By Meneesha Govender and Sharon Dell
Working closely with partners in industry, government and communities, the Centre for Rapid Prototyping and Manufacturing (CRPM) at the Central University of Technology (CUT) in South Africa is using its social and technological innovations to help solve societal problems in Africa and beyond.
The CRPM, which specialises in additive manufacturing – better known as 3D printing – has made a name for itself in the field of medical product development, designing and manufacturing a range of medical devices, including pre-operative models of a patient’s skull to help surgeons plan their procedures and reduce operating time. Since 2015, over 65 patients in state and private hospitals have benefited from medical devices created at the centre.
They include body parts such as a prosthetic ear, as well as patient-specific implants for facial reconstruction.
“These devices can restore the dignity of people with disabilities and transform the attitudes of others towards them,” said CRPM Director Professor Gerrie Booysen. “It also reduces their dependency on others, decreases their cost of care and makes their healthcare far more affordable.”
“Currently most of the assistive devices in South Africa are imported and provincial hospitals cannot afford them. Through our work we are hoping to make a huge impact on the lives of these patients.”
The innovation behind the work – and its impact – was recognised at the 21st annual National Science and Technology Forum awards, known as the ‘Science Oscars’ of South Africa, when the centre was awarded the Innovation-Corporate Organisation Award for its work in 3D printing in the higher education sector in Africa and the pivotal role it is playing within the medical field.
According to Booysen, the work is part of CUT’s social responsibility and community engagement programme. One of its goals is to “create safe environments for medical practitioners to share their ideas and to form a consortium between doctors and CUT’s product development centres to drive development”.
“The CRPM is going from strength to strength and has such a fantastic line-up of achievements … We continue to find new ways of developing innovative solutions and building strategic partnerships that support our goals and ideals. The additive manufacturing field is incredibly exciting right now and we are exceptionally lucky to be able to sit right at the edge of the latest developments and to take part in their evolution.”
In 2016, the centre was the only establishment in Africa certified to manufacture medical devices such as titanium prostheses (in accordance with ISO 9001 and ISO 13485 standards) through the use of 3D printing technology. The five-year goal of the CRPM is to deliver a service to the community through the manufacturing of implantable patient-specific titanium prostheses in South Africa.
To achieve this goal, the centre approaches businesses in South Africa that already have ISO certification with the aim of forming partnerships with some of them to handle the distribution of the prostheses under their name. The CRPM works with them on a sub-contractor basis; thereby simplifying the process for manufacturing the prostheses at the CRPM.
The centre also serves as a space for academics and scientists to conduct applied research in a more conducive environment, supporting and advancing innovations. Additive manufacturing has also created new platforms, allowing both staff and students to be exposed to new ideas that embrace this technology.
In recognition of its innovation in this area, the centre is currently hosting the Research Chair in Medical Product Development through Additive Manufacturing funded by the National Research Foundation (NRF) through the South African Research Chairs Initiative, intended to boost South Africa’s research outputs and innovations in areas that are crucial to its national innovation strategy.
According to Booysen, the CRPM is engaged with the overarching strategies outlined by the NRF and the South African Department of Science and Technology and this has led to rich and dynamic partnerships. The centre uses rapid prototyping, rapid manufacturing, rapid tooling and medical product development technologies to further education, understanding and development within this space.
Under the leadership of Professor Ihar Yadroitsau, the research chair focuses on medical technology and many members of the medical profession have shown a keen interest in the work, and the aim is to form deeper alliances with medical professionals and institutions.
“Our goal is to create safe environments for medical practitioners to share their ideas and to establish a consortium between doctors and CUT’s product development centres,” said Yadroitsau. “This will allow us to really drill down into new ideas and engage with what the medical community needs and ensure that we remain strategically aligned with real world objectives.”
First published on University World News on 21 September 2019.