The National Laser Centre (NLC), part of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), is undertaking a Photonics Prototyping Facility (PPF) programme and is exploring advance manufacturing technologies, leveraging on the strong global growth of the laser technology sector.
NLC PPF business area manager Khomotso Duiker tells Engineering News that PPF, based in Pretoria and commissioned in 2014/15, aims to stimulate the sector by improving the growth and competitiveness of the South African photonics industry.
The programme – funded by the CSIR and the Department of Science and Technology (DST) – is a national facility that supports the commercialisation of photonic prototypes and facilitates photonic product development.
Duiker informs that the facility was established in 2016 following the start of the programme. The facility is receiving and undertaking projects.
The “premier facility” houses three Class 1000 cleanrooms and it provides access to skilled resources in the form of optical engineers, industrial engineers and photonic scientists. It also houses characterisation equipment, such as diagnostic equipment, optical components and laser sources.
Duiker explains that the photonics industry overlaps with many other industries. He notes that, locally, the photonic industry enables six main sectors – defence, security and sensors; industrial manufacturing; energy; lighting and displays; information and communication; and life sciences.
The relationship is reciprocal, as these sectors also significantly impact on the photonics landscape. Thus, he emphasises the need for guidance from these sectors when choosing projects to feature in the PPF to maximise its impact within the ambit of South African photonics.
Several challenges are experienced by the South African photonics industry, with a fragmented research and development (R&D) and innovation value chain across these six main sectors, says Duiker.
He indicates that some of the major contributing factors to the fragmented R&D and value chain are low local content and the proliferation of imports in these sectors, limited collaboration between sectors and limited manufacturing capabilities in the form of infrastructure and expertise.
Therefore, he highlights the advantages of the PPF in overcoming these challenges by providing the infrastructure, facilities and skilled labour to fast-track the prototyping process of photonics-based technologies.
“The principal function of the PPF is to facilitate the development of prototypes, which result in products that satisfy a market need associated with photonics-based technologies and devices,” he enthuses.
Meanwhile, CSIR NLC commercialisation and national programmes manager Hardus Greyling waxes lyrical about the laser technology industry, enthusing that, globally, the adoption of such technology as a manufacturing technology is maintaining strong growth.
He cites applications in laser cutting, laser marking and custom development laser welding installations that have reached a high level of maturity and have been implemented through service providers nationally.
“This is as a result of the reliability of laser systems and beam delivery systems maturing through improvements in the technology over the years. Further, development of fibre laser technology over the past 15 years has accelerated the adoption of the technology.”
Greyling posits that advanced manufacturing technologies currently present the biggest opportunities in the sector, with benefits such as support for product innovation, resource efficiency and working towards sustainability.
He indicates that Industry 4.0, the current trend of automation and data exchange in manufacturing technologies, is also gaining traction globally as the standard for new manufacturing systems.
Greyling further highlights the photonic-based manufacturing technologies being researched and developed at the NLC as aligning with these objectives of advanced manufacturing technology trends, citing additive manufacturing, also known as three-dimensional (3D) printing, as one such advance in manufacturing technology.
He indicates that the NLC has a strong R&D focus on laser-based 3D printing and is garnering support from the DST and collaborating with several key South African industrial partners, such as aviation industry supplier Aerosud ITC and State-owned power utility Eskom.