Advanced laser manufacturing technique launched in South Africa


The Department of Science and Technology, CSIR National Laser Centre and Aerosud have launched a new, high speed technique for the manufacturing of titanium components for the aerospace industry.

“SA is the second-largest supplier of (titanium) mineral ore…but adds little value to that before export,” Deputy Science and Technology Minister Derek Hanekom said at the launch of project AeroSwift on Friday. “The CSIR has developed a novel process whereby titanium metal powder can be produced from our abundant mineral resource. Currently the primary titanium process is being commercialised and a pilot plant will be built during the year.”

Project AeroSwift is a R28 million DST funded collaborative initiative between the CSIR National Laser Centre (NLC), Aerosud, the National Research Foundation and the Aerospace Industry Support Initiative. It promises to make Aerosud a world leader in titanium aerospace parts manufacture.

The heart of AeroSwift is the NLC’s new 5 kW IPG single-fibre diode laser, which should be integrated into the manufacturing system and tested by the end of this year or early next year. It will then be transferred to Aerosud’s new Innovation and Training Centre 2 at the Centurion Aerospace Village, where it will be reassembled and put into operation.
“This system will be the first of its kind in the world as it will be able to build (larger) parts; this is critical when making components for the aerospace industry that require precision and high quality,” said Professor Federico Sciammarella, competency area manager with the National Laser Centre. “This system will place SA on the forefront of additive manufacturing technology and enable the aerospace industry to produce parts for the global community.”

The CSIR NLC has already, in its proof of concept trials, achieved production speeds 8.3 times greater than currently available commercial selective laser melting machines. The proof of concept trials involved the production of small parts, no longer than 50 cm. With Aeroswift, the aim is to produce parts as big as 2 x 0.5 metres.

The laser system is part of an additive manufacturing process and involves joining layer upon layer of a material to make complex three-dimensional parts. The additive manufacturing uses CSIR-developed powdered titanium, which results in less of the valuable material being wasted.
“We are looking for serious cooperation with OEMs [original equipment manufacturers] to be supplying us with target parts,” explained Aerosud GM Dr Paul Potgieter.
“That’s what is happening. We’re working with the OEMs to develop process qualification. This will probably take three years. Process qualification on new technology like this isn’t easy, nor a trivial exercise. The new system will be operational here in 2013 as a pilot plant. Then it will take another year or two for actual process development and qualification approval. We hope to start full-scale production and start selling parts to the OEMs in 2015. Complex, high-value, low-volume parts in exotic materials (typically titanium) for aerospace – that’s the niche we’re aiming for.”

Aerosud unveiled its new development group headquarters at the Centurion Aerospace Village on Friday. The village will be home to several advanced manufacturing processes that were also unveiled on Friday, including the titanium manufacturing process, thermo-set and thermoplastic manufacturing techniques, digital manufacture and advanced metrology, which employs the latest in coordinate measuring machines (CMM) coupled with laser scanning technology to optimise quality assurance.