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3D printing

Digitale Innovations

Local innovations are the successful introduction of products, systems or services to a market or society by a stakeholder who already has a local presence. Many of these local innovations already use digital media to make processes more efficient or more independent – e.g. drones, 3D printers or virtual reality. That is why we speak of local digital innovations.

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At a glance

3D printing refers to the additive manufacturing process in which certain materials are built up layer-by-layer by a 3D printer to create three-dimensional objects. Printing is controlled by a computer, e.g. based on a CAD model. Although the technology was developed over 30 years ago, it is only now gradually finding acceptance. Nevertheless, it is predicted to have a great future and has the potential to revolutionise local industrial production. Ten different printing methods have been developed to date, which can be used to machine plastics as well as materials such as metal, concrete, ceramics or even human stem cells. Besides the research on 3D-printed organs and satellites, the printing is mainly focussed on plastic spare parts, models that are difficult to visualise and low-cost prototypes.

3D printing technology has various characteristics that make the manufacturing process particularly attractive for developing countries and its use in humanitarian aid:

  • Individualised and flexible:
    The shape of the printed parts as well as their material can be adapted depending on the specific application (e.g. corner bracket for a faulty baby incubator).
  • On demand:
    No long-term planning is necessary for 3D-manufactured objects. Models can be created on demand, production takes place directly on site (e.g. spare parts for water pipes after Nepal’s destructive earthquake).
  • Environmentally friendly:
    It prints precisely what is needed. This prevents waste and things are repaired rather than thrown away. Local production also saves CO2 emissions that are caused by logistics and transport (e.g. houses printed completely on site in Mexico). At least, the potential is there; at the moment 3D printers are still prone to failure and are high-maintenance, and also consume large quantities of filament for printing.
  • Democratic and independent:
    Local production democratises the production capability of countries in the global South and makes them less reliant on imports as well as global value and supply chains (e.g. ventilators during the coronavirus pandemic).
  • Value adding:
    Local 3D printing strengthens the value added on site. The technology is also the foundation of new business models and creates jobs (e.g. Togolese start-up WoeLab).

Technical challenges

Besides the great potential described above, the use of 3D printing technology in development cooperation also faces a number of challenges. One restriction is the printing material: plastic (synthetic filament) is and will likely remain the raw material of choice for a while longer, particularly in a non-industrial context. While printing with other materials is possible in theory, it is still very expensive or has not yet established itself in practice. However, given its limited heat resistance and strength, plastic is not the best material for some applications.

Another problem is the limited durability of the hardware, which was designed for stationary use in offices or production halls. Commercially available 3D printers are not yet designed for travel, changing environments or operation without reliable power sources. As a result, they are not well-suited for humanitarian aid purposes or for use in rooms without adequate protection from the weather.

Free knowledge as a success factor

The transfer of know-how and access to 3D printers is critical to allow the technology to realise its full potential for the local value chain in developing countries. In this respect, it is certainly welcome that the values of openness, transparency and collaboration have played such an important role in the development history of 3D printing to date. This is particularly reflected by the premises of “open manufacturing” and “open source”.

Open manufacturing (hardware)

Refers to the digitally controlled open production of goods. True to the motto “Design Global, Manufacture Local”, worldwide networks provide open instructions for 3D objects, which can be produced by local companies, NGOs or in fab labs on site. This strengthens the local economy and can also help to independently manufacture or repair vital/important goods.

Open source (software)

Means software and information that is publicly accessible and free to use. This is the principle pursued by blueprints and printing instructions for 3D projects that are shared by authors on internet platforms such as thingiverse.com, where they are available for all and can continue to be developed.

Current situation

The Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) believes that 3D printing technology shows great potential for a range of development objectives. The ministry is currently involved in various pilot projects and local initiatives as a client as well as a sponsor.

The focus is on topics such as medical care, rapid crisis support, sustainable business, job creation and the establishment of a maker movement. For example, the ministry financially supports the MakerNet, which enables the production of medical devices in Kenyan makerspaces. In addition, it works closely together with established organisations, such as Field Ready – for example, in January 2020 a 3D printing workshop was held with people with disabilities in Iraq.

  • Field Ready is a US NGO that uses 3D printing and other technologies to provide humanitarian aid. The organisation specialises in the manufacture and repair of items that are in demand in crisis situations and has already been able to use spare parts from 3D printers to help in Syria, Haiti and Nepal. For long-term reconstruction, Field Ready pursues the goal of training experts on site and launching local maker movements.

Digital Innovation

Local knowledge is the key to developing successful new solutions and locally adapted offerings on site. A large number of these local innovations are already using digital means to make processes more efficient or more independent.

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