A new technological revolution is upon us. 3D printing originated in the early 1990s at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States. Having been the province only of manufacturers that could afford the expensive machines in the years since, 3D printing has recently become affordable and accessible and is making its way into businesses and homes across the world.

The Wohlers Report 2014 estimates that worldwide revenues from the additive manufacturing and 3D printing industry will exceed $21-billion in five years. That compares with revenues of just $3-billion in 2013.

The unending potential that 3D printing offers is not yet a national discussion in South Africa. It should be, especially because our economic and social blueprint for the next few decades, the National Development Plan (NDP), exhorts South Africans to think outside the box and review how we do business, build industries, develop strategy and norms, create jobs and employment opportunities and foster greater economic growth.

At the NDP’s core is government’s R850-billion infrastructure programme, underpinned by boosting the manufacturing sector. According to a recent report by SmarTech, the business of manufacturing will be turned on its head by the investments and advances made by companies in 3D printing. SmarTech’s 3D Printing 2014: A Survey of its Annual Market Findings report shows that global manufacturers, including those in the automobile, aerospace and medical industries, are pumping billions into 3D printing solutions. US firm General Electric recently announced plans to produce 25 000 jet engine nozzles through additive manufacturing.

3D printing is similar to drone technology in that it went from being expensive, and then became the preserve of hobbyists. As it becomes more widely available, ordinary consumers will be able to print any synthetic material – from gold, silver, plastic, ceramics, polymer, metals and even wood – from the comfort of our homes. The tech world is abuzz with talk, but government and local big business seem slow in exploring the endless opportunities that exist.

Sahara Systems believes that within five years South Africans will not be able to do without 3D printers. Price reductions like that predicted by global firm Siemens, which sees 3D printing costs decreasing by 50% by 2020 while the machines become 400% faster, will drive this uptake.

This is why key investments in this sector are being made by Sahara Systems. The company has already secured the rights to distribute 3D printers to the dental industry as well as moulds for the jewellery sector.
The company is also in talks with an international mining giant which wants to invest in the technology to maintain and repair its heavy-duty machinery. At present, if a bolt or component breaks, it has to wait weeks for the replacement part to be shipped to its operations and then fitted. It will soon be possible to replace such a part within hours.

Personal printers are another sector the company is investing in. The company recently shipped its first consignment of new sub R10 000.00 printers from China, which sold out within hours. In five years’ time a 3D printer will be as essential an item as a television set or microwave oven.

The question that must be asked, therefore, as we move away from prototyping to manufacturing, is how best we can maximise the use of 3D printing to drive business and the economy.

Both government and business need to establish how to utilise this technology. In the United States, for example, the government-run Postal Service wants to turn its processing centres into fully-fledged 3D printing hubs. The question for South Africa is how to embrace this technology while retaining and creating jobs and developing parallel industries.