3D-Printing Technology for Economic Revolution in the Developing World

by Jephias Gwamuri

According to a recent World Bank report, almost three-fifths of the world’s extreme poor are concentrated in just five Asian and Sub-Saharan African countries. More than half of all workers in the developing world are self-employed due to a lack of wage jobs. These subsistence entrepreneurs work mostly in agriculture and they have very little impact on the economic growth of their countries. Policy makers are exploring ways to help the self-employed in the developing world move out of extreme poverty. Here’s one idea that might help.

Imagine if people in the developing world could get household items, farm tools or even laboratory equipment from a neighbor instead of taking a week’s trip to the nearest town or city. Imagine if schools, clinics and local communities could design, customize and fabricate products as they needed them.

These scenarios are no longer imaginary thanks to recent advances in 3D printing technologies. 3D printers have been around for more than a decade, but until recently their cost has been too high for home-based use. Free and open-source hardware (FOSH) has recently been developed along with printer models such as the self-replicating rapid prototyper (RepRap) 3D printers. Together, these developments have asserted 3D printing as not only an innovation platform for promoting distributed manufacturing systems but also as a novel form of localized and customized production.

Using computer aided designs, it is now possible to fabricate and customize products cheaper, faster, and from the comfort of your home. It’s like having your own factory in your garage. Additive manufac­turing in the form of open-source 3D printing, combined with distributed gener­ation through solar-powered 3D printers, has the potential to alleviate poverty in impoverished rural communities.

With creativity and clever design, 3D printing has enormous potential to benefit the developing world. For example, 3D printing may radically improve access to eyecare, and may be used to manufacture livestock feeding stations that reduce disease transmission and improve agricultural productivity.

3D-Printed self-Adjustable Glasses for Visually Impaired (Read more)

Globally 153 million people over 5 years of age are visually impaired as a result of uncorrected refractive errors (URE). This condition is easily resolved in the developed world. However, 90% of blind and visually impaired people live in low- and middle-income countries often with no access to eye care. A potential solution to this problem is Dr Silver’s revolutionary self-adaptive eyeglasses. Adjustable eyeglasses (Adspec lens/glasses) allow the user to change the power of each lens independently to improve vision in each eye. Self-adjustable eye­glasses thus provide a means of both measuring and correcting refractive error in regions underserved by eye care professionals.

Self-adjustable eyeglasses can be made and customized at low cost with a 3D printer. Customization means that eyeglass frames can be made to meet each person’s taste and eye spacing, making the self-adjusting spectacles both appealing and comfortable to wear. For example, youth can design their own eyeglass frames according to their preferred shape, decoration, and color; this solves challenges commonly associated with durability, comfort and “coolness”.

A 3D design of self-refractive glasses using the Adspec lenses and first generation syringe sys­tem and digital photograph of the design which has a customizable component (e.g. color choice of the user).

A 3D design of self-refractive glasses using the Adspec lenses and first generation syringe sys­tem and digital photograph of the design which has a customizable component (e.g. color choice of the user).

A 3D design of self-refractive glasses using a tube and peristaltic pump with standard Adspec lenses and a photograph of a customizable component of the design.

A 3D design of self-refractive glasses using a tube and peristaltic pump with standard Adspec lenses and a photograph of a customizable component of the design.

Open-Source Appropriate Technology (OSAT) and the Poultry Projects (Read more)

Many people in the developing world are engaging in poverty alleviation projects such as growing vegetables, or farming poultry, goats, pigs or sheep. Keeping chickens is proving to be one of the most popular projects since returns can be realized within a short period of time (approximately 6 to 8 weeks).

However, diseases outbreaks are common in these chicken projects. These disease outbreaks result in many chickens dying, and those that survive may grow slowly and produce few eggs. This leads to farmers losing money as well as the risk of human infections.

Fortunately, some simple products such as appropriate chicken feeders may help. Chicken diseases are most often transmitted through contaminated chicken faeces. Appropriately designed feeders can help keep the chicken feed from being contaminated by faeces and minimize disease outbreaks. This reduces the funds spent on treating sick birds, improves the viability of these poverty alleviation projects.

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3D design of chicken feeder and digital photograph showing side and top view.

Solar-powered 3D printers (Read more)

Many communities in developing countries are remote and isolated without access to a reliable road network or electricity grid. To address the challenge this poses to embracing 3D printing technology, we modified the Michigan Tech Open-Source Technology (MOST)-delta 3D printer so that it can be operated off the grid using solar power.

This new solar-powered printer is light to transport and low cost. Solar-powered 3D printers can bring not only local customization of complex designs, but may also ensure uninterrupted supply of essential replacement parts even for areas where access is only through seasonal roads.

Solar Powered MOST-delta 3D printing, 3 x 12 V, 24 W Solar panels, and Printer with panel mounted in a duffel bag.

Solar Powered MOST-delta 3D printing, 3 x 12 V, 24 W Solar panels, and Printer with panel mounted in a duffel bag.

Prototypes of solar powered 3D print­ing systems have already been demonstrated for semi-mobile systems and a highly-mobile system. The latter could be used to make, for example,  eyeglasses at any rural school. The former system is designed to become a permanent fixture at rural schools that are not connected to the electrical grid. Thus, the solar-powered 3D printer could be used to make glasses for the students and other com­munity members who need them, and then to manufacture other high-value products, such as scientific tools for education or use in medical clinics.

Solar-powered distributed manufacturing allows off-the-grid rural communities to leap to a more sustainable method of production. Distributed manu­facturing with 3D printing can empower com­munities through the ability to print cheaper and customized products. The capacity to locally fabricate and optimize products such as the Corn Sheller, chicken feeder and other Open Source Appropriate Technology (OSAT) products will be of great economic value to rural communities. Furthermore, 3D printing combined with distributed solar power generation, has the potential to reduce unemployment and to provide timely access to replacement parts. Most importantly, making critical products such as eyeglasses at affordable prices can reduce vision problems, promote access to education and help reduce literacy rates. In short, the developing world has much to benefit from embracing the 3D printing revolution.

Jephias Gwamuri is a 2012 fellow of the Fulbright Science & Technology Award program from Zimbabwe. He is a PhD student in Material Science and Engineering working on materials related to Renewable Energy technologies, Energy Efficiency and Sustainability at Michigan Technological University.

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5 thoughts on “3D-Printing Technology for Economic Revolution in the Developing World

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