has also taken hold. In 2013, a Togolese inventor created a 3D printer from recycled material for less than US$100. And with the continent’s poor infrastructure making it difficult to reach remote areas, the technology can be a game-changer, especially within the medical and engineering space.

In South Africa a global distributor of electronic, mechanical and industrial products, RS Components, is just one company supplying the market with a range of 3D printers for both industrial and home use. They range in price from R6,000 (US$480) to over R200,000 ($16,100), depending on the printer and its purpose.

How we made it in Africa asked Brian Andrew, general manager of RS Components SA, about the adoption of 3D printing in South Africa, its current limitations, and other African markets the company sees export demand coming from.

Describe the interest in the South African market for 3D printers. Which industries are particularly driving  demand?

The South African market is slowly but surely starting to adopt 3D printing as a tool which can save time and money. We see interest being prickled in all sorts of industries, but due to the nature of the market we operate in, 3D printing stands out in the engineering and manufacturing industries as well as in the education sector where we have seen young engineers using 3D printing for real applications – such as with the Sasol Solar Challenge where the University of Johannesburg used 3D printing for some parts of their solar vehicle.

Are they generally been used for commercial or personal purposes?

It’s probably a 50/50 split at this stage. Purchasers can be anyone from the engineering sector to educational institutions or even hobbyists.

What limitations does 3D printing face today?

I think 3D printing has a huge range of possibilities. The materials and uses for 3D printing change and improve every day. I think it’s just a matter of the technology being fully utilised and more widely incorporated. The only limitation I can really see at this point is a cost factor, but even that is already changing.

In terms of rivals, how competitive is the South African market for 3D printers?

We have not seen many local suppliers as yet, probably due to the high cost of some of these units. However this may change over time as the market demand increases.

Are you exporting to any other African markets? Where are you seeing demand – and why?

We have seen other African countries interested in and purchasing 3D printers. This is especially relevant in Namibia for engineering and manufacturing purposes.