How 3D Printers Are Boosting Off-The-Grid, Underdeveloped Communities

A growing number of people are bringing the maker spirit to off-the-grid and underdeveloped communities across the globe.

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Nov 7 2014, 3:35pm

Image: Kid Mob

A growing number of people are bringing the maker spirit to off-the-grid and underdeveloped regions across the globe. It's part of an effort to create technologically self-sufficient communities, while bringing a little economic uplift in the process.

Nonprofit organizations like Field Ready and for-profit businesses such as re3D have already brought 3D printers to underdeveloped economies. In Haiti, Field Ready's Eric James and Dara Dotz are working on 3D printing on-demand birthing kits, including umbilical clamps. As Dotz told me, Field Ready is also encouraging small scale manufacturing of agricultural tools via 3D printing.

"We're working on printing simple things like oxygen splitters for oxygen tanks, which link the tank to the patient," Dotz said. "Small clinics just can't get [these] medical products and equipment, which bigger hospitals can buy in bulk at a discount. You can also wait six months to three years to get your equipment, and then there can be a lot of corruption with that as well."

As expected, each community's needs will be different. 3D printing guru Joshua Pearce, creator of the first mobile, solar-powered 3D printer, believes the real power of distributed manufacturing is that people can decide what they need themselves, and then just make and sell it. Pearce's website lists a range of objects that are 3D-printable; everything from breast pumps and other medical devices to water valves, wheels, nozzles, educational toys, and corn shellers. As the community or small businesses improve economically, Pearce believes more sophisticated 3D printing investments will be made.

3D printing a crop scale with Field Ready and iLab // Haiti. Image: Kid Mob/Field Ready

But Field Ready has run into several challenges in Haiti. While the beauty of 3D printers is their ability to be distributed fairly easily, they're far from being a mainstay in most communities. Dotz said road infrastructure can be a problem, which makes it difficult to transport medical equipment, 3D-printed or otherwise, to clinics and people.

While Dotz and James have been talking to motorcycle-operated EMTs to deliver on-demand medical equipment, transport issues will also be have to be considered for the time when 3D-printed products are brought to local markets, not just to delivered to health clinics or for clean water projects.

In underdeveloped communities, unreliable Internet can also be a problem, which puts a major damper on any 3D printer project. But Dotz and James are able to update files and get vital information at a Port au Prince resource center, then go back to the off-grid communities and run 3D printers on generators and batteries. Eventually, they'd like to use Pearce's mobile, solar-powered 3D printer. Field Ready also has a satellite uplink for field work, which allows James and Dotz to get a crucial file for a printing emergency.

"Our goal is actually to create a large catalog of parts so anyone can download it from anywhere and it will be open-source," said Dotz. "In the meantime, we're also hoping to facilitate and train people in 3D printing, but also in how to become designers."

3D printing a crop scale with Field Ready and iLab // Haiti. Image: Kid Mob/Field Ready

One startup that Field Ready has been working with is called iLab // Haiti. After learning how to 3D model and print, iLab // Haiti now has products that they'd like to sell—adapters for a wash bucket nozzle, for instance—but a business license costs $10,000. Once they get past that barrier, Dotz said things will happen quickly for them. For now, they're working on a lot of Field Ready side projects as 3D printing technicians.

Since Pearce's 3D printer is free and open-source, he envisions local small business, as well as non-profit organizations (NPOs) and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), building and selling his 3D printers. Once people create on-demand printed tools and objects like medical products or water collectors, other products can be printed to help grow local market economies. The communities' needs and ability to pay will determine the products offered.

"The goal of open sourcing [the printers] is to ensure that others can easily build upon the designs so the technology continues to evolve rapidly and versions are commercialized by many businesses to enable the widest possible deployment," Pearce told me. "Our own lab is already working on a better design based off our version of the Delta RepRap."

