Not too long ago, 3D printers and filament were so rare in South Africa that folks here literally reinvented the design of the common or garden RepRap so that they could build it with locally sourced materials. That was two years ago, though, and everything has changed. Components and filament are easy to come by, and everyone wants to get in on the game.

One company that’s been involved with 3D printing longer than most is Midrand’s CADHouse, which for the last five years has been importing 3D printers for desktop and industrial fabrication as well as parts and supplies, like plastic filament. As well as direct retail, the firm also runs training and workshops for individuals and education establishments.

CADHouse recently sold a 50% stake of its business Sahara Systems, a subsidiary of Gupta-owned Oakbay investments which also owns IT distributor, Sahara Computers. The two firms are looking to expand and consolidate their position in the growing market for 3D printers and services. CADHouse has just moved into Sahara Systems’s offices, and the two are building a makerspace and training academy to support their business.

CEO of Sahara Systems, Santosh Choubey, is bullish about the potential for 3D printing in the country.

“This market is big and current availability of product is very small,” Choubey told us. Like many others in the space, he says that the challenge with 3D printers at the moment is around support and customer education. A desktop printer still requires some technical knowledge – or at least a willingness to learn – in order to keep it working properly and the onus is on those who sell 3D printers to support their products well. Badly built printers that don’t perform sold by unreachable sales staff will kill off any buzz around the technology.

Knowledge and experience, he says, are as vital to growing the customer base as price and availability.

“These products still cater to a niche market,” he says, “Know-how of the product is critical, that’s the reason why Sahara Systems went and invested in CADHouse.”

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The classroom space set up in Sahara Systems’ training room.

To this end, Sahara Systems is building a training centre specifically for 3D design and printing – it may well be the only dedicated 3D print training space in the country. The plan is to build on CADHouse’s existing model of sales, print to order and training. Sahara Systems is focussed on high end enterprise requirements, distribution and some retail – the only printers it sells are the Solidscape wax printers – while CADHouse will continue offering a range of printers and consumable  its services under its own name, but will share resources with Sahara Systems.

Inside the classroom, students and customers have access to a range of printers from extrusion-based FDM printers to high end laser sintering

Printers. Yesterday.
Printers. Yesterday.

At the back of the warehouse is where they keep the serious stuff.

Lying unassembled (for now) is a 3D Systems ProX 500. Billed as a machine with the flexibility of a 3D printer and the production rate of a small dedicated factory, the machine (which is the first of its kind in South Africa) will set you back a cool R10 million.

Choubey says that the next big thing to come out of Sahara Systems will be food printers, which he will begin distributing from October. We can’t wait to print ourselves some food and pretend we’re using the food synthesizer from Star Trek.

As Sahara Group joins other IT distributing giants Rectron, RS Online and Mustek in importing printers from China, though, will that undercut and eventually kill off the thriving local scene of 3D print startups like Harley Studios, Fouche 3D Printing and Robobeast, which have all built and sell South African designed printers? Choubey says that in the short term, he believes these independent firms will continue to appeal.

“The impact of these imported printers can only be assessed once the technology really becomes a commodity,” he says, “Which is still at least two or three years away. Until then, many people will still want to buy a locally manufactured product.”

One thing that Sahara Systems certainly has is a great space to showcase the work produced with its printers and filaments. Check out the gallery below.