3D printing in developing economies

Timothy Whitehead

February 24th, 2016

The growth of 3D printing has been rapid in the last decade, with the creation of low cost printers and the availability of easy to use software.

The growth and use of this technology is evident across many developed economies.  3D printers are now a common tool for prototyping and used by many design agencies, engineering firms and research institutions. However, there is now a real opportunity to use 3D printing in developing economies and help to leapfrog highly capital intensive manufacturing.

The premise of 3D printing is simple, in that firstly 3D geometry is created using specialist 3D modelling software. This geometry is then virtually sliced into layers and outputted as numeric code. This code is read by the 3D printer which prints layer by layer to create the final part. The print material could be metals, plastics or ceramics and typically come in one of the following forms:

  1. Liquids – often cured using a laser
  2. Filament – typically extruded from a nozzle
  3. Powder – typically cured using a laser or form of adhesive

These 3D printers are available in various sizes and have respective build qualities. Although traditionally very expensive, growth in the 3D printing industry has led to the development of desktop printers which are easy to use, affordable and have relatively good part quality.

Future of 3D printing

Some predict that this rapid development of 3D printing has started a new industrial revolution which will ultimately influence and affect almost every aspect of life. However, it is already evident that the advantages of 3D printing have opened the way for novel product development and innovations which can provide a range of logistical and technological advantages. The core advantages include:

  1. Ability for low volume production
  2. Faster and more responsive production than traditional methods
  3. Simplification and shortening of manufacturing supply chains
  4. Democratisation of production
  5. Ability to optimise and personalise a design

(Royal Academy of Engineering, 2013)

These advantages represent a potential paradigm shift in the manufacture of products which will have a direct effect on the design and distribution process. The market and application for this technology is clear in the developed economies. However, there is now an opportunity to investigate the application of 3D printing in developing economies as a way to alleviate poverty and help bridge the vast technological divide.

3D printing in developing economies

3D printing has become an increasingly affordable and life-changing technology to places in need, such as manufacturing simple medical devices in Haiti. Photo Credit: Field Ready

3D printing has become an increasingly affordable and life-changing technology to places in need, such as manufacturing simple medical devices in Haiti. Photo Credit: Field Ready

Although developing countries may not be the most obvious place to adopt 3D printing technology, the rapid uptake of mobile phones shows how new technologies can be used to leapfrog developed nations.

Over the last 30 years the cost of mobile phones has significantly decreased and the rate of adoption has reached 3.4bn (50% of the population). Uptake in developing countries has far exceeded expectations, with usage in sub-Saharan Africa now at 60% of the population.

Before the mobile phone, developed economies had invested large amounts of money in land-line infrastructure. However, developing economies are able to effectively skip the landline, which, after all, would have been prohibitively expensive in poor communities due to vast distances and low population density. The popularity of mobile technology, its ability to increase levels of income, and the rapid adoption demonstrates the real opportunity for 3D printing as the technology development curve is not dissimilar to that of mobile communication. Furthermore, this lack of infrastructure and limited logistics provides a huge opportunity for 3D printers as it could mean rural villages would be able to print their own products or agriculture tools and not have to rely on unreliable supply chains. The advancement in mobile communication and the internet continues to support this technology allowing for the rapid transfer of data between sites.

For engineers, this development could enable greater access to these markets through online communities (which are already beginning to form) and enable end users to join the design process, creating more effective [product] solutions to meet their needs.

3D printing pilot study in a developing country

Dr Timothy Whitehead instructing Practical Action staff in 3D printing, Lima, Peru

Dr Timothy Whitehead instructing Practical Action staff in 3D printing, Lima, Peru

As an academic, it is interesting to see how this technology can be integrated into the development sector. In order to begin to understand this De Montfort University has partnered with Practical Action to carry out a pilot study with the charity’s office in Lima, Peru.

The primary aim of the project is to see if 3D printing can be used to enhance the design of existing solutions, and if some of their current products can be more effectively developed across multiple site offices. The secondary aim is to understand if the possession of a 3D printer enables new and innovative design ideas to be created, which were previously not possible. The hope is that this pilot will lead to a larger study exploring the potential of this technology in the development sector.

Initial findings from a visit to Lima highlighted that one of the first things Practical Action wanted to do was to print a 3D topographical map of the areas of poverty in Lima. This showed, in clear detail, how landslides were a real danger and what would happen in their inevitable event. These 3D maps will be used to explain, across a language barrier, to people living there why we needed to make changes, to have safety measures put in place. Without 3D printing it would not have been possible to produce these. These insights are really useful and demonstrate just one potential benefit of 3D printing technology.

The study is being carried out with Practical Action using an Ultimaker 2 Desktop printer. For further information please visit the project website www.bridgingthedivide.org or contact timothy.whitehead@dmu.ac.uk 

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