3D Printing for Good
3D printing is a form of additive manufacturing that can make use of a wide array of materials including metal, plastic, and glass to paper and ceramics. Interestingly, recent breakthroughs have shown that even living cells can serve as a medium for this technique. The process of additive manufacturing, in a nutshell, entails constructing objects layer-by-layer. This is wholly different from the use of molds and subtractive manufacturing methods.
While 3D printing has been around for the past 30 years, it remained inaccessible to the general public primarily due to the steep price tag. Fortunately, this is no longer the case as the technology has since become widely available. Now, consumer models can be purchased for as low as $1,000. For the longest time, the primary purpose of 3D printing has been for rapid prototyping. However, with recent advances in practices and the dramatic increase in its availability, 3D printing is now poised to make a great impact on production and the world economy.
Technology has always played a crucial role in revolutionizing the way society works. Cliché as it may sound, we are living in interesting times as innovation continues to drive change. For instance, the invention and growth of the internet have created long-lasting impact on the way we use and consume information. Now, 3D printing holds the key to doing something of a similar scale for the production and distribution of goods.
The manufacturing industry is one of the most vital aspects of any economy. After all, it is crucial in terms of producing the necessary consumer goods that the country needs. The absence of this industry would inevitably leave the country’s economy permanently vulnerable. The failure to address the matter of manufacturing has certainly created its problems for millions of people. After all, over-dependence on importation can create its own set of problems.
However, despite its crucial role, most developing countries have a hard time developing a stable manufacturing industry of their own. This is primarily due to its capital-intensive nature as investments need to be made on machinery, labor, physical infrastructure, and a steady supply chain. For cash-strapped nations, this poses imposing hurdles.
This is one problem that 3D printing can help address. With the increased accessibility of 3D printing technology, one of its potential application is to serve as an alternative to traditional manufacturing. If a 3D printer is large and powerful enough, it can help create the necessary tools and resources to jumpstart a company or even an industry.
Doing so will inevitably give small local producers more flexibility. Local industries would then be able to streamline their sourcing methods and no longer be tied to more expensive imported material. Instead, they can make use of parts that they 3D printed in-house. 3D printing, therefore, paves the way for an alternative means of achieving development by making industrial capabilities attainable at a fraction of the price.
Potential Use in Developing Countries
Capacitating the local manufacturing industry with widespread 3D Printing technology opens the door to a myriad of possibilities. Applying this scheme to a larger context will create cascading and long-lasting effects on the economy. Presented here are just some of the potential applications for 3D printing that can address real-world problems prevalent in developing countries.
Over a billion people live in ramshackle and makeshift homes in slums all over the world. Even in the most developed countries, homelessness remains an often ignored social problem. People residing in slums are forced to make do with the unsanitary living conditions and exposure to extreme weather conditions. This is a problem that is made worse by the high costs of traditional construction materials.
3D printing offers a possible solution through what has come to be known as “contour crafting.” This is an experimental application of this technology that is being pioneered by the University of Southern California’s Engineering Department. According to them, every aspect of the house from the ground up can be made through this new method including the walls, floors, and plumbing. Moreover, the entire process could be finished in as little as 20 hours.
There is certainly no shortage of possible applications for 3D printing in the realm of medicine. Listed below are some of the possible uses of this technology.
- Basic Medical Supplies – 3D printing enables the production of splints and crutches for a fraction of the price. 3D printing these supplies will certainly come in handy in cases of emergency and natural disasters when demand for such supplies skyrocket.
- Laboratory Equipment – 3D printing can help support medical clinics in remote areas to produce their medical equipment. The use of this technology will have a tremendous impact on the capabilities of these clinics which are often underfunded and ill-equipped to deal with more complex medical problems.
- Organ Printing – Perhaps the most revolutionary medical application of this technology, there is much progress being made with heart, kidney, and liver structure research. In the future, these 3D printed organs will be transplanted into the patients to serve as replacements.
