University of Pretoria (UP) alumnus Dr Lukas du Plessis is one of 12 candidates that have been shortlisted for the UK’s prestigious Royal Academy of Engineering’s 2019 Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation.
Dr Du Plessis, who is a senior lecturer in UP’s Department of Mechanical and Aeronautical Engineering as well as managing director of Protea Machine Tools, has been selected for his hybrid parallel-serial machine tool – a high-speed device that is set to disrupt the $80 billion-a-year global machine tool industry.
“Starting with a block of raw material, this machine cuts away all the excess material to create the desired end product, which can be the end-user product or part of a machine that mass-produces end-user products,” Dr Du Plessis says.
He is no stranger to accolades, having been awarded the bronze medal by the South African Association for the Advancement of Science for the best master’s thesis in a scientific discipline at UP in 1999; he also won the Sasol medal for best master’s student in Mechanical Engineering at UP.
“The Africa Prize encourages ambitious and talented sub-Saharan African engineers from all disciplines to apply their skills to develop scalable solutions to local challenges, highlighting the importance of engineering as an enabler of improved quality of life and economic development,” says the Royal Academy of Engineering.
Dr Du Plessis’s innovation is in the proof-of-concept phase, yet already it is promising machining speeds that are at least double that of current state-of-the-art tools. “Machine tools make accurate mass production possible and affordable,” he says. “Before that, it was up to craftsmen to make one-off specimens of machines or devices, or end-user products; it was virtually impossible for a craftsman to reproduce what he had created accurately, quickly or in a cost-effective way. It follows that speed and accuracy are crucial drivers for machine tools, while the workspace of the tool defines its usability.”
Dr Du Plessis says he and his partner, Conrad Mahuma, formed Protea Machine Tools in 2018 to commercialise the hybrid parallel-serial machine tool. It is based on a reconfigurable planar parallel robot that can be adjusted depending on the required tool path. Introduced in 1994, the first parallel robot machine tool had a machining speed that remains 15% faster than today’s state-of-the-art tools. Many other designs followed, but they all fell short because of their small workspaces.
“The reconfigurable planar parallel robot has a research-proven large workspace,” Dr Du Plessis explains. “Our current design is a combination of this parallel robot with two ‘serial motions’, hence the name ‘hybrid parallel-serial machine tool’. The five-axis Sugarbush Protea Machine Tool can machine-steel work pieces of 100 x 100 x 100mm at speeds of 60 metres per minute. This is more than double the workspace and more than double the machining speed that the competition can offer.”
The vision of Protea Machine Tools is to become the first world-leading machine tool company in Africa. “Africa is enjoying only a 1% share of the global market, and my innovation will transform Africa into a role player in the machine tool industry,” Dr Du Plessis says, adding that everybody on the continent will benefit from the transformation in productiveness that will result from having world-class machine tools locally available. He predicts that Africa’s GDP will increase if it consumes more machine tools: statistics show that the four strongest economies (China, United States of America, Germany and Japan) also appear in the top four of machine tool consumption.
Dr Du Plessis is very excited about the seed funding support that Anéa Burke le Roux of TuksNovation is providing. “Without the required seed funding our amazing technology will never see the light of day. We are also talking to well-established companies in the international machine tool industry, such as ZEISS Industrial Metrology, to form strategic partnerships in order to expand internationally by 2024/25.”
Ultimately, his innovation holds the promise of not only establishing a profitable business for the engineer, but also of bringing about sustainable change to Africa.