The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) is going to set up a National Reference Smart Factory on its main campus in Pretoria. This will play a key part in achieving a major CSIR objective – the revitalisation and modernisation of the South African manufacturing industry. “South African manufacturing is at an all-time low,” points out CSIR Manufacturing Cluster executive manager Martin Sanne. “There was some growth last year, but that was in agriprocessing. The metals industry is really down.”
The CSIR has a number of focus areas involving metals manufacturing. These cover all iron and steel products (including iron and steel foundries), aluminium foundries, light metals, alloys, superplastic forming (moulding metals like plastics), investment casting, titanium, titanium parts, titanium powder and, in particular, additive manufacturing (AM, more popularly known as three-dimensional (3D) printing).
“Additive manufacturing is a big priority,” he reports. “The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) is really digitalisation. It is end-to-end digitalisation. Any company that doesn’t go digital risks ‘falling off the edge’. Digital systems will be, are already being, used to design, develop and test new products and also to develop and test the manufacturing process for those new products before anything is actually done physically.”
Part of this focus on AM is research and development focused on titanium. The CSIR is working on processes to make titanium powder from ilmenite, as well as on alloying the titanium powder – for example, with aluminium – and manufacturing parts using AM. The science council is already producing aerospace parts for international customers using the Aeroswift AM machine (one of the biggest, if not still the biggest, 3D printers in the world).
“We want to spread this expertise throughout South African manufacturing, but, to do this, we need the manufacturing sector to enter a growth phase,” he highlights. “The priority areas include the automotive and aerospace industries. The local aerospace industry is under a lot of pressure at the moment but has huge potential, and is high-value manufacturing.”
Helpfully, the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition is also increasing its focus on at least some industries. It is giving manufacturing, linked to the 4IR and new technologies, a higher priority. The production of industrial tools (for use in machine tools) is being emphasised, he reports. Such tools are very amenable to production by AM and digital technologies are very helpful in making them.
“With 4IR technologies, we can develop complex products locally, join global supply chains and export, especially into Africa,” he points out. “Our aim is to eventually have a situation in South Africa where many machines are made locally. That must be the vision.
“Another new concept is what Deloitte has called ‘the democratisation of manufacturing’,” he cites. “Small businesses can use 3D printers (which can be relatively low cost) to manufacture parts, including electronic parts. Small and medium companies can become manufacturers. This could stimulate the redevelopment of industry in South Africa. If small and medium companies can be located together, then larger manufacturing support for them can also be provided affordably and efficiently in the same locations.”
But skills are needed. Skills have to be attracted back into manufacturing. Fortunately, modern technologies have completely transformed the nature of manufacturing. Sanne observes that modern manufacturing is no longer a dirty business and that modern factories are clean and very efficient, undertaking lots of recycling and producing little waste.
AM uses a range of materials and so requires knowledge of all these materials and the relevant materials handling, processing and management skills. These materials have to be properly handled, which requires the acquisition and maintenance of the necessary quality control skills and systems, including tracking the quality of the various feedstock materials (which can only be done digitally). A 4IR product life cycle will be “held together by a digital thread”.
And skills development will be one of the focus areas to be addressed by the CSIR National Reference Smart Factory. Another key focus will be demonstrating the latest manufacturing technologies. At first, the elements of the unit will be scattered across different laboratories at the CSIR. “But the aim is to build a complete smart factory – the site has been identified on our campus – which would be reconfigurable,” he reports.