- Prosthetic Limbs – Low-cost prosthetic limbs can now be made using 3D printing technology. In some cases, the process of making one can take as little as 6 hours. This can become a source of hope for those living in areas rife with war and conflict.
Increased Food Production
While obesity and food waste remain major problems in Western countries, the bitter and ironic reality is that the reverse is true for many parts of the world. World hunger remains a persistent issue that needs to be solved. There are currently at least 34 million malnourished children around the world today with at least a million deaths every year because of it.
This is where the implications of 3D printing come into play as food creation is a major prospect for this type of technology. There is even some progress being made in this particular field as there are now prototypes with the ability to print food made from sugar infused with other flavors like chocolate, vanilla, apple, and mint. This technology has the potential to be life-saving for the many malnourished children in the developing world.
Notable Individuals Making Headways
The prospects and potential applications of 3D printing have now gone beyond mere speculation. There are now real headways being made in the field with pioneering individuals at the helm. The following features a couple of these remarkable individuals advancing our understanding of this technology and its potential uses. It is worth mentioning here that everyone featured here was part of the 3D4D Challenge Finals, a high-profile competition hosted by the techfortrade charity at the 3D Printshow way back in October 2012.
Bethany Weeks, along with teammate Luke Iseman, represented Washington Open Object Fabricators(WOOF) for the competition. WOOF was their organization at the University of Washington at the time. They would go on to win the competition that night and was awarded $100,000 for their off-grid 3D printing system. Their winning design enabled local farmers to print their tools by recycling plastic bags.
Weeks is now an Ambassador for Women in 3D Printing. She also volunteers for 1983 Skunk Works, the FIRST Robotics team. She also channels her energy into teaching. By doing so, she helps students come up with their designs and ideas to further advance the science of 3D printing. She also helps them test out these ideas to see if they have any other potential uses.
In the years following the competition, she went on to study in Japan and Scotland. This experience gave her a better understanding of the dynamics of globalization and gave her perspective on the need for interconnection between different nations.
Roy Ombatti’s entry to the 3D4D challenge was 3D printed shoes made from recycled plastic. Of course, there is more to it than that as the shoes were designed to address a major concern in Ombatti’s home country of Kenya. The shoes were made to be worn by people suffering from foot malformations caused by jigger fly infestation as it would protect their feet from deteriorating any further.
Now Ombatti continues his role as a catalyst for change through the use of 3D printers. He is now working on ways to address the growing problem of E-Waste. The gadgets we discarded simply do not go away, after all. Most of them end up in dumpsites in developing countries. Ombatti is now working on ways to address this issue by building consumer-facing 3D printers from discarded technological trash including things like motors of discarded scanners, paper printers, and photocopiers.
Suchismita and Jayant Pai
The husband-and-wife team entered the 3D4D Challenge with a proposal that encourages students and young professionals to use 3D printing as a means of curbing the problem of pollution. Interestingly, that same year, the couple also established their social enterprise called Protoprint whose main advocacy is to address the poor conditions of waste pickers and the growing plastic waste pollution in Pune, India.
Almost a decade on, Protoprint remains operational and continues to address poverty and plastic waste. It is also worth noting that the project now has a global impact on the world of 3D printing. This is because it takes the recycled plastic waste and turns it into filament for 3D printers that are shipped all over the world.
The Way of the Future
Manufacturing has been at a steady decline all over the world, an occurrence that is most apparent in the developed world. 3D printing, however, offers us a new way to approach development and production – one that can be based on the grassroots and the communities that need it. To be more precise, 3D printing can give people the means to address the needs of their respective communities and their own. As previously discussed here, this can include everything from food production to medicine, sanitation, and houses.
Previously, one’s socio-economic circumstances will most likely determine the things one can do in life. Undoubtedly, 3D printing has the potential to be a game-changing scheme, one that can dramatically cut costs and provide opportunities of all kinds to people who previously had no access to them. Hopefully, this technology once readily available to the consumers can help create a more egalitarian world.