RAPDASA (Rapid Product Development Association of South Africa) was officially launched during the first annual international conference, held in 2000 at the CSIR, following a number of meetings held nationally, to establish a community of practice. RAPDASA embraces the complete product development value chain (starting from idea/concept, to design, prototype development into manufacturing and commercialization). RAPDASA aims to become a government-recognized activity or industry cluster/group, as it currently creates strategic links between academia, science councils and industry. It was started by volunteers, and is still being driven by individuals with a passion for innovative product development.
South Africa had a late start with Rapid Prototyping (RP), with the first system being available in 1991. Up to 1994 only three systems were available in SA. Through active research participation from the CSIR and a number of universities, supported by technology transfer programmes and industry awareness workshops, adoption of RP technologies started to grow. Internationally, RP grew to the extent that several country-based member organizations were formed, and an initiation meeting of the Global Alliance of RP Associations (GARPA) took place during the SME Rapid Conference in Dearborn, USA in 1998. South Africa was invited under the auspices of the Time Compression Technologies Centre (TCTC) launched by the CSIR, and received an invitation to become a member of GARPA through the launch of a national, inclusive organization. Last mentioned gave rise to a RAPDASA planning/launch meeting held at the University of Stellenbosch, which culminated in the first RAPDASA international meeting held in November 2000 at the CSIR, and the election of a 1st RAPDASA management committee, also at the 1st AGM held during the conference. RAPDASA has been a pillar of strength since then, with an annual international conference being presented. As SA’s RP awareness grew through the RAPDASA and independent activities, so did the availability of RP platforms in SA. SA also became a benchmark for other countries / late adopters to follow, as slowly a position of following became a position of leading through innovative applications.
RP implementation and research has proceeded with the firm support of central government. One reason for this is that the 1998 National Research and Technology Foresight Project’s Manufacturing Report produced for the Department of Science and Technology (DST, 1998) showed that manufacturers wishing to compete internationally should focus on integrated product development, process and production system design to speed up production time. The report also listed rapid prototyping and tooling amongst the key technologies that would assist with this aim. This indicates that RP and related technologies have been firmly established within the RSA government’s strategy for industrial development for the past decade.
Government support for RP research has come both directly, through funding made available to purchase RP systems, but also through funding a series of initiatives where RP has been able to play a prominent role. For example, the National Product Development Centre (at the CSIR) was initiated to be the hub of a national network giving support to manufacturing industry. Members of the network at that time included the Automotive Industry Development Centre in Gauteng, the Centre for Rapid Prototyping and Manufacturing in Bloemfontein, the Global Competitive Centre and Stellenbosch Automotive Engineering (both in the Western Cape Province), the Centre for Engineering Research in Durban, the Automotive Components Technology Station in Port Elizabeth and the Centre for Design and Manufacturing at Potchefstroom University. Many of these centres also engaged in RP research and have been able to develop this aspect further within the network through government funded technology transfer initiatives. The network promoted active collaboration between centres with different RP systems, and aimed to the benefit South African product developers.
RAPDASA and its annual conference
No discussion of RP/AM establishment in South Africa would be complete without reference to RAPDASA (the Rapid Product Development Association of South Africa). RAPDASA was formed in 1999 to act as the representative organisation for those involved in the RP and wider rapid product development (RPD) community within South Africa. It has members from both research organisations and industrial companies, and since its inception the mission was that the organising committee be composed in a manner that reflects this diversity. RAPDASA is involved in range of activities that are all aimed at encouraging the further development and usage of RPD technologies. Most important of these is the annual conference that started in 2000. The conference offers a platform for researchers and practitioners to share their knowledge and experience with others. It has benefited from international participation from the start, and which allowed attendees the luxury of also discovering what is happening in the international RPD world.
The conference furthermore has become a hub for networking opportunities, and many national and international collaborative projects and partnerships have in fact been grown from the various RAPDASA conferences. A further consequence of this international participation is that the conference has become an international information source for RP developments in South Africa. RAPDASA is a member of GARPA (Global Alliance of RP Associations) and first hosted a GARPA international summit at the conference held in 2001, and then again in 2004. During a process that started in 2009 and which was concluded in 2010, RAPDASA successfully nominated Dr Willie du Preez, founder member of RAPDASA as one of the first GARPA International Fellows. The role that RAPDASA has undertaken has contributed much to the progress of RP&M in South Africa. A particular strength is that its remit is not limited to RP and so the relationships with other RPD technologies and the product development process feature widely in its activities. RAPDASA has never been an exclusive group or organisation, and as participants grew, so did research involvement and outputs.