Hi-tech boost for business – HeraldLIVE

Operator Damian Williams, left, and Grant Minnie, of Propella, demonstrate the new machine
Picture: Fredlin Adriaan

New machine could save time, money for innovators

A new machine housed at the Propella Business Incubator has the potential to save time and money for Nelson Mandela Bay innovators as it creates prototypes from soft materials that can then be tested prior to production.

The Stepcraft computer numerical control machine comes from a collaboration by universities in South Africa and Europe.

It was acquired by the Nelson Mandela University through funding from the European Union’s Erasmus+ programme, in support of a two-year knowledge exchange project aimed at entrepreneurship, modernisation and innovation in South Africa.

The university’s innovation office had decided to house the machine at Propella, as the funding was aimed at supporting innovation, the office’s spokeswoman, Elzaan le Roux, said.

Propella senior industrial adviser Grant Minnie said the four-axis machining centre had already simplified the creation of prototypes for Propella’s incubators.

“Having the machine here closes the loop because they can make slight design changes to their prototypes with a quicker turnaround time,” he said.

“The technology is particularly focused on developing and refining prototypes made of nonferrous materials, which means softer materials that do not contain iron.

“We can machine changes to prototypes and test them again [before implementation] and, if they fail, they can be refined further – if they had to fail in the marketplace, it would be a costly exercise.”

The machine can create 3D prototypes from raw materials ranging from plastic to aluminium through a computer-controlled process.

Minnie said the technology could be used in various industries, including the renewable energy field and even automotive manufacturing.

“Any components made of nonferrous materials can be made here, as well as low-volume tools for other functions,” he said.

“Our key focus is renewable energy and energy efficiency, but we are also looking at import substitution for [components in] the automotive industry.” Nutrimoulds, an incubator at Propella, has already reaped the benefits of the machine.

Robert Bosch, who operates the Stepcraft and helped design the silicone food moulds for the company, said: “Normally it would take days to achieve a unit mould, whereas with simple soft material machining, [the company] can produce a mould in hours – all with the same hand-sculpted model precision but superior smoothness. This allows them to build a library of forms which look artistic, but are precise.”

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