Jul 31, 2014

Why 3-D Printing Can Transform International Development

In 2012, a 14-year-old Sudanese boy named Daniel Omar lost both of his hands from a bomb explosion, a daily occurrence in parts of Sudan due to the ongoing war. He did not receive hand-me-down prosthetics from an aid agency. Prosthetics that are handed down no longer fit the previous owner, or the intended user leading to discomfort and blisters. Instead, Not Impossible Labs, a California-based company that ‘creates technology for the sake of humanity’ developed a 3-D printed prosthetic hand for Daniel in 2013. Daniel was able to feed himself for the first time in 2 years. Not Impossible developed this solution by crowdsourcing a global team of innovators. After the team saw the impact this hand had on Daniel’s life, the company set up one of the world’s first 3-D printing prosthetics labs and training facilities at a hospital in late 2013. Now, the Sudanese themselves continue to create prosthetics for those in need.

Project Daniel received well-deserved press, but was covered as an isolated incident. However, this project represents the beginning of the spread of a larger movement, the Maker’s Movement, into the developing world. The movement originated in the U.S. in 2005, and refers to the increasing number of people using a do-it-yourself (DIY) approach to create new technologies. One fundamental value of the movement is that anyone can partake in the creation of technology with pretty much any materials discarded, raw or otherwise. 3-D printing is a subset of this movement which can slowly transform the way we approach poverty alleviation. In this light, the migration of 3-D printing to the developing world deserves our attention for a few reasons:

1) 3-D printed solutions are often far more affordable to low-income people as compared to the most affordable and accessible alternative. For example, a prosthetic hand usually costs between $11,000 to $110,000 USD. The inputs to print a 3-D prosthetic hand cost $100, and it takes only 6 hours to print. Finger movements and other details may not be equivalent to a normal prosthetic, but many improvements are still being made to 3-D templates.

2) Most 3-D templates are open source. ‘South to South’ collaboration, a system by which low-income countries can learn from each other, is ingrained into the process of 3-D printing. Businesses can quickly learn from the mistakes of others and share templates. Open source templates also allow for rapid iteration.

3) Training local people to use 3-D printers allows for a level of decentralization that was not possible previously. Local businesses can now compete with multinational companies and survive the race. The people who are entrenched or nearby to the problems they’re trying to resolve can create more personalized solutions given decentralized product manufacturing.

3-D printing not only has the potential to transform aspects of the health sector, but also other sectors such as housing and labor. I recently did some digging, and found that companies are popping up worldwide that are using 3-D printing to benefit the financially poor in developing countries. One of these companies is Contour Crafting, a technology that can build a 2000 square foot house in less than 24 hours. The company plans to utilize this technology to address substandard housing conditions such as slums in the developing world, and provide dignified emergency housing for people in disaster situations.

Plastic Bank, which launched in Peru in May, is another such company. If low-income people pick up plastic and bring it to Plastic Bank hubs, they can exchange the plastic for food, clothing and other items. Low-income people will also have access to 3D printing facilities and training to make their own products from this plastic. Plastic Bank will sell the remaining plastic to organizations in order to reduce our plastic footprint on the world. "In the developing world, gaining access to tools and necessities can be troublesome because supply chains are often fragmented. 3D printing enables the products to be produced locally, while adding great value through customization," said Andrew Almack, co-founder of Plastic Bank, in an email exchange.

If 3-D printing already has clear potential to transform the above, imagine the future. Items from food to educational aids will be made accessible to low-income people at fair prices.

3-D printing is certainly not a magic bullet to poverty alleviation. However, use of DIY technologies such as 3-D printers can address fundamental systems problems that often plague the traditional aid system including hyper centralization and lack of engagement with the end user to create vast improvements in the lives of the poor.