While Pearce's solar-powered printer is still being prototyped, he said RepRap-based printers—"self-replicating" 3D printers that can make kits of themselves—are already spreading across the developing world. People have started small businesses with RepRaps, while others use them in community settings such as libraries. NPOs like Not Impossible Labs are also using these 3D printers to create umbilical cord clamps, IV bag hookups, and other medical devices.

Another 3D printer slowly weaving its way into these underdeveloped and off-grid communities is re3D's Gigabot, an affordable desktop printer. Under the Give-a-Bot program, re3D gives one printer to a community or organization with a "big idea" for every 100 Gigabots sold. As re3D's Samantha Snabes told me, the goal is to give communities the ability to 3D print things they need, such as compostable toilets. From there, making other toiletry products for sale might not be far off.

Kenya's Human Needs Project, a nonprofit working in the areas of clean water, sanitation, and economic development, won the first Give-a-Bot competition. They plan to use Gigabot as part of their "replicable, self-sustaining Town Centers," centralized locations where Kenyans can learn skills for technological and social innovation. Currently, HNP is teaching staff how to 3D model and print, who will then do the same for Kenyans living in impoverished areas. As Snabes noted, HNP will also serve local health clinics with 3D-printed medical products, as in Haiti.

Re3D's Gigabot runner-up, Francisco Posada of Colombia, is working on a myoelectric prosthetic arm called 3D Mulp with his Gigabot. While there is obvious charitable potential to Posada's project, underdeveloped communities could launch their own modest startups creating similar products like crutches or braces.

As for printer filament, Pearce said initially it will need to be brought in by NGOs and other volunteer organizations. Alternatively, the Ethical Filament Foundation and the Plastic Bank are working on technology that would enable people in developing regions to make their own filament from waste plastic. Both organization's plans make use of the Recyclebot technology.

"With an abundance of plastic waste that could be turned into filament, it's crazy that it is being imported at crazy prices," said William Hoyle of the Ethical Filament Foundation. "That's why we want to forge a link between garbage collection in developing countries and the production of 'fair trade' printing materials. We're hoping that our first 'ethical filament' will be available for sale in India and Mexico around the end of the year with more sites to follow into 2015."

The Plastic Bank's Andrew Almack believes that 3D printing technology and recycled plastic filament will play a tremendous role in helping to reduce both plastic pollution and poverty in these communities. Plastic Bank's open-source machine is capable of taking several types of sorted plastic and extruding it into usable filament, allowing users to avoid fragmented supply chains that do these community economies no favors.

The Plastic Bank is also working with Field Ready on a filament recycler. Dotz said Haiti is full of old plastic Coke bottles, which could be turned into prototyping filament. Another recycled polymer could then be turned into a filament to print garden hose adapters or underground crop irrigation systems. The latter type of 3D printing has clear agricultural advantages, and could make or break a farmer's crop yield for market.

every little bit of self-sufficiency helps

While there aren't any killer apps just yet, Hoyle is already encouraged by the huge breadth of ideas emerging around the world. People are printing spare for parts for their neonatal unit machines in Nairobi hospitals. Elsewhere, Africans for Africa are busy 3D printing the case for the prototype of a product called Brck, a new portable router device. And in Malawi, a group of female smallholder farmers is involved in a project to redesign agricultural tools to achieve better peak time efficiency, and they're using 3D printing to prototype designs.

While Field Ready's James admits the technology isn't mature, it hasn't stopped Field Ready and others from experimenting and laying the groundwork for others to do the same. And although 3D printing won't replace large scale manufacturing as a major economic engine, as Almack emphasized, it could provide some uplift through small business.

What's clear after talking to those on the ground using 3D printers in off-the-grid or underdeveloped communities is that every little bit of self-sufficiency helps. And if the likes of Field Ready are right, then we should start to see entrepreneurs coming out of iLab // Haiti and Kenya; provided they don't encounter too many government obstacles in bringing their products to market, and at a price their fellow citizens will pay.