South Africa is a very innovative nation in terms of digital manufacturing, with many technology options available that people may not be aware of, says Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) future production: manufacturing executive manager Dr Ajith Gopal.
He stresses the importance of stakeholders first discerning what technologies are locally available before seeking foreign or international solutions.
Gopal says the CSIR and South Africa are world leaders in metal additive manufacturing, as an example, and notes that the CSIR is developing and commercialising many technologies in the digital and 4IR manufacturing space.
Further, the first local manufacturer of metal three-dimensional (3D) printers has also been established. The manufacturer has developed a pioneer product which is in beta testing and is expected to reach commercial production fairly soon, Gopal outlines.
“I think we've got a good opportunity to implement metal 3D printing technology locally, in a sustainable manner that will create an established local industry in the long term” Gopal states.
He mentions that the CSIR is also deeply involved in machine learning and artificial intelligence, with these technologies being used to identify patterns and trends in data so that decision-makers can make more informed decisions based on what is actually happening on the production line.
Moreover, this is an integral technology for “digital twins”. Gopal outlines that this involves creating a virtual environment of factory operations and then using machine learning and artificial intelligence techniques to optimise the throughput of the production line.
“The difference is, on the digital twins, we actually have real hardware connected into the simulation. So it is not just a fictitious or a virtual optimisation; rather, it is optimisation based on the real hardware that's running in the production line,” Gopal points out.
He also touches on another aspect of digital manufacturing, namely, product lifecycle management (PLM).
Here, the CSIR Centre for Robotics and Future Production has been able to leverage digital transformation and the accompanying accelerated time to market in the production of ventilators, at a time when South Africa was experiencing severe challenges managing Covid-19.
Under the project name, CSIR Lung Inspiratory Flow Enabler, the solution operates as a continuous positive airway pressure device that uses an innovative design to provide a mild level of oxygenated air pressure to keep the airways open and, thus, assist with breathing.
Development started in early 2020 when the first cases of Covid-19 were reported in the country and the state of disaster was declared.
In the space of four months, in collaboration with multiple partners, the extended team was able to design, develop, test, licence and produce 2 000 ventilators, using an advanced PLM approach.
A month later, production capacity had increased to 8 000 units.
One of the enablers for such a rapid response was that information could be provided in digital formats, enabling a rigorous, documented product lifecycle methodology that would
ensure scalable manufacturing, as well as compliance and licensing under the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority and guidelines of the World Health Organisation.
PLM software was used to facilitate rapid production scaling.
The suite included components for systems engineering processes, computer-aided design tools, manufacturing execution tools, as well as quality management solutions that would ensure compliance with health product regulations for certification.
Using a digital product lifecycle design methodology also ensured that the product could be manufactured in a large, scalable distributed factory environment by combining multiple factories with different capabilities to produce large volumes.